The Neuroscience of Gratitude

What Neuroscience Studies

Say About Gratitude

There are days that should be like any other day, except they aren’t. As I write this, we’ve recently faced three deadly mass shootings in California, Texas, and Las Vegas and a deadly terrorist attack in New York City. And these occurred on top of three back-to-back hurricanes—Harvey, Irma, and Maria—that have wreaked havoc on people’s lives and destroyed billions of dollars’ worth of property.

The ripple effect that these events have on organizations, their people, and their performance can be intense. As I listened to these stories unfold, I was filled with sadness and dread. I kept asking myself, “How could so many bad things happen in such a short span of time?”

But then I stumbled across a social media post from The Ellen Show the day after the Las Vegas shooting. She told her viewers, “I don’t know about you, but I feel sad, I feel anxious, I feel helpless…It’s very easy to lose hope, but we cannot do that. I always say that there’s a lot more good in the world than there is bad, and I continue to believe that. And that is what we have to focus on.” Ellen then showcased inspirational people who have graced her show over the years. Stories of people such as Alex Knoll, a young kid creating an app to help people with disabilities navigate public spaces. Or Renita Smith, whose school bus exploded in flames, but she made sure to save all her “babies” still on board before herself.

Ellen’s message resonated with me. It reminded me of the importance of being grateful for all the good we have in the world. As I thought about it some more, I realized that Ellen was on to something life-changing.

The neuroscience of gratitude.

Shifting our mindset to focus on the good acts as a natural antidepressant. Neuroscience research has found a link between positive thoughts and the activation of certain neurotransmitters (chemicals released from our nerve cells that inform other parts of our body). Without getting too technical, this basically means that focusing our attention on things we are grateful for forces a shift to the positive. This simple act stimulates more neurotransmitters in our brains, specifically dopamine and serotonin, which promote feelings of contentment. This is why dopamine and serotonin are often referred to as “happy chemicals.”

When we focus our thoughts on good, we feel good, which then informs our actions. Feeling good is what enables us to engage in activities that fuel us. It helps shape our essence, how we perceive the world around us, and our ability to analyze and reflect.

the neuroscience of gratitude

You know those people who, no matter what, always see the glass as half empty? Well, they’ve trained their brains to revert to negativity. The field of neuroplasticity tells us that our brains continue to evolve as we respond to different situations, which gives us the ability to create new patterns of thinking based on the situation. This means we can reshape our thoughts by being intentional and using repetition, giving our brains a new pattern to follow.

We have the power to change our mindset by focusing on gratitude. Here are three simple ways you can start developing a gratitude mindset today.

Say “please” and “thank you.”

What’s the magic word? If you’re like me, you’ve used this a few times with your children. Saying “please” and “thank you” are the foundation of good manners. But many times, we forget the power they possess, especially in a corporate setting.

At our core, what binds us together is a desire to feel valued and appreciated. We all want to feel appreciated. And showing appreciation for others is the place to start. It projects an attitude of gratitude. It tells others that we appreciate and value their actions. Not only have you made them feel good, but you’ve reinforced their behavior.

Saying “please” is about asking permission. Saying “thank you” conveys our gratitude. If your team isn’t doing this on a regular basis, begin to slowly introduce them. Find ways to show appreciation that is meaningful to each individual. See what happens.

Use self-talk to redirect your thoughts.

To successfully create an attitude of gratitude, we must learn how to redirect negative thoughts. For me, sometimes those negative thoughts seem to take over, usually as self-criticism for something I did (or didn’t do). I have grown to accept that these feelings are natural and provide space to appreciate the good even more.

Now when I hear negative thoughts in my head, I use self-talk to point myself in a different direction. It’s my choice how to handle these thoughts. I can either allow these thoughts to perpetuate or I can talk myself into a different direction.

Self-talk might look different from one person to the next. For me, I literally tell myself to stop going down the rabbit hole. I then conjure up the many things I’m grateful for, such as my loving family, my amazing children I’ve raised with my husband, and the incredible community of people I get to collaborate with daily. Try it—you may like it!

Keep a gratitude journal.

Developing a journaling practice is a simple way to shift to a gratitude mindset. It does not have to be time consuming. Devote a few minutes each day at the same time to write down two or three things you are thankful for. Implementing a cadence around focusing on gratitude is what helps us create that pattern in our brains that we want—seeing the glass half full instead of half empty.

A gratitude journal also promotes mindfulness. In a time when we’re constantly racing to the next thing on our to-do list, it can be challenging to stay present. Mindfulness is the practice of focusing our attention on the present moment, which has also been linked to neuroplasticity. There are many ways to intentionally focus on being mindful, but starting with a gratitude journal is an easy way to begin. Just the act of devoting a few minutes a day to writing down what we are thankful for means that we are being mindful. Remember, you don’t have to keep this practice to yourself. Teams can benefit by celebrating individual moments of gratitude before meetings or on your internal social platform.

The life-changing importance of gratitude.

The current events of our world often invoke sad, even despairing, thoughts. My hope is that we can begin shaping our thoughts to focus on gratitude to help promote more happiness in our communities. By developing a gratitude mindset that focuses on the good, we will have more energy to do good things—at work and beyond.

Would you like to connect with Elise? Give us a call at (859) 415-1000 or drop us a line in the form at the bottom of this page, and we’ll put you in touch with her.

Keep reading