How Gratitude Improves Our Well-Being

Happy November, everyone. We make a point during this time of year to outwardly express gratitude for the good things in our lives. Some take to social media or a journal each day to write about something  for which they are thankful, while others specify time for prayer with the theme of gratitude. There seems to be no limit to the quotes, blogs, images, and articles (like this one) available on the topic.

As yogis we often advocate making gratitude a year-round practice. But what is the best way to incorporate gratitude into daily living, and what makes it worth the effort?

Gratitude is all about perception. As an example, think of the classic “glass-half-full or glass-half-empty” conundrum. One aspect of our yoga practice is learning to become observers of our thoughts and feelings so that we may avoid feeling consumed by the deleterious effects of negative thoughts and emotions. By becoming not the subject, but the observer of our inner monologues, we can alter our perception of transient events, and therefore decide whether to let them affect us in negative or positive ways. Gratitude is a strong positive emotion that we can choose to express whether we really feel it or not. But why work so hard to act grateful at times when we don’t feel grateful? What about when we are stuck in a doom-and-gloom mental cycle, and it seems impossible to think of anything good happening now or in the future? 

In that case, we might just have to fake it ‘till we make it.

The thing is, words and thoughts are immensely powerful. Our brains are evolved to keep us alive, so the same nervous system excitement and stress hormones that course through us when we are chased by a tiger or zombie, are also bountiful when we experience stress, fear, or anxiety in response to events in our lives, words or videos we see, or even words that we repeat to ourselves in our own heads. Words like “no,” “poverty,” “illness,” “death,” “ugly,” and others along that same vein, have been shown through fMRI studies to cause the release of those “stress response” substances in our bodies that actually interrupt normal brain function, and impair our ability to communicate and think logically. When negative thoughts become a chronic problem, we see the effects in problems with sleep, appetite changes, and decreased ability to cooperate and empathize with others. 

The good news is that positive words, thoughts, images, and even facial expressions will interrupt our stress response and start to return our sense of happiness and well-being. This is true even if these sentiments aren’t logical or pertinent to how we feel in the moment. However, since positivity is not a threat to our survival, our brains’ response to positive affirmations is much smaller and less powerful. Therefore, positivity must become something we practice with regularity and dedication, because it takes a whole lot of positive to overcome the physical, mental, and emotional effects of a small amount of negativity. But if we take on the challenge, we may begin to make better decisions, speak and listen more accurately, and feel physically healthier.

Positivity is something that we can cultivate with many different practices. For example, you might write positive affirmations on your bathroom mirror, sticky notes at your desk, a reminder on your phone, or play recordings of them in your car. Maybe you choose to practice a mantra meditation where you repeat positive words and ideas to yourself on a daily basis. You could also make yourself conjure up five positive words, thoughts, or faces for each time you express something negative. Perhaps you could come up with something that happens multiple times during your day that triggers you to smile. Whatever works for you, make it something you do often, deliberately, and daily. Only then can it overpower negativity. 

But don’t stop with personal practice. People are much more powerful when we are connected with and supported by each other, and this is where gratitude comes in. Gratitude is an incredibly positive sentiment that offers psycho-emotional benefits to both the giver and the receiver. Each person with whom we interact, be it a partner, friend,  or stranger, presents and opportunity for us to both share and receive a boost on the side of happiness and well-being when gratitude is a component of that interaction. This boost can feel even stronger than the one we get from positive thinking or affirmation alone. Why is this? 

Perhaps we can look to the phenomenon of mirroring. Mirror neurons are brain cells that react the same whether we perform an action ourselves, or merely witness someone else performing that same action. Of course, looking at articles written on this subject, one might find uncertainty and inconsistency about the existence of cells whose sole function is mirroring. But experientially, have you ever seen an injury at a sporting event, or heard a horribly embarrassing story from a friend, and felt your gut wrench and your face contort in pain? Conversely, have you ever shed tears of joy based on an inspiring story of overcoming the odds, or smiled giddily for no reason at a wedding, or leapt to your feet in ecstasy when your favorite team won an important game? These are examples of our brains mirroring, which is how we feel empathy, and it is evidence that our words, actions, and attitudes affect people around us on a visceral, physical level. When we offer gratitude to someone, it elevates both us and that person, and when we accept gratitude, both parties get the same elevation. In addition, when we speak or write about things we are grateful for, others may be cued to think about the good in their own lives, and start to identify with what they appreciate.

If positive thinking can change a person’s brain chemistry, and gratitude boosts that positivity through the power of human connection, and even if it is just for a moment, opportunity exists then for better communication, better decision-making, and a spark of happiness that at any moment could burst into glorious flames. 

So please practice positivity, and practice gratitude in this moment and always. The more people that join in, the more happiness, gratitude, and high-functioning human brains will exist, not only as individuals, but on community and global levels. And that is absolutely worth the effort.