Practicing Gratitude

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Gratitude is a buzzword we hear a lot these days. But what exactly is it, how can it help YOU, and how do you start a practice? We need to understand what practicing gratitude really means and how we can use it to brighten our lives.

Let's get this out of the way first. Here are three misconceptions about gratitude...

• For a lot of us, being grateful seems obvious. We think "yes, I'm grateful, too" as we rush off to the next thing. But being grateful doesn't happen just because you briefly pause to give thanks for your food at the dinner table or you use #grateful on your Instagram posts. It isn't always natural, and doesn't happen unless you make the effort to do it. Just like with yoga, sports, or anything else worth doing in life, there is a reason it's called a practice. Practicing gratitude is a habit that constantly evolves, and it's not necessarily easy. It takes awareness, effort, an open mind, and the willingness to see past your present circumstances into things that matter more. It's learning to appreciate the small things and see beauty in the mundane. It's a daily discipline. It's a lifestyle.

• Then, for a lot of us being thankful seems foreign. We see the difficulties in our lives and the world around us and think practicing gratitude is pointless. We let our challenges, heartbreaks, or less-than-ideal circumstances take over our mindset. This way of thinking is dangerous to overall happiness, health, and well-being. We all matter. You matter. Your happiness, joy and contributions to the world ripple out, so make sure they are good contributions. If you're not able to find joy and happiness, you're holding out on the rest of us. We need you to snap out of it and be happy for your own sake, and for the rest of us-- how only you can touch the world. Gratitude can help turn your thoughts to good things and away from frustrations and bad things. It can help you see things more clearly, straighten out your priorities, and lift your spirits. 

• Lastly, for some, gratitude seems silly. Some will roll their eyes at it like it's a new-agey way to think positively. This couldn't be farther from the truth. Gratitude is not thinking your way into or out of a situation, or hoping that positive thoughts will solve your life problems. Instead, it changes your thoughts, priorities, and perspectives. It may not change your circumstances, but it will change YOU.

Summary: Gratitude is not casual; it's focused effort. Gratitude is not pointless; it's essential. Gratitude is not silly; it's quite real... 

Let me explain.

Gratitude is one of many ways of re-wiring your brain to have healthier neural pathways and alter your brain for the better. And it's free! The scientific term for this process of altering the brain is neuroplasticity. For thousands of years major religions, philosophers, writers and normal people alike have all encouraged practicing gratitude for overall happiness and health. However, in the past couple of decades, there have been many scientific studies that back this up. How exciting!

Let's start with understanding neuroplasticity. According to this article by Lawrence Choy, M.D., neuroplasticity "refers to our brain's intrinsic and dynamic ability to continuously alter its structure and function throughout our lifetime." Meaning: You can change your brain for the better. How empowering is that?!

Next, let's link up how gratitude can be used as a tool for neuroplasticity. Here's one from Mindful magazine describing a study performed by the author that observed how the specific practice of gratitude affects activity in the brain. The emotion of gratitude uses parts of the brain in the pre-frontal cortex. This "area of the brain is associated with understanding other people’s perspectives, empathy, and feelings of relief. This is also an area of the brain that is massively connected to the systems in the body and brain that regulate emotion and support the process of stress relief." Hmmm. Sounds important.

This article from The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley even describes how participants in their study who started gratitude habits just 3 months prior have more activity in their pre-frontal cortex when their brains are scanned compared to those who do not.

My summary, in everyday words: Studies show that you can use gratitude as a tool to utilize parts of the brain that encourage good emotions and lower stress... and if you do it enough, you'll have created stronger neural connections and pathways to literally alter your brain and improve your overall well-being. 

Or you could just listen to your grandmother and count your blessings. You've probably heard it your whole life.

Here we are in November, approaching Thanksgiving. There are reminders everywhere to give thanks. What a fantastic time to start practicing! Why not? Here's an idea: For the next 10 days, try and come up with 5-10 new thoughts of gratitude everyday. If you need to, write it on your calendar or set an alarm on your phone so you don't miss a day.

Want a little guidance? Here are some ways you can start a practice:
• Count your blessings. The big things (loved ones, good health, a house), the little things (seeing a butterfly, a good dentist appointment, a sale at the grocery store), the everyday things (the sunset, seeing other people laugh, getting a text from a friend, a good meal, a car that cranked up), and the things we take for granted that people in many parts of the world don't have (clean water to drink, school to go to, the right to vote).
• Got a bad mental habit you want to break? A negative thought pattern? Break the negative neural pathways and create a positive one instead. Every time you catch yourself thinking the negative thought, replace it with 3 grateful thoughts. It may take days, months, or years, but keep practicing.
• Learn to re-think some things that are uncomfortable for you. Examples:
Don't like the time change for the winter? Instead: It's more time to read a book at night.
Overwhelmed by housework? Instead: You have a house to clean. 
Mountains of laundry that never ends? Instead: You have clothes. Or, maybe you're fortunate enough to have a roommate/spouse/kids to wear and dirty up more clothes.
{ And if you're already arguing with those examples, you're completely missing the point. 🙂 }
• When you can't possibly think of a good side of your circumstance or heartbreak (it happens), giving thanks looks different. Sometimes it's just acknowledging that there's a beautiful higher power at work in your life and the world, and letting go to trust it. 

Love & Light.

If you're interested in learning more about neuroplasticity, do a google search and go down the rabbit hole for a little while reading credible articles and studies. It's fascinating!

Lastly, I read a book 5-6 years ago that changed my brain. 🙂 I highly recommend Growing the Positive Mind with the Emotional Gym by Dr. William Kent Larkin. It's right along with all of this, and even has a lot of guidance and homework activities for you to help you along.

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