How Gratitude Changes You and Your Brain

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How Gratitude Changes You and Your Brain

What comes to mind when you hear the word “Thanksgiving”?  If I’m being honest, for me, it’s turkey. For others it may be football, pumpkin pie, or gathering around a table with friends and family.  Thanksgiving is celebrated in 7 different countries around the world- Canada, the USA, Germany, the Netherlands, Grenada, Liberia, and right here in Japan.  Though each of these celebrations may look different, at their core, they are all about one thing: showing gratitude.

Most of us were raised to be polite and respectful, and saying “thank you” is an essential piece of good manners.  But for how many of us has saying “thank you” become a reflex, something we mindlessly utter to the shop clerk or bus driver?  How many of us actually spend any amount of time really reflecting on our gratitude?

Recent studies have shown a significant correlation between mindful gratitude practice and increase in happiness as well as a decrease in anxiety and depression.  Researchers at Indiana University conducted a study of about 300 students who were receiving counseling services. The students were divided into three groups. Each group received psychotherapy, while one group received psychotherapy plus a writing assignment where they had to write about their negative thoughts, and another group received psychotherapy plus an assignment of writing a gratitude letter each day.  

There were no significant differences among the groups after one week, however, after four weeks the group who had been practicing gratitude reported higher feelings of happiness and decreased feelings of anxiety and depression.  This finding became even more significant after 12 weeks, and what was further encouraging, was that brain scans showed changes in the way those who practiced gratitude were able to perceive and process gratitude, a change that could lead to long-term increased mental health.  You can read more about the study here.

One of the approaches I take to counseling is CBT- cognitive behavioral therapy.  The essence of CBT is that our thoughts influence our feelings and our feelings influence our behavior, so if we can change our thought patterns, we can eventually change our feelings and behavior.  One of the strategies I often recommend to students is keeping a gratitude journal. This can be a small notebook, memo pad or journal that is kept next to the bed. The idea is to mindfully reflect on the day before going to bed, and simply making a list of 5 things for which gratitude is felt.  I often say to the students that on days that aren’t great and it’s a challenge to identify 5 things for which gratitude is felt, that those are the days to write, “I’m thankful I’m in a bed tonight”, or “I’m thankful I had food to eat today”. Sometimes it is very helpful to purposefully show gratitude for those things we so often take for granted.  

A gratitude journal is just one way a person can start a gratitude practice.  Another might be writing a thank you card for someone who perhaps went a bit out of their way for you, or writing a letter to someone you haven’t seen for a while, but who impacted your life in some way.  You may or may not choose to send the letter, e-mail or call that person, but just the simple act of writing the letter can increase your sense of gratitude, and positively impact your mental health.

So as both Japanese and Americans get ready to celebrate Thanksgiving this Thursday, let us all take some time to mindfully reflect on our lives and show deep gratitude for all that we have.  Happy Thanksgiving to all!

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