The Science of Gratitude: How Giving Thanks Can Change Your Life

It’s nearly Thanksgiving - a day many Americans set aside to feast, enjoy the company of loved ones, and reflect on the ways in which we are fortunate. It is the holiday of gratitude - and the pity is that, for many of us, this happens only once a year. Gratitude is one of the most essential ingredients in the uniquely human quest for happiness and fulfillment. It’s been said that people aren’t grateful because we’re happy, we’re happy because we’re grateful - and this is undeniably true. Research shows that one of the most common traits truly happy people share is, in fact, a tendency towards gratitude - the ability to pay attention to the positive and celebrate what they have, even in times of struggle. This isn’t just hippie hocus pocus - it’s science! Read on to find out why, and for tips on beginning your own gratitude practice (and thereby welcoming more happiness into your life)!

The Three Tiers of Gratitude Gratitude, simply put, is the quality of being thankful and the readiness to show appreciation. Its most basic manifestation is the act of giving thanks - of simply saying “thank you” to someone who’s done something nice for us. This is something most of us do on a very regular basis - just think about how many times you’ve said it in the last week. You probably thanked your spouse for picking up milk from the grocery store, or your child for doing his or her chores. You probably thanked your coworker for photocopying the documents you needed, and the cashier who scanned your groceries.

The second tier of gratitude is what takes place around many a dining room table on Thanksgiving: friends and family join hands and take turns stating what they are thankful for. Often, a rosy glow will permeate the room as everyone shares in these candid expressions of gratitude. This is what I like to refer to as a gratitude exercise - it involves people actively concentrating on that for which they are grateful. And if we pay attention to the effect it has on its participants - that rosy glow around the Thanksgiving table - we can agree that this form of gratitude is much more potent than the simple thank you we tossed out to the gas station attendant last week.

The third and final tier is the act of striving to maintain the rosy glow one feels when engaging in a gratitude exercise - the act of taking that exercise and turning it into something more lasting and permanent. When you do this, you have so much more than a simple exercise - you have a gratitude practice. When sustained long enough, the active practice of gratitude can actually become a habit - and this can have a massive effect on one’s overall level of happiness.

The Power of Gratitude

My twenties were pretty awful. I won’t go into detail here, but the gist is that I was in an emotionally and physically abusive relationship from ages twenty to twenty-nine, a fact that negatively colored every aspect of my life. I was deeply unhappy, but also convinced that I wasn’t strong enough to seek out something better, so year after year, I sank into deeper and darker places - places I didn’t believe there was any way out of.

My gratitude practice began as a coping mechanism; an escape of sorts from my harsh reality. At the time, I lived with my then-partner in a small town in the mountains, and when things at home became too terrible to bear, I would take to nature. There was a beautiful overlook just a few miles up the road, with sweeping, breathtaking views of the Continental Divide. The majestic snow-capped peaks stood like sentinels keeping watch, and I would sit there, sometimes for hours, and focus on the beauty of it all. I’d close my eyes and concentrate on the feeling of the wind on my cheeks and the scents of fresh earth and pine; I’d feel the solidity of the ground beneath me and take comfort in the knowledge that I was made of the same stardust as the rocks that held me still.

In the shadow of those imposing mountains, I felt so incredibly insignificant - like an ant, scurrying around busily and meaninglessly - and oddly, I was relieved by it. When I began to see myself as just one small creature amidst billions of other small creatures, none more or less important than the other, I found that my problems shrank into nothingness as I blended into the world around me. It was a pure and brilliant loss of ego, and to step outside myself was like a warm blanket wrapped around my soul. Thank you, my heart would cry out to the mountains and the wind and the trees. Thank you.

It wasn’t always possible to escape to my special place in times of distress, but I quickly learned that simply by shifting my focus to something I could silently express gratitude for, I could lift myself out of those darkest depths fairly easily. My partner would be yelling at me, telling me how stupid or unacceptable or inherently flawed I was, and my eyes would slide over to the window and I’d think, “Isn’t it nice to have such a lovely view of that beautiful cherry tree?” I’d reach for gratitude, even when it seemed there was none to be had; it was an act of self-preservation, and I truly believe it saved me.

Because after a year or two of doing this - of actively pursuing grateful thoughts in order to keep the terrible ones at bay - I found that it had become . . . natural. It was habit. Somehow, without really noticing, I’d become the kind of person that other people asked, “How are you so positive all the time?” And shortly after that, I had found enough hope in my miserable little existence to free myself from it and begin again. Simply put, being grateful gave me the strength to take my life back - even though, at a glance, I didn’t have a whole lot to be grateful for.

Why It Works

Historically speaking, gratitude has been vastly overlooked in terms of research and data. More effort has been put towards figuring out what makes us feel bad than what makes us feel good. In recent years, however, researchers have begun to explore the science behind gratitude - and the results back up what I learned in my twenties, which is that gratitude indeed has a significant effect on our overall outlook. Now, enough research exists for us to begin to understand why gratitude is such an important factor.

In a study conducted by the University of California at Berkeley, researchers took MRI scans of participants’ brains after first inducing intense feelings of gratitude. Looking at the scans, they found that when the subject was feeling grateful, activity was enhanced in two major regions of the brain: the medial pre-frontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex.

To understand what this means, we must first examine the functions of these two areas of the brain.

The medial pre-frontal cortex (mPFC) presides over planning, decision making, and personality expression. A study from the Department of Neuroscience at Lethbridge University in Alberta proposes that the primary function of the mPFC is to form associations between events and appropriate emotional response, resulting in a higher degree of emotional intelligence and a more sophisticated ability to interpret situations and react in a well thought-out manner.

Meanwhile, the anterior cingulate cortex plays a role in several base autonomic functions of the body, such as regulating blood pressure and heart rate. In addition, it also plays a part in emotion, impulse control, and - like the mPFC - decision making.

When this information is viewed in the context of the Berkeley study, in which these areas of the brain showed enhanced function in grateful individuals, we can see how gratitude can actually help us become happier. When we are in a grateful state of mind, we may be more likely to make better decisions, respond to situations in productive ways, and view the world around us objectively - all of which can play a huge role in our overall level of happiness. Gratitude could even help lower our blood pressure and heart rate, reducing stress and furthermore contributing to our sense of well-being.

Developing Your Gratitude Practice

The great thing about beginning this kind of practice is that you can do it anytime, anywhere - and it is absolutely free. You don’t need any kind of special equipment, and no one even has to know you’re doing it! Furthermore, it’s really, really simple.

All you have to do is focus on the good things. Try this exercise twice a day - when you get up in the morning, and as you’re getting into bed at night. Think of three things you are grateful for. They can be anything. Some days, this will be easy - the challenge is to keep up this practice even on the bad days. You will, at times, have to reach for things to be grateful for. There will be days where the items on your list may sound utterly ridiculous.

Let’s say you get up in the morning and promptly spill coffee all over yourself. Later on, after leaving the grocery store, one of your bags breaks, causing the eggs you just bought to end up in pieces in the parking lot. In the afternoon, you start to feel not so great, and by bedtime, it’s pretty apparent that you’ve been stricken down by a case of the full-on flu. Sounds like a pretty awful day, right? So what on earth is a person supposed to feel grateful about, when confronted with events such as these?

What if your list looked something like this?

  1. I’m glad the coffee wasn’t hot enough to scald me.

  2. I’m glad the eggs were the only thing that broke.

  3. I’m glad I have the flu and not the plague.

Sure, it sounds silly - but it’s completely acceptable, I promise! Because - let’s be honest - some days, life just sucks. And if all we can do is express gratitude simply because the sun came up - if that’s literally the only thing we can think of to be glad about - then so be it. At least we’re trying - and in doing so, we are training our brains to do this automatically.

And by taking a minute or two to do this, every day, no matter what, you will find that eventually it becomes habit. You won’t have to try to do it anymore; you’ll start looking on the bright side by default, instead of always focusing on the negative. Believe me when I say life is so much better this way!

I challenge you to start right now: just think of three things. Are your pants extra comfortable? Did your breakfast taste good? Is there a dolphin-shaped cloud in the sky that’s making you smile? Anything - as long as it’s a positive thought about your life.

Ready, set, go!

Again, I know it seems elementary. But that’s really all there is to it - and as long as you stick with it, it can be absolutely life-changing.

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© 2020 by Ali Owens​