Change Your Brain With Gratitude
As humans, there’s a lot we want from life. More money, a beautiful home, a better lifestyle, a promotion at work… But it all comes down to one thing: we want to be happy. Our pursuit of happiness is caught between two pillars of modern life: our desire to buy happiness, and our desire to fight against depression, stress and anxiety. The latest scientific studies are showing that there is a promising, effective new way to reach our happiness goals: engaging in activities, thoughts and behaviours that develop our feelings of gratitude.
Feeling Grateful Has a Physical Effect on the Structure of Your Brain
So, what are the facts? Research coming out of UCLA’s Mindfulness Awareness Research Centre is showing some exciting results that give us insight into how to achieve a happier life, and the answer is that it’s an internal journey rather than an external pursuit.
“Having an attitude of gratitude changes the molecular structure of the brain, keeps grey matter functioning and makes us healthier and happier”.
Not only are feelings of gratitude an emotional response, they’re a physical response too. One that trains your brain into transforming its physical structure as well as boosting mental and physical health. When you feel gratitude, research shows that “The central nervous system is affected. You are more peaceful, less reactive and less resistant”.
What Does this Mean for Mental Health Treatment and Self-Care?
Currently, there is a strong focus in the mental healthcare industry on traditional Western medicine. Specifically, treating mental health conditions with drugs, non-surgical treatments like electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and psychological counselling. These treatments, other than the counselling, carry certain risks for patients. They can cause negative side effects ranging from drowsiness to nausea, to anxiety and suicidal thoughts. These are serious side effects, and patients can find themselves on multiple, costly prescriptions for the rest of their lives.
The issue of mental illness itself is serious and expensive one, costing the United Kingdom almost £35bn a year in treatment, lost productivity and social support. A study by Oxford Economics showed that around 181,600 people are prevented from working due to their mental health issues, and that mental health problems were the third most common reason for taking sick leave.
There is good reason to re-evaluate how we treat mental health and address the underlying factors of our hyper-materialistic society. This research may be key to addressing both these issues. Enhancing the way we care for patients with mental health issues, how we can work to protect ourselves more effectively from these conditions, and how we can achieve that all-important goal of happiness without making it all about money.
The great news is that this study isn’t the only one providing strong scientific support for the benefits of happiness. In the last decade, many studies from renowned universities and research centres around the world have demonstrated that practicing gratitude strengthens bonding and relationships, boosts physical wellness, strengthens psychological health, helps you sleep better, improves self-esteem and overall makes you more likely to feel happy and satisfied with your life and less likely to struggle with depression, stress and anxiety.
How to Practice Gratitude
Your brain has evolved and adapted over your lifetime to react certain ways and develop certain behaviours, so getting the full benefits of gratitude and rewiring your brain to be happier takes effort and patience – it’s all about retraining your brain and making those physical changes permanent.
Practicing gratitude is like practicing mindfulness and can take many forms, so you can explore different options to discover which ones you can include in your daily life. This may be:
Writing letters of thanks to the loved ones in your life
Taking the time each night to think of ten things you’re grateful for that occurred that day
Practicing the cookie test by resisting impulse buys and rewarding yourself with something more special in the long term
Keeping a journal and reflecting on each day
Volunteering at a charitable organisation that resonates with you. Or volunteer somewhere that can benefit from your specific skills
Expressing thanks to others when they’ve done a good job, at home or in the workplace