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The Science Of Gratitude & How To Build Gratitude Practice

Key Takeaways

  • The brain responds similarly to joy and gratitude

  • Gratitude is not about “fake it till you make it” – giving and receiving thanks and gratitude must be genuine to get the benefits

  • Most gratitude practices of writing or thinking about things you are grateful for will not actually lead to any positive benefits or changes in brain circuitry

  • True gratitude practice is really about associating or experiencing empathy or sympathy for someone who received help – whether it’s help you gave or help you heard about given to someone you connect with

  • A regular (and correct) gratitude practice can shift connectivity of emotions to reduce anxiety and fear pathways, increase motivation and pursuit pathways, and decrease inflammatory cytokines – amongst other physiological benefits

  • Unlike other practices (such as mediation or breathwork), the positive effects of gratitude practice are felt almost instantly (60-90 seconds) making it sustainable to incorporate regularly

  • Steps for a scientifically grounded gratitude practice: (1) Think about (or find from podcast, movie, etc.) a story in which someone received help or you received thanks; (2) Write a few notes about the story such as what the struggle was, what the help was, and how it made you feel; (3) Repeatedly reflect on the story, really connecting with it for a few minutes

  • Components of ideal gratitude practice: you must genuinely and emotionally associate with the story, reflect on the story 1-5 minutes, practice 3x per week

Why Consider A Gratitude Practice?

  • Having an effective gratitude practice can have large positive effects on physical and mental health – even incorporating gratitude practice 1-3x per week can have a long-lasting impact on self-reported well being

  • The problem is most gratitude practices (e.g., writing & reflecting on the good in our lives) don’t actually have the key components needed for the benefit

  • Gratitude practice is a “prosocial behavior” which means it allows us to be more effective in interactions with ourselves and others

  • Our brains are in a see-saw of prosocial behaviors and defensive behavior we use in an attempt to keep us safe – we have the capacity for happiness and great concern and sadness

  • When the right gratitude practice is performed repeatedly and consistently, you can shift prosocial circuits to dominate the mindset

  • Some key benefits of proper gratitude practice: (1) resilience to trauma from prior experience; (2) inoculation from trauma later in life by shifting fear networks; (3) enhance social relationships in personal and professional life; (4) shifts prosocial circuity in the brain and activates circuits in heart and lungs associated with breathing

  • Gratitude practice decreases inflammatory cytokines tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha) and interleukin 6 (IL-6) almost immediately

Neurobiology Of Gratitude

  • The main neuromodulator associated with gratitude practice and prosocial behavior is serotonin

  • Two major brain areas are activated with gratitude: (1) medial prefrontal cortex; (2) anterior cingulate cortex

  • The medial prefrontal cortex sets context, framing, and provides the meaning of experiences for everything in life

  • The context provided by the prefrontal cortex makes it tolerable to sit in an ice bath or cold plunge because the perceived benefit shifts our mindset and tolerance

  • Gratitude is a mindset that activates the prefrontal cortex and sets the context for experience

  • It’s a myth that you can simply lie to yourself and “fake it till you make it” about whether an experience is good for you or not

  • The anterior cingulate cortex is involved in empathy pathways and circuitry

Tenants Of Effective Gratitude Practice

  • In order to activate gratitude circuits, one needs to put themselves in the mindset of another or directly receive gratitude

  • We want to receive gratitude but it’s not practical to sit around and wait

  • Gratitude practice is not simply writing down or thinking about things you are grateful for

  • Arouse autonomic nervous system for increased benefit: in states of heightened alertness, the intensity of emotion and effectiveness of gratitude practice are enhanced

  • Example: intense breathing then write things out or say them out loud

  • The most potent form of gratitude practice is one in which you receive thanks – for example, hearing a kind letter written about you

  • Reading or hearing stories: association or experiencing empathy or sympathy for someone who received help – example, stories of people saved during the war

  • Tips for an effective gratitude practice:

  • Option 1. Find someone whose story resonates with you – whether they are getting or receiving help; choose a book, podcast, movie, etc.

  • Option 2. Reflect and really think about a time in which you receive thanks – write out what the struggle was, what the help was, and how it made you feel

  • Then: Write notes and read them or think about that story over and over – even just 1-3 minutes

  • The more you read & reflect on the notes or take in stories, the faster you will sink into gratitude and until its almost immediate (unlike meditation or similar practices)

  • Having a story you resonate with and return to creates a physiological shift in heartbeat and breathing

  • We must give wholeheartedly for the receiver to feel gratitude completely


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