The Neuroscience of Gratitude

Hey there,

I wonder, what is something that you are thankful or grateful for? This thing you are grateful for can be anything: a certain person in your life, the food you ate today, having the ability to run or listening to music, or even the fact that you can read what I am writing. Thanks for that, by the way. I know I am grateful to you for taking the time to read this.

What’s fascinating is that modern neuroscience shows that identifying or naming things you are grateful for changes the brain. When you identify something you are grateful for and take a moment to express this gratitude or mindfully appreciate it, your brain releases feel-good chemicals, called neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine. Serotonin and dopamine help our bodies feel more relaxed and our mood more positive.

Recent studies have shown that engaging in a daily gratitude practice, such as writing down in a journal or saying to yourself out loud the things you are grateful for, can have lasting impacts on the brain by increasing serotonin and dopamine levels and strengthening neural connections. And again, the things you identify feeling grateful for can be anything. There are no right or wrong answers, or answers too simple.

If you are interested in creating a gratitude practice here are a few ideas that you may be able try implementing into your day:

  • Before bed each night, write down in a journal 5 things you are grateful for from the day
  • When driving, each time you stop at a stop sign or red light, say out loud one thing you are grateful for
  • For the people you care about and are grateful for, tell them! Maybe something like, “I am grateful for you and our friendship” “You have helped me a lot, thank you.”. “I appreciate you and the support you give me.”.
  • Draw or paint a picture about someone or something you are grateful for.
  • Each day write or draw one thing you are grateful for and put it in an empty jar. Watching the jar fill overtime can be encouraging. When you’re having a frustrating day, pulling out the jar and reading one of your gratitude notes can help boost your mood.

It is important to note, that although daily gratitude practices have shown to be beneficial and this daily routine may be simple to implement, it might not always be easy to identify something you are grateful for. You may be in a situation or have had life experiences that you feel no gratitude for. That’s ok. You don’t have to be grateful or find a positive in all situations, moments, things, or people. Especially for those who have a history of trauma, due to the impacts of trauma on the brain, gratitude practices can be extra challenging.

If you find yourself struggling with gratitude, you may consider a daily routine of self-compassion. Self-compassion also has important and lasting impacts on the brain, and simply daily practices can begin to shift your mood and thought patterns. For these routines you might try:

  • Before bed each night, write 5 things or qualities you like or appreciate about yourself
  • When you stop at a redlight or stop sign, maybe say out loud to yourself, “I am allowed to be human.” “I am capable.” “I am doing my best.”
  • If it feels comfortable, wrap your arms around yourself, squeeze like you’re giving yourself a big hug, and take a deep breath in and out.

The principles of neuroplasticity and habit formation show that no healthy practice is too small. Maybe give a daily gratitude practice or self-compassion practice a try. You might be surprised how overtime it boosts your mood and mindset.

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