In the past, whenever people have suggested I might like to practice daily ‘gratitude’ – perhaps in a nice journal or using some other method, externally I might have smiled and nodded, while inside I was thinking, ‘f**k off’.
‘Practicing gratitude’ to me sounded hippy, woo woo and quite frankly, when you are miserable living in a shitty illness and have been in such a state of existence for a decade, surely one can be excused for thinking, “what have I got to be grateful for?”!!
But never let it be said that once I have a fixed notion or opinion, I am not willing to change it!
As I recover from this eating disorder and have started to learn much more about the brain, I can now open my mind to concepts and a world beyond black and white, rigid survival thought patterns that a deeply malnourished eating disordered state provides.
Positivity is now my middle name… and I know that life doesn’t have to be perfect and in fact might be really quite shitty but a person can still maintain a positive outlook and will certainly be mentally and physically healthier if they do.
One way to help establish and hold onto a positive mindset, is, I hate to admit it, recognising and taking time to label each day, things in life we are grateful for. Gratitude is about identifying the good things of life, no matter how down we might feel.
And I write this not just as an opinion piece (although I know I am good at being quite opinionated!) but also because there is in fact a great amount of scientific evidence that regular practice of feeling grateful has real benefits…
Neuroscience today gives us strong evidence that gratitude practice is not new age crap but real chemical neurobiology making a real difference in the brain and body and it can be a secret weapon in making our lives better.
So what are some of these benefits and how do they come about…?
- Gratitude practice can shift a negative mindset and emotions – put simply it makes people happier! Negative thought patterns and emotions are improved as forcing ourselves to think of things we are grateful for removes our attention from negative aspects of life that we might otherwise be obsessing and ruminating over. In fact, where people have been encouraged to wallow and ruminate over the good things in life, they found it fostered a much more positive outlook.
- Improves Relationships – this might be with ourselves or with others. By being grateful there are proven reductions in our stress and anxiety levels and if we do express gratitude to or for others, it can have positive aspects on the relationship with improved trust and loyalty.. as well as making them feel good too!
- Gratitude can act as a natural anti-depressant…. this is the cool neuroscience-y bit. So when we practice gratitude (or receive it), our brains release more of the chemicals dopamine and serotonin, which instantly make us ‘feel good’. Serotonin relaxes us and makes us feel content while dopamine can also make us feel that life is much more possible. Regular gratitude practice over time builds neural pathways in our brain that will make us naturally calmer, more positive and motivated.
- Gratitude can also reduce the experience of physical pain – this is again thought to be due to the release of dopamine which can affect our pain responses and how energised we feel.
- Stress and anxiety levels reduce through being grateful because it causes cortisol (the stress hormone) levels to reduce.
- Grateful people sleep better!! A grateful brain will activate the hypothalamus within it which regulates our sleep… gratitude can make us sleep deeper and longer (and sleep in itself is crucial for brain and physical health so win win!!).
- Physically, gratitude can improve blood pressure, heart health and our natural immunity.
- As we continue to practice gratitude and it changes our brains (through becoming a hard wired habit), we also become even more awesome as people than we already are. Grateful people are more optimistic, less materialistic, have better self esteem and more compassion… and although we might like to think we would poke someone in the eye who was that bloody happy, perhaps that is because, that is what we really want for ourselves?!?
- Finally, people who are positive and practice gratitude in life live longer. There is a strong relationship between positive emotions and longevity. Gratitude creates more positive emotions, so we not only don’t die as soon but we also die less miserable!
In learning about all of this and the science behind gratefulness practices, while giving it a go myself, I have become a convert to putting a little of my attention to finding things to be grateful for each day and all I say is don’t knock it until you have tried it.
I can imagine some people reading this might not be in the best mental health at present and so find it hard to recognise many of life’s positives immediately. Therefore, I will give you an idea or two which you are welcome to borrow.
I am always grateful that chocolate exists in the world and that there really are no limits to eating it. I also appreciate the fact I don’t have to live in the sea because I don’t like seaweed.
Now, how we practice gratitude is entirely personal to us all as individuals.
There are many ways people go about it from gratitude journals, writing letters, gratitude jars or doing it as part of a mindfulness meditation. You might otherwise just simply decide to reflect each night before you go to sleep on a few things you can pick from the day to be grateful for and acknowledge them to yourself, hence going to sleep in a positive frame of mind!
Others decide to set an alarm on their phone to ‘take 5 for thankfulness’ and at a set time each day just reflect for 5 minutes on what little things there are to feel good about, even if life is otherwise less than perfect.
Perhaps though all of this still sounds a bit too peace and love, hearts and flowers and spiritual for you… and I would suggest that methods of practising gratitude don’t have to be so. Playing heavy metal at full volume each day while having a quick reflection on what you can identify in life as being good is as good a method as any!
How you do it is up to you, whether you do it is up to you but all I would say is with all these scientifically proven benefits to being grateful, can you really afford not to be?