Neuroscientists seem to love Thanksgiving because it’s the time of year when people think about what they are grateful for in life. And gratitude isn’t just for people who have never experienced a trial or setback (by the way, those people don’t exist); anyone living can give thanks and express gratitude. You can be grateful you woke up this morning or that you are breathing clean air this very moment. Focusing our minds on what we are grateful for (along with states of love, compassion, resilience…and so forth) changes the chemistry of our brain. In the limbic system of the brain, gratitude produces a neurotransmitter called dopamine, which flows to the brain’s reward center and creates a pleasurable feeling. Gratitude can serve as a natural anti-depressant. Conversely, emotions like anger or anxiety produce more cortisol, a stress hormone, and reduce access to the brain’s frontal lobe, which controls reasoning, and leads to other uncomfortable physical sensations like increased heart rate.
The process of brain cells communicating with one another and releasing these chemicals is called “neuronal firing.” When this firing communication happens frequently, it creates pathways in the brain that become faster and more automatic. Consequently, the more we think one way, the easier it is for that pathway to be used. If you regularly look for what is going wrong, your brain will learn to think that way. If you regularly think about what you are grateful for, your brain will more easily remember how to see what’s also good.
We often want others to be kinder and more understanding, yet we fail to realize that the only change we can bring about is within ourselves. If you want to change the world, change yourself (your brain) first!
According to Amy Morin, training our brains to be grateful allows us to open the door to more relationships and more empathy, reduces aggression, improves sleep, increases self-esteem, and improves our physical and psychological health. Thus, changing your thoughts directly impacts those around you in your personal and professional life. What if your boss were more grateful? How do you think that would change their leadership style and their interactions at the office? Wouldn’t that help us all as we sit with family and talk a little more patiently about the news this season?
Life can be hard–there are certainly heartbreaking events around the world, political unrest in many nations, and strife within families. Gratitude does not negate the harder experiences in life, but it holds a space for us to still appreciate what is good. Connecting to the good things helps us feel healthier, more united, more grounded, and happier.
Want to be more grateful?
Here are some ways you can focus on gratitude this season:
Write it down: Start a gratitude journal listing 5-10 things you are most grateful for each day. You can do this in the morning or evening. You can choose small or large things; be specific and ponder on each as you write it down.
Tell someone: Bring up gratitude at the dinner table or at your office lunch and get everyone feeling good!
Meditate: Think about what you are grateful for and use the language “I am grateful for … because …”
For more ways to show gratitude, check out this list.
I’m grateful you read through; have a Happy Thanksgiving!
* This post originally appeared on Carey the Torch, the Official Blog of the Career Development Office at Johns Hopkins Carey Business School.