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Thanks for being… thankful!

Thanks for being… thankful!

“The more we express gratitude, the better we feel”: okay, but what does this sentence really mean to us?

What Is “Gratitude”?

The word “gratitude” has a number of different meanings, depending on the context. A practical clinical definition is the following:

Gratitude is the appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful to oneself; it is a general state of thankfulness and/or appreciation.

In other words, gratitude can be for virtually anything we (as subjective entities) realize has (or potentially has) a positive impact on ourselves. Gratitude has effects on our mood and our general well-being; it is a precursor of what is commonly called “happiness.”

3 Steps to Gratitude

Mr. Robert A. Emmons,[1] perhaps the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude, argues that gratitude has 2 main key components, which I am here splitting into 3 steps. The 3 steps are Affirmation, Recognition, and Acknowledgement. We do need to consider that the 3 steps, as identified above, are often not separate in time: they evolve naturally, all together in a synergic approach.

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“First,” Emmons writes, “gratitude is an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts, and benefits we’ve received.”

The above comprises the appreciation of something affecting us positively in many ways.

The second step is called the “recognition” stage. Immediately after (or together with) affirming goodness, we recognize that the sources of the goodness, the causes of our increased sense of inner happiness, are external to us. This coincides with a sense of inner awareness.

The last step is “acknowledgement”: giving credit where credit is due. The source of our well-being and enjoyment is external to us, and so we finally thank this entity.

Effects of Gratitude

Practicing a daily habit of gratitude has enormous advantages and apparently no contraindications at all.

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Numerous studies have demonstrated the powerful impact of practicing gratitude on both body and mind.[2]

It turns out that everyday experiences–and very simple exercises like keeping a gratitude journal–can change the wiring in your brain (neuroplasticity, anyone?) and change your life for the better.

Scientific evidence has proven that kindness changes the brain and impacts the heart and the immune and nervous systems.[3] Gratitude improves sleep quality as well.[4]

Gratitude and Kindness, expression of love and connecting with others: those ingredients are needed by the body to produce more Oxytocin, the “love hormone”. More Oxytocin equals to a general better feeling and wellbeing.[5]

According to Jane McGonigal, a scientific study concluded that “I wish I had let myself be happier” is one of the top 5 regrets of the dying.[6]

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Easy habits to cultivate Gratitude

Practical tip No. 1: Have you said “thanks” today?

Practicing saying “thank you” in a sincere and meaningful way. It’s one of the easiest psychological strategies for enhancing the feeling of gratitude. Looking for a challenge? Smile and thank the most grouchy, surly and unfriendly person you meet during the day. Perhaps you will not receive some kindness back, but remember that gratitude is a gift.

I’ve found tons of useful resources and studies all over the Internet, but if you are looking for a comprehensive starting point, a visit to the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California is a must. The key concepts summarized in this article are covered in depth on their website.

Also, at the Emmons Lab website, you can find lots of resources, including a questionnaire about gratitude.[7]

TIP: if you have just 3 minutes or so to start, take this quiz at the Greater Good website.

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Practical tip No. 2: adding gratitude to your daily journal

Simply writing down 3 sentences before going to bed and adding 3 new ones after waking up will make a substantial change. Looking for a shortcut? Then just think (and say, if not disturbing anyone) the three statements while laying down on your bed, eyes closed, before falling asleep. First, say: “Today I’m grateful for…” Then, wait a few seconds to acknowledge the sense of gratitude. It might feel like a sense of inner lightness gently warming up your chest. Then, move on and say the next one, for a total of 3. A light smile on your face is optional.

Putting feelings into words is believed to produce therapeutic effects in the brain,[8] and writing down stuff helps us become more aware of our thoughts, relieving the brain from its usual chatter. So, limit the use of the shortcut above to 2 or 3 times per week. Use some ink on the other days.

Another good resource is the article on Lifehacker.com about journaling and its effects.

Other Strategies

Everybody can easily incorporate simple and cheap habits to enhance their feelings of gratitude; consequently, we can all take advantage of the benefits associated with the experience of thankfulness. Among other psychological strategies, you can try:

Conclusion

There is nothing to lose and so much to gain by expressing and practicing gratitude. Let’s share our experiences in the comments section below!

Featured photo credit: Manlio Lo Giudice via theholisticexperiment.com

Reference

[1] Emmons Lab Website http://emmons.faculty.ucdavis.edu/
[2] Growing new neurons by weaving gratitude circuitry in your brain https://thegratefullifebook.com/2015/03/24/growing-new-neurons-by-weaving-gratitude-circuitry-in-your-brain/
[3] Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12585811
[4] Effects of Constructive Worry, Imagery Distraction, and Gratitude Interventions on Sleep Quality: A Pilot Trial http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1758-0854.2011.01049.x/abstract
[5] Why Kindness is good for you http://drdavidhamilton.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/Prediction-Aug-10.pdf
[6] TED talk: Jane McGonigal: The game that can give you 10 extra years of life http://bit.ly/1EKyPMQ
[7] The Gratitude Questionnaire-Six Item Form (GQ-6), By Michael E. McCullough, Ph.D., Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., Jo-Ann Tsang, Ph.D. http://www.sas.upenn.edu/psych/seligman/gratitudequestionnaire6.pdf
[8] Putting Feelings Into Words Produces Therapeutic Effects in the Brain; UCLA Neuroimaging Study Supports Ancient Buddhist Teachings http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/Putting-Feelings-Into-Words-Produces-8047

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Last Updated on June 6, 2019

Science Says Silence Is Much More Important To Our Brains Than We Think

Science Says Silence Is Much More Important To Our Brains Than We Think

In 2011, the Finnish Tourist Board ran a campaign that used silence as a marketing ‘product’. They sought to entice people to visit Finland and experience the beauty of this silent land. They released a series of photographs of single figures in the nature and used the slogan “Silence, Please”. A tag line was added by Simon Anholt, an international country branding consultant, “No talking, but action.”

Eva Kiviranta the manager of the social media for VisitFinland.com said: “We decided, instead of saying that it’s really empty and really quiet and nobody is talking about anything here, let’s embrace it and make it a good thing”.

Finland may be on to something very big. You could be seeing the very beginnings of using silence as a selling point as silence may be becoming more and more attractive. As the world around becomes increasingly loud and cluttered you may find yourself seeking out the reprieve that silent places and silence have to offer. This may be a wise move as studies are showing that silence is much more important to your brains than you might think.

Regenerated brain cells may be just a matter of silence.

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     A 2013 study on mice published in the journal Brain, Structure and Function used differed types of noise and silence and monitored the effect the sound and silence had on the brains of the mice.[1] The silence was intended to be the control in the study but what they found was surprising. The scientists discovered that when the mice were exposed to two hours of silence per day they developed new cells in the hippocampus. The hippocampus is a region of the brain associated with memory, emotion and learning.

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    The growth of new cells in the brain does not necessarily translate to tangible health benefits. However, in this instance, researcher Imke Kirste says that the cells appeared to become functioning neurons.

    “We saw that silence is really helping the new generated cells to differentiate into neurons, and integrate into the system.”

    In this sense silence can quite literally grow your brain.

    The brain is actively internalizing and evaluating information during silence

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      A 2001 study defined a “default mode” of brain function that showed that even when the brain was “resting” it was perpetually active internalizing and evaluating information.

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      Follow-up research found that the default mode is also used during the process of self-reflection. In 2013, in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Joseph Moran et al. wrote, the brain’s default mode network “is observed most closely during the psychological task of reflecting on one’s personalities and characteristics (self-reflection), rather than during self-recognition, thinking of the self-concept, or thinking about self-esteem, for example.

      “When the brain rests it is able to integrate internal and external information into “a conscious workspace,” said Moran and colleagues.

      When you are not distracted by noise or goal-orientated tasks, there appears to be a quiet time that allows your conscious workspace to process things. During these periods of silence, your brain has the freedom it needs to discover its place in your internal and external world.

      The default mode helps you think about profound things in an imaginative way.

      As Herman Melville once wrote,[2]

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      “All profound things and emotions of things are preceded and attended by silence.”

      Silence relieves stress and tension.

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        It has been found that noise can have a pronounced physical effect on our brains resulting in elevated levels of stress hormones. The sound waves reach the brain as electrical signals via the ear. The body reacts to these signals even if it is sleeping. It is thought that the amygdalae (located in the temporal lobes of the brain) which is associated with memory formation and emotion is activated and this causes a release of stress hormones. If you live in a consistently noisy environment that you are likely to experience chronically elevated levels of stress hormones.

        A study that was published in 2002 in Psychological Science (Vol. 13, No. 9) examined the effects that the relocation of Munich’s airport had on children’s health and cognition. Gary W. Evans, a professor of human ecology at Cornell University notes that children who are exposed to noise develop a stress response that causes them to ignore the noise. What is of interest is that these children not only ignored harmful stimuli they also ignored stimuli that they should be paying attention to such as speech. 

        “This study is among the strongest, probably the most definitive proof that noise – even at levels that do not produce any hearing damage – causes stress and is harmful to humans,” Evans says.[3]

        Silence seems to have the opposite effect of the brain to noise. While noise may cause stress and tension silence releases tension in the brain and body. A study published in the journal Heart discovered that two minutes of silence can prove to be even more relaxing than listening to “relaxing” music. They based these findings of changes they noticed in blood pressure and blood circulation in the brain.[4]

        Silence replenishes our cognitive resources.

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          The effect that noise pollution can have on cognitive task performance has been extensively studied. It has been found that noise harms task performance at work and school. It can also be the cause of decreased motivation and an increase in error making.  The cognitive functions most strongly affected by noise are reading attention, memory and problem solving.

          Studies have also concluded that children exposed to households or classrooms near airplane flight paths, railways or highways have lower reading scores and are slower in their development of cognitive and language skills.

          But it is not all bad news. It is possible for the brain to restore its finite cognitive resources. According to the attention restoration theory when you are in an environment with lower levels of sensory input the brain can ‘recover’ some of its cognitive abilities. In silence the brain is able to let down its sensory guard and restore some of what has been ‘lost’ through excess noise.[5]

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          Summation

          Traveling to Finland may just well be on your list of things to do. There you may find the silence you need to help your brain. Or, if Finland is a bit out of reach for now, you could simply take a quiet walk in a peaceful place in your neighborhood. This might prove to do you and your brain a world of good.

          Featured photo credit: Angelina Litvin via unsplash.com

          Reference

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