Image credit: ProjectGRAD
We have officially entered the holiday season. For many this time of year includes expectations of and obligations with family, friends, and/or work. For some this time of year may be painful or difficult for a variety of reasons. However, as we embark on the holiday season let’s take some time to explore the role of gratitude in our wellbeing.
Finding things to be thankful for and the expression of gratitude doesn’t change our situations or circumstances. Let’s be clear about that. However, our expressions and experiences of gratitude do change us!
Effects of gratitude on the brain
There’s a great deal of research that’s been conducted on the effects of gratitude on the brain and the body. A simple google search will reveal numerous peer-reviewed journal articles, book chapters, and blog posts. The scientific research on gratitude has revealed its impact not only on brain structures, such as increased gray matter on the right side of the brain, but also on neurochemicals such as dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin which are the “feel good” chemicals. Additionally, the positive healing effect of gratitude on our bodies has been shown in studies conducted with heart patients, organ transplant patients, and patients with chronic pain. Gratitude has been shown to decrease inflammation markers, increase heart health, improve healing, and reduce pain.
The expression and experience of gratitude is not something that miraculously changes our perspective overnight and, as stated previously, it doesn’t change our situations or circumstances. However, gratitude does change our perspective and provides us with a greater picture of our lives allowing us to see, feel, and experience what’s good in them. The more gratitude we can express and experience the more positive we feel about ourselves, others, and the world around us over time.
Cultivation of gratitude
So, what does the cultivation of gratitude look like? In truth, it could be something as simple as finding 3 good things that took place during the day and writing them down in a gratitude journal. It can also look like writing a letter of thanks to a family member, friend, or co-worker. It can also look like mentally reflecting on your day and focusing on positive moments before you go to bed at night.
The things you take notice of don’t have to be “big things” like a month-long trip to Disney or winning the lottery. They can be simple and still be very impactful. For example, take a minute right now to reflect on how you feel when you notice a smile from someone, a close friend perhaps. What do you notice when you recall the laughter of a child, the smell of the air right after it rains, or a hug from someone special? How did it make you feel when you were given a compliment on a job well-done or a word of encouragement in a text message from a friend? How did it feel the last time you were hiking on your favorite trail? Can you sit with that for just a minute right now and notice what it does for you? Did you smile even slightly? Did you feel a warm sensation in your chest or face? Did you experience a sense of happiness, joy, or peace and calm? These are not monumental moments or experiences, but they are none-the-less impactful. The important thing is to either hold each one of them in your mind for at least 20-30 seconds when you focus on them or write about them in as much detail as possible.
Three good things every day
Over this holiday season, I want to invite you to take time to notice two or three good things every day and either mentally reflect on them for 1 minute right before you fall asleep or write in as much detail as possible about them and see what kind of impact it has on you. Be sure to take notice and write about how it is improving your own mental/ physical/ emotional wellbeing, your relationships with others, and your view of the world.
I’ll get us started:
- Right now, in this present moment, I am grateful for the HIKE for Mental Health Community and the opportunity is providing me to share information on gratitude that may impact even just one person in a positive and meaningful way.
- Today, I am grateful for a cloudless sky that’s an absolutely gorgeous shade of blue.
- Today, I am grateful for my lungs which allow me to breathe in deeply and provide oxygen to my brain and body.