How often do you get to the end of the day and wish that you had been more grateful? Perhaps you wish you had made more of a point to thank the man who offered to push your shopping cart back to the store entrance. Maybe you wish you had thanked your children for their help around the house, or perhaps you should have taken those few minutes before falling asleep to tell your spouse how thankful you are for the way he or she supports you or encourages you. If you’re like me, you have fleeting thoughts throughout the day of wanting to thank your child’s teacher, or your mom, or the friend who sent you a text to just “check in.” But, how often do we actually stop and express those words that we may think? How often do we write down or share with others the things that we are thankful for?
The latest scientific research now shows that practicing gratitude actually alters our brains. A study conducted in 2015 by psychologists, Dr. Robert Emmons and Dr. Michael McCullough, looked at the physical effects that practicing gratitude has on the brain. In this study, people were categorized into 3 groups. For ten weeks, the first group wrote down things they were grateful for at the end of each day, the second group wrote down things that irritated or displeased them throughout the day, and the third group wrote down daily occurrences without emphasis on the negative or positive emotions tied to those events. At the end of the ten weeks, the groups recorded how they felt emotionally and physically. The group who had focused on gratitude recorded greater feelings of optimism and well being. They also were more physically active and reported fewer health problems.
Other scientific research has proven that focusing on what you are thankful for, leads to improved sleep and decreased feelings of anxiety and depression. Through use of magnetic imaging, doctors have found that thoughts of gratitude actually activate the brain’s hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is responsible for jobs like regulating body temperature and releasing hormones. The hormones and endorphins released in the body when the mind focuses on positive feelings as opposed to negative feelings, also reduce inflammation and fatigue within the body. One of these hormones is dopamine, which is known as the “pleasure hormone.” All of this scientific and medical research shows us that reflecting on what we are grateful for actually alters our chemical state and causes our bodies to respond in a healthy way.
What are some ways that we can all begin to practice gratitude? One way is to keep a daily journal of what you are grateful for. Each day, reflect on the people, circumstances, and things that you appreciate and write them down. Another way to practice gratitude is to tell the people that you are thankful for what they mean to you. Mail a letter to a special friend, or leave a post it note on your spouse’s steering wheel. Call your sibling and let them know that you value them. Taking time to thank people who are important to you, will get those “pleasure hormones” flowing in your body. Finally, take time to reflect on the things that make you special; the things that you are thankful for about yourself. Celebrate the small and big successes in your life, and be thankful for them.
If you would like more support practicing gratitude, or if you feel that you find it hard to find things to be grateful for in your life, please reach out to our therapists. They would love to help you learn to appreciate your life along with the things and people in it. Give us a call at 912-319-5552.