I recently took a workshop on gratitude, happiness, and healing based on The Gratitude Diaries: How a Year Looking on the Bright Side Can Transform Your Life by Janice Kaplan. I was already a believer in the benefits of expressing gratitude but this workshop cemented my beliefs in the value of expressing gratitude.
I learned that we have more control over our happiness and physical well-being than we think. But we’ve developed negative thought patterns to certain responses that become habitual and our brains remember those patterns every time a frustrating situation occurs. The good news is that the brain has plasticity so we can train our brains to use different neural pathways. We can tell our brains “no” or “reset” when old thoughts or impulses come in. Scientists say it’s up to us to choose what we think about — positive or negative by conscious thought.
Author Sharon Salzberg explains that the reason we’ve developed negative thought patterns is because we’re wired with what’s called negativity bias — an evolutionary instinct to look out for threats so that we can escape them unharmed. But we can learn to work with negativity bias. That doesn’t mean we can just flip the gratitude switch on and try to paper over our problems by labeling everything in life “a blessing.”
But each time that dismissive instinct kicks in, we can remind ourselves to reset our thoughts, just like in meditation, and choose instead to gently settle our attention on something positive. We don’t erase the pain — it’s still there but we can broaden our perspective by opening to our pain and also opening to things other than the suffering we feel. By finding just one thing to be grateful for, we can turn our thoughts away from anger, worry, and complaining and as a result, lower our stress levels, our blood pressure and the levels of the stress hormone called cortisol.
People who are regularly grateful, who acknowledge the goodness in their lives, who find joy and laughter, are generally healthier and happier. They have stronger immune systems, they bounce back from physical and emotional illnesses faster, and they enjoy higher levels of the happy hormone dopamine.
Feelings of gratitude lower our stress levels and reduce disease and illness. Grateful feelings improve our heart functions and lower our blood pressure. Thinking about someone you love or appreciate lowers your heart rate.
So the next time you feel stressed, think of the last time you were with your grandchildren and the joy you felt being with them. By acknowledging that gratitude for them we can turn our thoughts away from anger, worry, and complaining and train our brains to use the synapses of gratitude.
Do you have a certain way you express your gratitude? Writing in a gratitude journal before going to bed can lower blood pressure and improve sleep patterns. One of the ways I express my gratitude is to review my day just before I fall asleep and think of everything that happened during the day and how grateful I am for each one of those experiences. It’s a beautiful way to fall asleep.