When it comes to Thanksgiving traditions, my family does not hold back. From our morning brunch, to afternoon disc golf, to folding napkins into turkeys set around the dinner table, we love our annual traditions.
Last year we tried something new. We wrote notes to each present family member with what we appreciate about them and took turns reading the notes aloud. There were laughs, there were tears, and most of all, there was a deep sense of gratitude. This may be our best tradition yet.
The Story Behind Gratitude
The concept of gratitude has captivated the hearts and minds of philosophers and spiritual teachers for centuries. From Cicero, to the Buddha, to Adam Smith, gratitude was thought to be essential to individual and societal well-being.
These ancient philosophers were onto something because recent scientific studies suggest gratitude is good for our health and good for society. Studies suggest grateful people are happier, healthier, more well-rested, more motivated to exercise, and have stronger relationships. Let’s dive into why.
Here are six key insights about gratitude and our brains, according to science:
1. Gratitude Makes Us Feel More Connected
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), neuroscientists can see that the same regions of the brain associated with socialization and pleasure light up when someone experiences gratitude. Gratitude can even impact arousal levels. This may explain why gratitude plays such an important role in relationships.
“When we are truly grateful, we tend to look for ways to demonstrate it, along with love or affection,” said Cynthia Catchings, LCSW-S, MSSW, CFPT, a Virginia-based licensed Talkspace therapist. “We also have to remember the law of attraction,” Catchings added. “When we are grateful, we invite the universe to manifest more of what we like, need, or enjoy.”
Try this: Tell someone you love three things you appreciate most about them.
2. Grateful People Are More Generous
Neuroscientists found that grateful people show greater neural sensitivity in the medial prefrontal cortex (the area of the brain associated with learning and decision-making). These findings suggest the more grateful a person feels, the more they will express gratitude.
This may shed light into what psychologist Paul Piff and his colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley, discovered about how the most generous people are not necessarily the wealthiest.
Try this: Research a new charity to support, organization to volunteer at, or offer a smile to a stranger.
3. Gratitude Comes From The Heart
Neuroscientists studied the motivation behind gratitude and found that people who donated to a cause did not do so because they felt they “should.” Rather, research suggests grateful people are motivated to do something nice out of the goodness of their heart. When it comes to teaching children about gratitude, Catchings suggests journaling and drawing as helpful ways to demonstrate gratitude and observe feelings and behaviors.
“We can teach our children to be mindful of their emotions and use positive thoughts that lead them to being grateful,” Catchings said, “When children learn to think while being aware of who or what makes positive aspects in their lives…they learn to appreciate what is given to them and what they have instead of concentrating on what they do not have.”
Try this: Write an old-fashioned thank you note.
4. Gratitude Can Be Learned
Thanks to neuroplasticity (our brain’s ability to constantly create new neural pathways), we have the power to train our brains to seek out moments of gratitude. This is good news for anyone who was worried they would be stuck in a glass-half-empty mentality forever. With conscious practice, you have the ability to rewire your brain. Instead of defaulting to what’s not working, you can focus on what is.
Try this: As soon as you wake up, write down one thing you are excited about for the day.
5. Gratitude Relieves Stress
Cultivating gratitude through practices such as meditation has been shown to reduce heart rate. These findings suggest that paying attention to what you are grateful for can not only help you cope with daily stressors but can also lead to a longer, healthier life.
Many therapists, including Cynthia Catchings, have reported the loving-kindness meditation as particularly effective in evoking feelings of gratitude. As Catchings said, “loving-kindness meditation, also known as metta meditation, teaches us that by practicing it, we first learn to love ourselves unconditionally and then we learn how to extend that unconditional love to everyone around us.”
“People with self-esteem issues or survivors of domestic abuse benefit the most from metta meditation,” she continued, “but at the end, it can help everyone, since we can learn how to more deeply feel true self-compassion.”
Try this: Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and think about the following:
- One thing you appreciate about yourself
- One thing you appreciate about a loved one
- One thing you appreciate about someone you don’t know very well
6. Gratitude Is Not The Magic Bullet
There are times when gratitude may not be appropriate.
“Gratitude might not be appropriate when it is inauthentic,” Catchings said, “When we are dealing with abuse, trauma, or death expressing gratitude can be taken as inadequate or false.”
Personally, when I was going through a traumatic experience, it made me feel worse to hear the advice “you just need to focus on the positive” or “you need to find the lesson in all of this.” I found it comforting to learn that research tells us being a grateful person does not mean you are happy all the time. Rather, grateful people may be more accepting of the entirety of their emotional experience.
Try this: Think about one person (including yourself) who has showed up to support you through a difficult experience and tell them how much it means to you.
At the end of the day, it’s not about how consistently you write in your gratitude journal or how many minutes you meditate on gratitude each morning.
Gratitude is about noticing the little moments. It’s about appreciating the people around you. It’s about remembering the power of two simple words: thank you.