It’s almost that time of year again where the holiday season comes roaring in full speed ahead.
We spend time with loved ones sitting around the dining room table or wrapped in blankets by the bonfire, sharing meals, memories, and laughs. We cheers to challenges conquered and lessons learned, reflecting on the year and toasting to the one to come.
For these few, short weeks, we turn our frowns upside down and push aside our Negative Nancy alter egos to turn our focus toward gratitude. But should this conscious effort really only take center stage during the holidays? Intentionally focusing on gratitude during all 365 days of the year can go a long way — and you might be surprised to learn what a big impact it can have on your mind and your health too.
Living with negative bias
As humans, we’re innately wired with negative bias. When negative things happen, or we get inconvenienced, it’s so much easier to immediately dwell on the negative than the positive. For example, think back on a plane trip that maybe wasn’t the most ideal trip but one that you distinctly remember. Why does it stick in your memory? Was it sprinting through the airport sweating profusely trying to make a connection, losing your luggage on a trip overseas, or getting your flight canceled and having to spend the night in the airport? The trips and vacations where nothing went wrong are typically the ones we remember the least, because negative bias is always at work, rearing its ugly head.
Where does negative-bias come from? Well, some researchers argue that negative-bias was passed down from our ancestors. Early in human history, paying attention to bad, dangerous and negative worldly threats was quite literally a matter of life and death. However, today, when our most dangerous life events are driving on the highway and eating too many fatty foods, negative bias just makes us unhappy and anxious. But negative bias also makes it clear as to why it takes so much more of an effort to intentionally practice gratitude.
The incredible impact of gratitude on the brain
When we feel gratitude, the ventral and dorsal medial prefrontal cortex of the brain light up. These two areas are involved in feelings of reward, interpersonal bonding, and the ability to understand what other people are thinking or feeling.
Practicing gratitude releases serotonin and dopamine, two “feel good” chemicals that positively impact mood, motivation, and willpower. They also contribute to feelings of closeness, connection and happiness. But a lesser known fact is that gratitude actually can strengthen these neural pathways too. Cool, right? Over time, a conscious effort to practice gratitude can train the brain to focus on what’s going well as opposed to what’s going wrong.
One study done with a group of 79 nurses found that focusing on gratitude consistently led to feeling less exhaustion, fewer sick days, and higher job satisfaction. Other scientific studies have also found that gratitude can decrease anxiety and improve relationships.
How to practice gratitude
This may seem a little counterintuitive, after all, how hard is it to be thankful? Well in order to work on rewiring the brain away from negative-bias, it’s much simpler when you have some tangible practices and structure to fall back on. Here are a few ideas to help you along.
Connect gratitude with a cue
With a gratitude practice, one of the toughest parts to getting started is training the habit. One tip is to connect your practice with something you do every day. For example, when you brush your teeth in the morning or before bed at night, think of three things you’re grateful for. Over time, you’ll associate your gratitude practice with the daily habit, and the two will work together simultaneously.
Keep a gratitude journal
When daily life has us going from point A to Point B to Point FSJRKGRHL all in a mere 24 hours, it can be really tough to remember to press pause and commemorate those moments of “good.” That’s where a gratitude journal comes in handy — a designated place of daily reflection. For a gratitude journal to be effective, you have to carve out some dedicated time to think and write, which is great for offering some structure to the day and making sure your gratitude practice doesn’t fall by the wayside.
Grab your morning cup of joe and a blanket and take a few minutes to reflect on what you’re grateful for in that moment. Write down your thoughts. After a few weeks, see the difference this simple morning ritual can make in your life.
Thank someone new
There’s nothing like putting a smile on someone else’s face — and the world could use a little more kindness. We have countless interactions with friends and strangers during the day, and a small thank you gesture can go a long way. Sure, it’s easy to just say thank you, but it’s more of a challenge to make it really meaningful. For this gratitude practice, give yourself space for creative expression. Maybe it’s writing a thoughtful note of gratitude to someone in your life, or saying thank you with a thoughtful gift or act of service? Whatever you choose, these little acts of gratitude make a big difference.
Spend time out in Mother Nature
Now this one might not scream “gratitude” right away, but hear us out. We live in a tech HEAVY world — phones, computers, tv, social media, you name it. Turning technology off and tuning out the distractions to notice the beauty of nature is good for the soul and can open you up to feelings of gratitude. Take a leisurely stroll, a hike, or even a drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Whatever the setting, nature’s elements give a serene, calming effect and help us to feel connected to something bigger than ourselves.
Give yourself time and space to meditate
Ah, meditation. Just hearing the word makes you feel calmer and more relaxed, doesn’t it? Whether you prefer a morning routine or a nighttime wind down, meditation is a great way to improve feelings of gratitude and well-being.
The best part of a meditation practice is that you can take it anywhere — at home, out in nature, at work during a lunch break, or our favorite, in the sauna. And there are so many great meditation apps that can help guide you through your practice. Here is a roundup of some of our top picks:
- Headspace: This app has a large variety of meditations, with guided sessions for beginners and less structured programming for pros.
- Calm: Calm offers guided and unguided meditations that focus on relaxing. As an added perk, the app lets you personalize your experience.
- Healthy Minds Program: This is a free meditation app, so you don’t have to subscribe. It offers a well-structured, clear sequence of courses. It’s a great option if you’re looking to start a meditation practice.
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