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BEACON Senior News - Western Colorado

The science of gratitude

Oct 25, 2021 11:52AM ● By G. L. Yenne
A half full brown coffee mug sits on a piece of paper reading "Gratitude changes everything" next to a silver pen on a distressed blue painted wooden surface.

You know the drill. You go around the table and everyone says what they’re thankful for before diving into the turkey and mashed potatoes. Done. While Thanksgiving is a fitting time to be grateful, it’s far from the only time. The scientific research is in: Year-round gratitude leads to improved physical and mental health.

The neural mechanisms responsible for feelings of gratitude have grabbed scientists’ attention. Researchers claim that gratitude can increase important neurochemicals in our brains. When thinking shifts from negative to positive, there is a surge of dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin.

Serotonin is a reward hormone just like dopamine that is released in the brain every time we have a good experience. When we savor a meal with loved ones, snuggle a baby or play with a pet, we feel satisfied and grateful.

“Gratitude is not just a social construct, it’s a real neurobiological phenomenon that brings a deeper sense of well-being and enhances our relationship to our self, others and the world around us,” neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Huberman observed.

Dr. Robert Emmons, a UC Davis professor and authority on the science of gratitude, said research shows that when people regularly cultivate gratitude, they experience a multitude of psychological, physical, interpersonal and spiritual benefits. Gratitude also has one of the strongest links to positive mental health. According to his research, grateful people experience higher levels of joy, love and happiness—and it’s contagious. If we walk into our house or office with a heightened stress level, others will mirror that anxiety. Go in with a thankful and cheerful heart, and the whole atmosphere changes for the better!

Practice gratitude

Gratitude is more of a practice than an action. When we count our blessings, our worries and fears diminish. Gratitude helps us manage life’s situations and consider new possibilities, even when hardship strikes. If we can discipline ourselves to practice this virtue, it will protect us from the destructive impulses of envy, resentment, greed and bitterness. 

Is the house a disaster because your college kids are coming and going? Is your husband irritating you with his nose blowing and throat clearing? Is your elderly mother calling you daily and wanting you to help her? One day you will look back with fondness at the time you spent with your loved ones. Are you frustrated because a surgery has kept you off your feet for a few weeks? Appreciate the time to catch up on all your reading. You’ll be walking soon enough. 

Some hear the dreaded words, “You have stage 4 cancer,” yet practice gratitude regardless of the outcome. A dear family member of mine was often discontented with her life, but at the end of a fierce battle with cancer (during which she was encouraged to practice gratitude), she asked her pastor to pray for peace and joy. What a balm for the family during her final week on earth.

We all want happiness, but for too many, that means accumulating things. Yet consumerism comes at a cost. Gratitude can’t survive in our materialistic culture, as envy and materialism both involve dwelling on what we do not have, rather than what we already have. 

Five per day

Write down five things that went well that day before going to bed. It will help rewire your brain, and you will wake up more refreshed. Retrain your brain to see positive patterns instead of trying to spot the negatives. Talk to your brain! Consider how you can reframe your thoughts into a more positive perspective. What would you tell a good friend struggling with negativity?  Sometimes we are harsher with our self-talk than we are with others.

We can all find at least one reason to be grateful every day. Gratitude grounds and humbles us. It gives us a mindset of abundance rather than scarcity. It changes our perspective. A lack of gratitude implies trying to control life, rather than accepting that someone much greater than ourselves has ordained our circumstances. Many faiths tell us to focus on the true, the noble, the right, the pure, the lovely, and the excellent. 

Practicing gratitude can change our brains by strengthening our neural pathways, if we strive to train ourselves. Now that is something to be grateful for! 

Points to ponder

• What can I feel grateful about right now?

• What can I do now that gives me joy?

• How can I demonstrate gratitude to someone else?

As you strive to redirect your thoughts, it will eventually become second nature to you.

Here are some great example for when those tips will come in handy: 

Living alone, but not lonely and 5 tips on how to combat loneliness during social distancing