Your Brain on Gratitude

Your Brain on Gratitude

Once a year around this time the topic of gratitude becomes a part of the collective conversation as we gear up for a holiday centered around the ritual of giving thanks (and, admittedly, overfilling our bellies while doing so). While the field of so-called positive psychology may inspire eye-rolls, research within it has shown that making gratitude a daily practice year-round actually has proven identifiable benefits for our health and well-being: there are studies outlining its ability to increase willpower; improve our problem-solving capacity; increase energy levels; lower stress; and better our sleep and immune function.

Which all sounds wonderful, but what exactly does it mean to practice gratitude? “I like to think of it as taking the time to be mindfully aware and reflect upon the things that you are thankful for, which can be mundane or monumental, but the hope is that you can find gratitude in the whole gamut,” says Dr. Deepika Chopra, a professional psychologist whose focus on the mind-body connection and optimism has earned her the title of Optimism Doctor®. “And practicing gratitude can rewire your brain. From a neural standpoint, if you expose the brain to gratitude more, it will become more sensitive to it and better able to pick up on gratitude in the future.” Here, Chopra’s tips for cultivating your own gratitude practice.

Make Your Gratitude Personal

You’ve likely heard about gratitude journaling, but Chopra says that can be simplified to some pre-bedtime list-making. “At the end of the day just free associate and jot down a few things that you’re thankful for,” she adds. The most important thing she’s found when tasking clients with the exercise is that they never put themselves on their gratitude lists. “We’re all much more comfortable with listing external sources of gratitude which is not a bad thing, but there’s evidence to support how powerful self-gratitude can be,” she explains. Chopra insists that one thing on your daily gratitude list should always be about you. We spend a lot of time wanting, and not nearly enough time appreciating what we’ve already achieved. “There’s a lot of evidence to show that you’re much more productive and more likely to realize more goals, if you take time to be thankful for all the hard work you have created and recognize that you currently have something you really wanted.”

Get Granular with Your Gratitude

The more micro your gratitude lists are, the better, says Chopra. That can mean everything from nabbing a subway seat in the morning to remembering to put on your serum or eye cream qualifies for inclusion. “If you’re going to develop a gratitude practice, the more comfortable you can be about expressing gratitude for really small things, the better,” says Chopra. “Otherwise people get burned out because they’ll be writing down the same three to five things they’re grateful for every day.”

Feel All the Feels

Hone in on why you’re feeling gratitude for each item on your list. “Gratitude listing is most effective when you can really focus on the actual feeling, versus the event, person, or thing,” adds Chopra. That means don’t just write that you’re thankful for your daughter, but why you felt so thankful that, say, she made it through breakfast without tossing the majority of it off her highchair.

Start Your Day with Gratitude

Rather than focusing on the things they have to do, Chopra suggests that people start their day by listing the things they’re excited about. “It’s a simple but a super powerful mindset shift and we know that how the perspective that you start your day with will impact the rest of the day,” says Chopra. 

Connect the Physical with the Emotional

Chopra finds that if you ground a gratitude practice in a physical routine, it bears repeating. “Creating positive daily rituals gives our lives meaning, connects daily decisions to our core values, and is really a way to exercise our optimism muscle,” Chopra explains. “So whatever it is that you choose to do to bring more gratitude in your life, ritualize it.” She is her own best example: every day Chopra repeats the same gratitude mantra while washing her face. And she has her mom to thank for it: “My mom would always recite her daily prayers while doing pushups.”