Thanksgiving is a weird fabricated holiday that has its origins in genocide. However, giving thanks – or said another way – expressing gratitude, is wildly beneficial for the brain. There have been a variety of studies exhibiting this, including on participants seeking mental health treatment.
In one study, the group that wrote a letter of gratitude to someone each week for three weeks had significant better mental health at four and twelve weeks compared to the control group and a group who wrote about their deepest thoughts and feelings about negative experiences. In other words, doing just several sessions of gratitude had a persistent emotional improvement for months after doing it.
Gratitude inherently has more positive words and feelings associated with it. Specifically, the association with using fewer negative words seemed to contribute to the results above. As someone who can spiral with negativity very easily (pain, loss, sadness, anxiety, etc.), this is very interesting.
Oh, and the participants still felt the benefits of gratitude when they didn’t even send the letter they wrote to the intended recipient. However, my personal experience with expressing gratitude to someone I care about is scary, yet it is the very definition of ordinary courage that Brene Brown talks about in “The Gifts of Imperfection”. Doing so strengthens the connection and bond with that person.
Expressing gratitude promotes more positive thinking and less negative thinking. It’s difficult to do in the throes of suffering, which is why I recommend dedicating time to express gratitude. Today is a perfect opportunity to start, but it shouldn’t happen once a year. Regularly contemplate what you’re grateful for and explore why. I find journaling to be a great time to do this because it allows a better organization of thoughts and is a deliberate practice. Set time aside for gratitude as it will have monumental effects.
While there are immediate effects of doing this – such as improving acute emotions – the full benefit takes time to develop. Behavioral and thought habits rarely change instantaneously; to make something a habit you have to make it a habit. Also, brain adaptations don’t spontaneously occur. You must expose your physiology to the new stimulus and function for it to adapt. There are literal structural neural adaptations occurring in the brain resulting from expressing gratitude.
fMRI supports this. Gratitude activates regions of the brain associated with learning, rational thinking, and decision making. There are regions of the brain that interact with each other for given tasks. Negative emotions yield a particular circuitry connection while positive emotions like gratitude and compassion result in a different kind of network connection. Coupled with a difference in neurotransmitters (brain chemicals), there are no-shit changes to how the brain functions as well adaptations that result from this improved networking. This isn’t just a matter of feelings; you can literally change and improve the form and function of the brain. All from simple tasks like gratitude journaling.
If we can do things in our day that improve our brain physiology resulting in hundreds of improvements to include disease prevention, then why wouldn’t we regularly do those tasks in the same way we exercise for our hearts, blood vessels, and muscles?
Pretty fucking good question, huh?