The Neuroscience of Gratitude

Is gratitude good for my Brain?

Yes it is. In fact, it is one of the easiest things you can do to boost the “feel good” neurotransmitter release in your brain and it is proven by Science to work.

What are you grateful for? Say it to yourself, “What am I grateful for?” Now, come up with 5 things, not a million things, just five. Perhaps you have friends, family, or children to be grateful for. Maybe it is as simple as the sun is shining or I have fresh air to breathe. The reality is, no matter how bad your day is, there is always something to be grateful for. Practicing gratitude is especially important if you suffer from Anxiety and Depression. Your brain needs a boost in this direction.

How does gratitude change my brain?

The good news is that science shows that just asking the question improves your brain functioning, even if you don’t come up with answers. So you are already ahead of the game. When you take time to ask what you are grateful for, certain neural circuits are being activated in your brain. Dopamine and serotonin production increases and these neurotransmitters travel through your brain to the “bliss” center acting to increase your feelings of happiness and contentment. Anxiety and depression involve brain chemistry that is lacking in these crucial neurotransmitters for mood stability. Practicing gratitude is a natural way to get the same effects as anti-depressant medications because it creates the same brain chemical response. The key to success is to practice gratitude daily.

Oprah says that starting a gratitude journal daily has been the single most powerful tool she has used to create her success and happiness. I feel the same way, and write my 5 daily gratitude’s in my “1000’s of Gifts” journal each day. I love looking back at them, especially when I am feeling down or overwhelmed.

Why does daily gratitude practice work?

It is all based on the science of Hebbian Learning. Hebb’s Law states that “neurons that fire together, wire together”. What this means is that, the more you use a neural circuit, the stronger it gets. Unfortunately, this also means that the more you think negative thoughts, the more you are hard-wiring in a negative brain pattern. Daily gratitude breaks the neural pathway that is being created by what Dr. Daniel Amen call “automatic negative thoughts” (ANTs) that each of us tends to have.

If you were to set off on a journey into the woods with no path trampled, that first walk would be a doozy. You would have to work hard to beat the grass and brush beneath your feet to make your way through. If you walked that very same path for a month, by month’s end your path would be cleared and your passage much easier. Neural circuitry works in much the same way. Day one will be the most challenging but as Lao Tzu says, “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. Today is the day.

How do I use gratitude to boost my mood and fight anxiety and depression?

Write It Down

Write down 5 things you are grateful right now and you are improving your brain and your life. It is best to write it down because science proves that writing is more powerful at digging those neural circuits that we are trying to create. Type it into your phone if you don’t have actual paper.

Take Notice

This will help you take notice that there is always something to be grateful for, no matter how simple it seems. I often write “a cup of coffee” in my 1000’s of Gifts journal because it sometimes seems as if that is the only time I had peace and quiet in the day, but that is OK. Other times I write things that I am usually not grateful for, liking driving my kids all over town. When I stop to think that in a few years they will all be grown and gone (hopefully, for their sake), I become thankful for the craziness we have in our lives right now and all that time together, even though it is in the car. Take notice of the good, especially within what you might now perceive as “bad”.

Make it a Routine

Make it a habit. Research says that it takes 21 days to build a new habit. So I challenge you today, write down your gratitudes for the next 21 days, then stick with it after that if you can (you know you can).

Creating new neural pathways really can be that easy. Start today and see how you feel in a month. Your Brain will thank you.

by Dr. Trish Leigh

Leigh Brain & Spine | Chiropractor & Neurofeedback in Chapel Hill, specializing in treating disc injuries and neck pain.