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What is gratitude (and what is it not): Misconceptions and using the science of your brain to thrive

The “g” word gets thrown around a lot this time of year, but if we’re being honest it can feel like a pretty fluffy word. For some, it can even conjure up mixed and sometimes distressing emotions, especially if we’re dealing with difficult life experiences. So how are we supposed to feel grateful when we’re struggling or things don’t feel so great?

This question brings me to my first point: there’s no right or wrong way to practice gratitude. What I’m grateful for might be totally different from what you are grateful for. It might be something small and seemingly insignificant, like hitting the snooze button or a piece of chocolate, or even something as basic and essential as the gift of our own breath. It could be a fleeting moment, or cuddles from a furry friend.

It could even be an experience from your past which no longer holds true but may have affected your present-day reality in some way. With practice, you may even find gratitude for something difficult you’ve been through which you’ve made it through (Ariana Grande’s song “Thank U, Next” comes to mind).

Gratitude could be something you create – it doesn’t have to be something you wait for to happen to you. Do you love making art or spending time with loved ones? Go do those things. Smile at strangers on the street and hold on to the gratitude from those who smile back. Try not to get caught up in those who don’t return your kindness as you don’t know what may be going on in their heads or in their lives.

A common misconception is that gratitude is a way of pushing away or ignoring “negative” things that are happening in our lives. Which brings me to my next point: gratitude is not a silver lining. We’re not trying to ignore or even invalidate the things that we’re not okay with, we’re just making some space to recognize the positives as well.

Our brains are programmed to focus in on what we perceive as bad or wrong – which is its way of trying to help out. When we can identify what’s wrong, we can fix it. This is an evolutionary benefit (when we experience danger we need to know how to escape it).

It takes effort to shift our focus from what’s wrong to what’s right. In other words, we may need to remind our brains that we’re not in danger when we get stuck behind a slow driver in the passing lane causing us to feel stressed and frustrated (or maybe that’s just me).

So, is it worth it to make this shift? To answer that question, let’s take a look at the science. According to Positive Psychology, practicing gratitude can have similar effects to antidepressant medications.

Numerous studies have shown the benefits of gratitude practices can include a decrease in symptoms of anxiety and depression, improved mood, reduction in stress, and improved sleep. There is even evidence that over time, gratitude practices can change the structure of the brain.

It’s important to reenforce that anyone can practice gratitude, regardless of your life circumstances. Gratitude is not limited to people who have objectively good things going on for them. We can work toward having the most amount of money, the highest level of education, or the most esteemed title at work. Yet, without taking the time to recognize or appreciate what we have, what’s the use of having it?

So how does practicing gratitude work? The word “practice” is key. It’s not about sitting down for dinner once a year and saying what you’re grateful for. You can think of it like an exercise for your brain. Just like physical exercises, we have to keep them up on a regular basis if we want to get stronger. If we get on the treadmill once a year, it’s not going to make a huge difference. Similarly, if we want to see the benefits of gratitude practice, it’s important to create a habit out of it.

There are lots of ways to do this! Journaling is a simple gratitude practice: start or end your day with three (or more) things that you are grateful for. These could be what you appreciate about yourself, others, or anything in your life.

Meditation is another practice that can incorporate gratitude, and integrating mindfulness can have lots of benefits itself. There are plenty of guided meditations available, I would recommend using an app such as Insight Timer for this.

Finally, try expressing your gratitude to people in your life. How good does it feel to hear gratitude from others? When we can share our gratitude for the people we care about, we can expand that grateful energy.

For even more ideas of how to practice gratitude, check out this exhaustive list.

Ram Dass once said, “As you find the light in you, you begin to see the light in everyone else.” When we begin to focus on the gratitude we have for ourselves, we can see beauty in the world around us.

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