Rewire your brain with gratitude … Really

Rewire your brain with gratitude … Really

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The practice of purposefully focusing on gratitude in both thought and behavior will change your life! In studies conducted over the last 20 or so years (since the emergence of a field of study known as Positive Psychology), a whole slew of noteworthy benefits has been shown including a significant reduction in depression and anxiety, increased life satisfaction, improved physical health, decreased physical pain, improved sleep quality, enhanced social bonds and greater levels of overall well-being.

This may sound pretty ridiculous or even outlandish to you, but we now understand that our brain is malleable or, more scientifically put, neuroplastic. Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to continually form new connections and reorganize existing ones as a result of experiences, learning and adaptation. In addition to gratitude helping to shape or mold our brains, we have come to know that practicing gratitude also results in the activation of the hypothalamus, which is the part of the brain that controls things like sleep and metabolism — when activated these functions improve. Gratitude also results in increased levels of serotonin and dopamine, two of the primary neurotransmitters (chemicals in the brain) associated with happiness, joy and pleasure. In other words, gratitude is a very powerful, life-enhancing tool. 

So, what does it mean to practice gratitude? First, it should be noted that the word practice is a verb which means there is an action step to be taken. Gratitude is not a passive practice, it is a proactive one. This means that you aren’t going to just wake up one day feeling more grateful than usual. Instead, you must make the choice to engage in gratitude much like you might make the choice to go to the gym. To go further, and this is where it gets tricky, you must choose to practice gratitude even within the context of circumstances you might traditionally view as negative. This trips up a lot of people because no one inherently feels grateful for negative circumstances but, if we investigate the circumstance with a particular lens there is always something to be grateful for … if you want to find it. For example, if you have a stressful job, you can choose to sit with thoughts like “my job is so stressful, my life would be so much better if I didn’t have to work here.” Or you can take that very same circumstance and choose thoughts like, “I’m grateful I have a job that allows me to pay my bills so that I have food to eat, a house to live in, a cell phone to talk on” and so on. Hopefully that job also allows you the financial freedom to do things you enjoy doing so you might also acknowledge gratitude for that. Try this out and notice the shift in how you feel. Suddenly that very same job will feel less stressful, less miserable, less troubling. 

Some other exercises to get you started with your gratitude practice include ending each day by writing down three things that went well that day, why they went well and what your contribution to them was. Try doing this daily for three weeks and notice how your life (in feeling) has changed. Another technique is to write and deliver gratitude letters to people that you have been helped by or positively impacted by. Be detailed in explaining how they helped and how it made you feel — the more you can activate the feeling state of gratitude, the more you will reap the benefits and a bonus is that the person receiving the letter will also benefit! 

As you consider what it might mean to go through life with more purposeful gratitude, it is important to understand that life will never be devoid of difficulties, of sadness, or of misfortune and it is not being suggested that we can simply avoid these experiences. Instead, a regular gratitude practice is about taking on a new lens or perspective for viewing all kinds of circumstances. As this article concludes, these notions may still seem silly to you, but I encourage you to really give this a try (even if you’re skeptical). There are a couple of decades of science to support it being worth your while. Besides, if we keep doing what we’ve always done, the brain will keep thinking what is has always thought, which means that we will keep feeling the way we’ve always felt — and who doesn’t want to feel better? 

Kristina Furia is a psychotherapist committed to working with LGBT individuals and couples and owner of Emerge Wellness, an LGBT health and wellness center in Center City (www.emergewellnessphilly.com).


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