I know what you’re thinking, ‘not another article about the benefits of gratitude and how it makes us happier’. I realize that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of other articles and writings out there that discuss the benefits of being grateful. I also recognize that these articles are saturating the internet given that it is the season of thanks!
My intention is to make this post unique from some of the others out there. Yes, having an “attitude of gratitude” is important and it impacts our mood, increases our positive emotions and helps us live mindfully in the present moment. What may not be obvious is the way gratitude impacts our brains and our ability to healthily construct our reality.
Negativity Bias and the Brain
I often tell my patients that our brains weren’t created to make us happy, they were created to keep us alive. There is scientific validity behind that concept. Our midbrain is responsible for our survival instincts: it is responsible for us eating so we stay alive, having sex so we procreate and fighting, flighting or freezing to keep us safe. Therefore, our brains are biologically predetermined to identify and store negative experiences in order to keep us alive and well. This is called negativity bias.
People show a negativity bias which is the tendency to recognize, remember and learn from negative experiences and information significantly more than the positive.1 This is something that occurs on a biological level, meaning that this tendency is unconscious to us. Despite it being unconscious to us, our predisposition towards the negative shapes our reality. When we remember, evaluate and store negative information we are generating a reality that has an underlying negative flavor.
Our realities are created based on the things we pay attention to and our interpretations of the world.2 Because of our propensity to pay attention to the negative we have to work harder at identifying the positive. This is where practicing gratitude regularly comes into play.
What Exactly is Gratitude?
Having gratitude is adopting a thankful appreciation for internal and external things.3 Gratitudes can include monetary items like your home or car, loved ones or intangible items like your sense of smell or a beautiful fall afternoon. Research has consistently demonstrated that gratitude is connected to greater feelings of happiness and joy.3 One particular research study showed that after 10 weeks, people who journaled about gratitude felt more satisfied about their lives, had fewer visits to the doctor and exercised more than the group who journaled about the irritating things in their lives. To learn more about research findings on gratitude and happiness check out this article by Harvard Medical School.
Gratitude can help “re-wire” your brain to notice, remember and store positive experiences so your reality is shaped by positive events and emotions. It helps counteract our biological predisposition to the negative so we can live more mindfully, experience more feelings of happiness and joy and increase our life satisfaction.
Gratitude is a Skill
Remember how I expressed to you on my home page that I would never ask you to practice a skill or technique that I don’t practice myself? Well practicing gratitude is a skill and it’s a skill that I work on regularly to develop. I try to practice gratitude daily through my morning mindfulness practice of journaling. Each morning I identify 3 things I am grateful for in that moment and I also write several sentences about positive experiences that have occurred recently.
You can tailor this practice to suit your needs. I tailored mine from www.therapistaid.com. It is a free resource for therapists and patients alike and they have resources for children, adolescents and adults. Click here to see their gratitude prompts and to learn ways you can adapt this practice to suit you.
The goal is to keep it positive. There are so many times I have the urge to write about my frustrating and negative experiences. However, I work hard to be aware of that urge and intentionally re-focus my attention on the positive. There are days where identifying gratitudes and positively journaling is easy and there are other days when it is not. There are days that I forget to journal and when that happens, I carry over the gratitudes from the day I missed. So if I forget to journal on Friday morning, I will be identifying 6 gratitudes on Saturday as opposed to 3.
Totally transparency here, I tend to forget to practice on the weekends. Therefore, there have been mornings where I have had to identify at least 9 gratitudes because I did not journal for several days in a row. When that happens to you try to remember that each effort you make in practicing is contributing to a change in your reality. Every time you intentionally identify a gratitude you are working on balancing your negative bias and increasing your happiness. It is a simple, powerful skill that you can begin to practice today.
1. U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2013). Not all emotions are created equal: The negativity bias in social-emotional development.
2.The New York Times. (2013). Overcoming your negative bias.
3. Harvard Medical School. (2010). Giving thanks can make you happier.