Being grateful can be really difficult.
In light of a world where the cost of living has risen disproportionately to wage increases, basic healthcare coverage is just a hope for even the middle classes, and the news offers a deluge of depressing and isolating stories…
Remembering to be happy for what you have must be a deliberate effort.
And the marketing machine of the capitalist West drives this message home everywhere it can: what you have is not enough. What you are is not enough. What you need is to get more.
But studies are showing that the regular practice of gratitude can change the neural pathways in your brain, effectively training yourself to stay grounded and optimistic.
We know that the brain loves habits. With enough sustained effort and concentration, we can rewire our brains to behave the way we want them to, barring inborn chemical imbalances and disorders. We can redirect desires, develop new tastes, and discourage unhealthy longings.
And the brain reacts to regular, committed gratitude no differently. In fact, making a conscious effort to lower the bar for things that are thanks-worthy, and then noticing and documenting those events, not only affects chemical production in the brain, but helps build a stronger empathy and compassion center.
First, we’re going to look at what happens to the brain when it experiences gratitude as an emotion…
Your Brain on Gratitude
Studies have shown that when a person feels gratitude, as when receiving a gift, certain areas of the brain are more active than other areas.
These are the anterior cingulate cortex, the medial prefrontal cortex, and the hypothalamus.
The first two are associated with moral understanding and social awareness, empathy, value determination, and reward. Feeling gratitude (genuinely) strengthens these areas of the brain and reinforces good will and positive associations with our fellow man.
The hypothalamus is a complex beast. It performs so many functions, it’s hard to even narrow it down. It’s responsible for metabolic regulation, stress hormones, body temperature, emotional reactions, and appetite, not to mention the release of the brain’s “happy” chemical: dopamine.
The result of all this activity has several implications.
First, these areas of the brain grow stronger with more activation. Second, the neural pathways to reach these areas of the brain become more clearly carved and thus easier to travel, meaning it becomes easier to experience gratitude the more consciously you try to. And third, that the brain will seek opportunities to be grateful moving forward.
That third implication? Life-changing. It’s the difference between being a pessimist and an optimist.
The Tricky Part
Here’s the catch: you can’t fake it.
All of those delicious benefits…
The well-trodden neural pathways and strengthened reward centers, changing the chemistry of your brain to reward you with dopamine and fuzzy feelings when you feel gratitude?
It only works if you are actually feeling it.
In the studies completed on this phenomenon, participants were asked to “pay it forward” – or do something nice for someone else because someone did something nice for them – and keep gratitude journals, marking occasions during their normal lives where they noticed a nice moment.
Those participants saw their chemical make-up shifting.
Feeling thankful out of obligation or guilt, like when you say “thank you” for a present you didn’t really want…
Instead of re-framing the situation to say “thank you” because you’re grateful to have been thought of…
Doesn’t quite have the same effect.
So what can you do?
This may be easier for some than others…
If these don’t help:
- Keeping a daily gratitude journal with a minimum number of grateful moments to record
- Saying “thank you” out loud to every person who helps you, even if it’s just for holding the door open
- Comparing a present-you moment to a comparable past-you moment and noting how much more prepared or capable present-you is…
Consider trying to find a component of a specifically bad situation that could be worse.
Like the “Glad Game” in Pollyanna. When Hayley Mills receives a crutch as a toy from her father’s toy drive, she wanted to be disappointed. But she found a reason to be glad about it instead – glad she didn’t need to use it!
If you rolled your eyes, fair enough.
But the intrinsic truth is there: there is always something to be grateful for. And your brain will thank you for the exercise.