After sinking into depression last year, I was so desperate to free myself that I tried anything and everything I could. I'd heard that frequent gratitude can increase happiness, but I didn't really know why — other than the obvious: If you focus on what you are grateful for, you'll likely realize that your troubles aren't as bad as they seem.
But that was good enough for me, so I grabbed onto gratitude like a life raft, and it pulled me out of one of the lowest times in my life. Now, one year later, I teach mindfulness to elementary school children and have written a book called The Joy Plan about my life-changing journey from depression to joy. Having a regular gratitude practice was and continues to be a key component of my "joy plan."
And through my journey, I’ve learned the nitty-gritty, biological reasons that gratitude can make you happy, and maybe (I don’t say this lightly) change your life. Here's how it works:
1. Your brain interprets gratitude as optimism.
Optimism, regular positive thoughts and reactions to life's challenges, is observable in brain scans. Optimistic thoughts calm and soothe the amygdala, the part of the brain that sounds the stress alarm. Optimism also lowers the stress hormone cortisol, releases pleasure-inducing neurotransmitters, and activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for rest and relaxation.
2. Consistently practicing gratitude trains the brain to choose positive thoughts.
Thoughts and words of gratitude are powerful triggers of optimism. When these thoughts are repeated frequently, the brain connects thoughts and words of gratitude with a sense of well-being. Eventually, new neural pathways are formed, which is what happens with any habitual thought pattern (good or bad). This is a way to harness your knowledge to encourage a positive outcome.
3. Consistency is the key to changing your mindset, and your life.
A year ago, my thought patterns often led to worry or fear. Rewiring my brain so the default was positive didn't happen overnight. Just like any new habit, cultivating an attitude of gratitude takes practice. For me, that means being grateful every day in one form or another.
Here are a few helpful hints to get you started:
1. Try a gratitude notebook.I started by designating a gratitude notebook and carrying it around with me all the time. Day after day, I wrote in my notebook whenever I thought of something I was grateful for. The notebook filled up quickly, and I found I was writing about the same topics over and over. As my gratitude practice evolved, I set aside time every morning to write in that notebook, ensuring that my day started with a positive focus that sent warm fuzzies to my brain.
2. It's the thought that counts.If the notebook feels like too much, you can simply spend a few minutes thinking grateful thoughts when you first wake up. Before you even get out of bed, think of all the things you are thankful for in your life — your loved ones, your home, your job, your body, etc. Make a mental list instead of writing it down — your brain won't know the difference, and you'll still experience the positive benefits of gratitude.
3. Spread the love.
Tell others how grateful you are for them, in small ways every day or every week. Each act of gratitude will not only feel good for those on the receiving end, it will flood your brain with good feelings that can have a profound effect on your life.