Before diving into the Thanksgiving turkey and trimmings this year, many of us will go round the table and share what we are grateful for. And in that moment of sharing, we will receive a multitude of blessings.
Gratitude, derived from the Latin word gratia, means thankfulness. The science of positive psychology shows that practicing gratitude literally rewires the neural structures in our brain. The region of the brain that lights up when we practice gratitude is the prefrontal cortex, a brain region associated with the reward or pleasure centers or areas that control stress, emotional regulation, and pain relief. Psychologically, gratitude improves our overall mental health and, as a result, our relationship with others. Physically, it strengthens our immune system, improves our sleep patterns, and allows us to feel more optimistic and joyful. Gratitude is a natural antidepressant.
It’s easy to be grateful when things are going our way. But how do we stay grateful in all times and circumstances? Especially stressful ones like this past year that our world experienced with Covid, or when we’re depressed or anxious? Cultivating a continual sense of gratitude takes time and practice. It’s similar to strengthening our muscles when we go to the gym or exercise. Typically, our brain defaults to the negative. Happy people don’t label a setback as “bad.” Rather, they say, “There’s something better for me out there.”
If we do this, our attitude changes. This happens because we are retraining our brains to think in a different way.
Jay Shetty, bestselling author of Think Like a Monk, states that when he was in the ashram, the monks begin their day by flipping over their sleeping mats and paying respects to the earth, appreciating all the gifts it continues to give us, for the sun and light, the ground we walk on, and the air we breathe. Here are some other fairly simple ways to harness the lasting benefits of gratitude:
- Say thank you. Say thank you to your servers, counter people, healthcare personnel, or people who wait on you until it becomes habitual. Tell them what a great job they are doing. I’ll never forget the story of a therapist friend who stated she was in the hospital last year for back surgery. As she was recovering and walking the hallways with her IV stand, she literally stopped and thanked each person at the nursing station for taking care of her, how much a positive difference it made in her recovery, and how she appreciated them putting their lives on the line working during the challenging, stressful time of Covid. She stated one of the nurses literally broke down and cried, saying she has never in her career had a patient be so grateful for her services.
- Write an email or letter of gratitude to someone who had a profound impact on your life or someone who is never properly thanked for their service or behavior.
- Keep a gratitude journal. At the end of the day, make a list of all the things that went “right” that day or, if you prefer, what happened that week that made you grateful. Remind yourself of the gifts, benefits, and grace of the good things you enjoy. This guards against the brain adapting and taking our comforts for granted.
- Share your gratitude with others. Start business meetings with “What went well” this week? I teach a Stress Management online for seniors, and one of our classes is about gratitude. Each person goes around the zoom room and shares what they are grateful for. And as you can imagine, they don’t express gratitude for how many hours they worked or how much money they have. The next time you make a phone call to a friend or family member, ask them what they are most grateful for. You’ll be amazed at their answers! This is especially important on days when you find your mood is not exactly stellar or you find gratitude difficult.
- Share your gratitude on social media— a nice change from a platform which can oftentimes be negative. The Gratitude Journal app literally prompts you to think about feeling grateful and finding gratitude for new things each day.
We deserve to be happy. The benefits of gratitude can last a lifetime. Building our capacity for gratitude isn’t difficult. But it takes practice. Just don’t wait until Thanksgiving to talk about what you’re grateful for. There’s no moment like right now to give thanks.
Cindy Maynard, Ph.D., RD, is a health psychologist, registered dietitian, and health and fitness writer. She is passionate about fitness, wellness and motivating people towards better health. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.