I recently had a conversation about gratitude with a person who told me that “yes it’s really important to be grateful for what you have that’s a good a way to live.” But when I mentioned that gratitude was perhaps more than a surface level ‘good person’ action and could be a tool for powerful shifts in perspective, experience and inner equilibrium they looked at me as if I was standing there offering cheese and asking them to believe it came from the surface of the moon.
Why are we so much more ready to look for answers in medication than to accept that there might be more power in other solutions that we’ve dismissed as woo woo or ‘soft’? Maybe it’s simply that because drugs are now so profitable we’re not often presented with an alternative that won’t generate income for someone. Major medical journals rarely publish studies on non-drug solutions to conditions like anxiety and depression and I can’t imagine my GP prescribing me gratitude.
And yet we are starting to see more and more research creating hard data on how much impact something like gratitude can have. A study by Berkeley University in the US was one of the first to use trial participants who already had mental health issues rather than well functioning people. The study found that:
- Gratitude can shift your focus away from toxic emotions such as resentment or jealousy. If you’re stuck with unwanted thoughts, negative self perception or limiting beliefs driven by these negative emotions, gratitude practice frequently delivers a release.
- It has a lasting impact on your brain. When we experience gratitude it generates different brain activity to negative feelings such as guilt. The Berkeley study used an fMRI scanner to observe brain activity and found that gratitude triggered greater activation of the medical prefrontal cortex (responsible for problem solving, impulse control, emotions, memory) – and that the effects lasted for more than three months.
- Gratitude works even if you keep it to yourself. The participants in the study wrote gratitude letters but even those that didn’t send them experienced positive results.
The Berkeley study also identified that the positive impact of gratitude builds up over time – the study noted that there was an improvement in mental health after 4 weeks and even more so after 12. So, if you’ve ever tried a bit of gratitude practice and given up after a week because it doesn’t seem to be making a difference that could be why.
Scientists at USC Marshall School of Business – also in the US – found that gratitude can help us to build stronger relationships with people and cope better with stress, as they identified links between gratitude and brain structures tied to social bonding and stress relief. Research also identified connections between gratitude and better sleep, lower rates of depression and improved overall wellbeing. Other gratitude studies have shown that:
- People who practice gratitude are more likely to make progress towards goals and to be more alert, determined and enthusiastic (University of California study).
- Regular gratitude practice can result in better immune function, lower blood pressure and more efficient sleep. (UC Davis study).
- Gratitude can also improve willpower and patience, as well as optimism. (Northeastern, Harvard and UC Riverside study).
Can you imagine if there was a pill that would give you willpower to resist all the things you want to and stick at the things you give up on, make you feel more alert and enthusiastic, sleep better, be physically healthier and help you meet your goals – you’d take it, right?
Easy ways to get into gratitude
The practice of gratitude isn’t difficult but keeping it up can be. And the point at which it becomes really powerful is when you’re not just thinking it or writing it down but feeling it too. Other than that it’s very simple – any of these will work:
- Note down 10 things you’re grateful for every night before you go to sleep. Try to really feel the gratitude for each one.
- Write a gratitude letter once a month to someone in your life – you can send it or not.
- Start a gratitude journal which you can use to reflect on the moments that you’re grateful for.
- Have a gratitude jar and fill it up with slips of paper on which you’ve noted what you’re grateful for.
Perhaps the most important change to make where gratitude is concerned is to start taking it seriously. This is something you can create yourself that costs nothing and which can have a big positive impact on your life if you actually see it as a viable solution to a problem you have. Give it the same creditability in terms of transformational change as your CrossFit classes, yoga sessions, counselling, running, cold water swimming etc, stick to it and see just how much it could bring into your life.
Gratitude is something I make accessible in my coaching – and I’ve seen people achieve great results with very simply practices. If you’d like to find out more about the role that gratitude plays in resilience and helping you to thrive – or book in for a free coaching discovery session – get in touch.