Gratitude is Good for the Brain!

It is fall and the high holiday season is here. Thanksgiving straightforwardly reminds us to count our blessings along with all the “thankful” decorative signs and “gratitude” messages that surround us in stores, readings, topics of conversation and more. When we share a special meal with family and friends, it is easy to express our gratitude. Our brains, however, need us to show gratitude throughout the entire year — not only during the high holiday season.

Gratitude is making ourselves aware and thankful for the many blessings and opportunities in our lives every single day. Perhaps it is our family, friends or pets. Maybe it is our ability to provide financially for our family. It could be as simple as being able to get out of bed in the morning and watch the sun brighten your back yard.

Showing gratitude is good for our brains and bodies.
Gratitude can impact many areas of our health. It can improve our emotional health by making us more resilient and relaxed — which can also lower our blood pressure. It can improve our personality by making us less self-centered and more optimistic. It can also improve our social interactions and our productivity at our jobs or volunteer activities. 

A high level of gratitude increases our self-esteem and decreases feelings of depression or low mood. Those who show more gratitude tend to have better relationships and more friends, which lead to a larger support network. This gives us more people to turn to in times of stress and gives us the chance to help others in our network.

We live in a world of instant gratification. The internet, social media and television put a multitude of people and lifestyles on display for us throughout the day. Many people fall into the trap of comparing themselves to these people. We often see what other people have and think we need to have the same things in order to be happy. We need to slow down and look inside ourselves to find what truly makes us happy. We also need to be grateful for what we have and actively seek out ways to share appreciation with others (time, talents or finances).

Looking to transform your usual days into Thanksgiving? Here are five simple ways to begin to incorporate an attitude of gratitude into your daily life.

1. Write thank-you notes – Tell others what you appreciate about them. For many of us, it was instilled that we need to hand-write thank you notes for any gifts we received as children or adults and for special occasions (birthdays, graduations, anniversaries and more). Handwritten notes are one way to authentically connect. Keep a stack of thank-you notes handy to drop in the mail to people who show kindness to you! (This also gives your mood a boost!)

We can also express our gratitude to others via an email, text or phone call. The important thing is to let someone know we appreciate their kindness. Research has found that when we “say it” (thank you), we are healthier and happier. Here is an example of a gratitude letter that can help you get started.

2. Keep a gratitude journal – There are many research studies demonstrating that recording those things for which we are grateful can impact many areas of our life. It can reduce our stress, give us more energy, and improve our interpersonal relationships. Some people prefer to journal first thing in the morning, others before bed (which is shown to improve sleep quality), and others whenever during the day they are feeling grateful. 

Look for inexpensive gratitude journals or notebooks (blank notebooks, too) in dollar stores, bookstores or online. Keep in mind, you might try a few different gratitude worksheets to see what gratitude format resonates with you. Explore 12 gratitude prompts, gratitude journal3 good things exercise, why you are grateful, and more.  Research has found that writing down our gratitude can rewire our brains to be more thankful and positive (neural sensitivity to gratitude). This effect can last for at least three months, and we are learning more about the footprint of gratitude in the brain!

3. Incorporate spirituality or prayer into your day – Prayer is another way to express gratitude. Whatever you believe in, prayer can help you to bring those you are most thankful for into focus. It can even be a prayer to the universe/nature for all the awe-inspiring events you encounter every day.

4. Practice mindfulness meditation – Mindfulness meditation involves focusing on the present moment and blocking out all our other concerns for a short period of time.  Even five minutes can improve your health and well-being by reducing your heart rate and blood pressure, lowering your stress hormones, and often improving pain and sleep. Try a simple mindful meditation that gives gratitude to your body or a heart-centered gratitude breathwork exercise.

5. Pay it forward! –The world benefits from kindness just like we do. Explore new ways to be kind. Look around and try to find a way to help someone, support your community, or complete a random act of kindness. 

A random act of kindness refers to unexpected helpfulness that is extended to a stranger. For example, people pay for the food order for the car behind them in line or for a stranger’s coffee. The gesture could also be non-monetary, like holding the door for a stranger, letting someone check out in front of you, returning someone’s shopping cart, giving someone a compliment, or more. The act can be small or large, but it is not expected from the recipient. By helping someone else, we improve our feelings of self-worth, and the opportunities are endless! 

Gratitude and kindness are the gifts that keep on giving all year long. Cultivate an attitude of gratitude to boost your brain health and wellness. Continue to spread positivity and compassion within your social network, community, and our world. A sincere thank-you for reading and following EngAGE Your Brain! blog series. Let’s be thankful together.

In brain health & wellness,
LeAnne and Krystal

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