The science behind gratitude, your brain and a happier life
It’s the time of the year when we think more about gratefulness. Thanksgiving is approaching and many will gather around the table and ask the question “what are you grateful for?” But gratitude is far too important to reserve just during the holidays.
There’s a known correlation that showing gratitude positively impacts your physical and mental health and now we have a better understanding of exactly how and why. Expressing gratitude makes you a happier person by releasing dopamine in the brain, the neurotransmitter that regulates movement, attention, learning, and emotional responses and yes, pleasure and happiness. It gives us a natural high and, because the feeling is so good, we are more likely to repeat the action that leads to it, more acts of kindness, giving thanks and doing for others.
Research on gratitude benefits shows that these neurological effects offer other health benefits including better sleep, decreased pain levels and stress.
In a gratitude research study by McCraty and Colleagues, participants showed a decrease in cortisol—the most prominent stress hormone. But even more impressive, 80 percent of the group showed changes in heart rate variability, a direct result of reduced stress levels. It’s also been shown that study subjects who expressed gratitude were faster in their recoveries after something traumatic than those who did not.
Remember that gratitude is a choice and it is the most effective way to feel happy. It helps us to shift our thoughts on what we have rather than what we lack. The more we practice gratitude, our mental state grows stronger.
Practicing daily gratitude is easy to do.
- Start with a journal and everyday list three to five things – big or small – you’re grateful for that day.
- Bring back the thank you note. This simple gesture allows you to express gratitude and helps strengthen relationships. Who doesn’t appreciate a thank you note?
- Meditation and mindfulness are powerful tools to not only focus on gratitude, but to instill more positive thinking and remove the negativity that we can sometimes only see. Taking five to ten minutes daily to quiet yourself and concentrate on the simple things we take for granted like air in our lungs, a home, loved ones, food on our plate, a place to rest, can bring new found appreciation in other areas of our lives.
Try not to leave gratitude at the Thanksgiving dinner table this year but make it part of your daily routine all year long.
Susan Kozak has been a licensed social worker for the past 35 years and currently serves as the executive director of Community Care Services, a position she has held since 2011.