With Thanksgiving around the corner here in the US, it's the perfect time to revisit the importance, effectiveness, hindrances, and practical ways of a establishing a gratitude practice.
(If you'd just like to be guided through an effective practice feel free to jump to the end of the blog for a recorded practice.)
It is easier for us to remember the bad than it is to remember the good. This is called our negativity bias. Because our brain is hardwired for survival, it is constantly scanning for danger and will immediately absorb negative experiences into our implicit memory while positive experiences take anywhere from 15-30 seconds to be absorbed into our implicit memories. If we don't consciously try to recall positive experiences and as neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, Ph. D. would say, "take in the good," we are likely to replay and over ruminate on negative experiences. This gives us a subjective perception that more bad than good tends to happen to us.
Feeling skeptical? Close your eyes and bring to mind as many discomforts or challenges you can recall from this month. For each memory, see how many details you can bring to mind.
Now, see how many good things you can recall from this month. Everything from small moments of peace to big wins. As you do, see how many details you can recall about these experiences.
For most, it is easier to recall the bad and struggle with the details of the good.
Not only is gratitude important for balancing our scales, but the more regularly we practice gratitude, the less threatened we feel when we notice a challenge which helps our nervous system feel more resilient and capable of returning to a feeling of safety and ease, or homeostasis (Tugade & Frederickson, 2004).
Click below to view article on gratitude & resilience
Lastly, there are several documented benefits to a gratitude practice.
Reduced amygdala activity which increases emotional wellbeing (L.I. Hazlet et al., 2021)
Click below to view article on physical & emotional benefits of gratitude
Effectiveness & Hindrances
Before beginning a gratitude practice, it is important to highlight that we should never use gratitude to suppress or resist any uncomfortable emotions. This behavior is known as toxic positivity. We are not meant to be "happy" all the time and attempting to use gratitude as a Band-Aid for our discomforts will generally not produce the outcome we are looking for.
Additionally, trying to "fake it 'til you make it" does NOT always work. Our neural circuits that activate sadness or happiness can not be fooled that easily, but the more one understands the benefits of a practice like gratitude, the more likely it will have an ability to create lasting positive effects. For more on this, you can listen to Neurobiologist and Ophthalmologist, Dr. Huberman's, most recent podcast episode on the science of gratitude at minute 25.
For a gratitude practice to have all of the above mentioned positive effects, it is important to elevate the emotion of gratitude and invite it to become a felt experience instead of simply writing or reciting things we are grateful for. In other words, we want to cultivate an embodied gratitude practice.
Dr. Rick Hanson explains that we can use the two stages of learning to support us in "growing the good."
The two stages:
Activation of a positive memory
Installation - "In order to convert passing experiences into lasting inner strengths, we have to be able to focus attention on an experience long enough for it to start being consolidated into the nervous system." - Rick Hanson, Ph.D.
In order to install an experience Hanson suggests:
Enriching - lengthening the time you hold memories in your awareness, intensifying it and opening to it, and freshen it as if it was happening again right now
Absorbing - intentionally trying to take in the experience, sense it sinking into you, and tune into what is most pleasurable about the memory
A more specific and practical method of creating lasting positive traits is being able to experience gratitude toward ourselves as well as thinking of others that have been through a challenge and were able to overcome that challenge. It can be beneficial to write down a specific scenario of a story that is inspiring to you where someone's suffering was reduced by another.
In Dr. Huberman's podcast mentioned above, that you can also find here, he suggests creating bullet points like the ones below, then review and open up to the story for your practice.
What was the struggle
What was the help
List any cues or details from the story
How did it impact you
Note your state before and after this practice
The above is based on ancient practices of Metta (Loving Kindness), Karuna (Compassion), and Mudita (sympathetic joy), and I wanted to highlight a few things I've found in teaching these practices:
For some of us, we can feel blocked or unable to show gratitude toward ourselves
We can more easily elevate the emotion of gratitude for others' reduction of suffering
At times, it can feel more accessible to recall a memory of a place or activity that allowed us to be completely at ease
Some days are harder than others and we shouldn't expect the same elevated emotion each time we do these practices
How long and how often:
All we need is 1-5 minutes at least 3 times a week. If you can truly elevate the emotion and find something that makes you feel genuinely grateful, a short gratitude practice can support long lasting benefits to our brain and body.
Need extra help with establishing a gratitude practice?
Try the below 5 minute practice to kickstart your transformational gratitude practice and don't hesitate to reach out if you have any questions, highlights, or obstacles with the practice!