It’s January 2020, the start of a new year. And as you consider New Year’s resolutions, I encourage you to take time to count your blessings. There is increasing research on the health benefits of gratitude, most notably that those who regularly count their blessings tend to be happier and healthier.
Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy, head of the division of biologic psychology at Duke University Medical Center, states in an ABC News article, “If [thankfulness] were a drug, it would be the world’s best-selling product with a health maintenance indication for every major organ system.” Studies have shown improvement in neurotransmitters that eﬀect mood (serotonin and norepinephrine), cognition and reward (dopamine), social bonding hormones (oxytocin), reproductive hormones (testosterone), inflammatory and immune chemicals (cytokines), stress hormones (cortisol), cardiac function, blood pressure, and blood sugar.
Most of us learned at an early age to say “thank you,” but truly living with an attitude of gratitude is often a bit more challenging. Sometimes referred to as negativity bias, our brains are hard-wired for negative thoughts as a way to protect us from outside threats. This survival mechanism alerts us to potential threats. And while this was important to our ancestors’ survival, in today’s culture of information overload, this negativity bias can keep us feeling overwhelmed and always on alert.
Fortunately, we have some control over this. And feeling thankful can be a powerful way to change this negativity bias. The area of our brains that regulates stress and the area that is involved in rewards systems and feelings of pleasure will up-regulate or down-regulate activity based on our focus of attention.
According to neuroscientist Rick Hanson, the brain takes the shape the mind rests upon. In other words, if you focus on worry, sadness, and irritability, your brain will begin to take the shape neurally of anxiety, depression, and anger. And if you focus on giving thanks, your brain will find increasing things to be grateful for and begin to take the shape of gratitude. There are so many positive things that happen every day, but we may not get the neurotransmitter release benefit from them unless we learn to focus on them. Simply put, gratitude fosters positive neurochemical feedback loops.
It stands to reason then that gratitude can help with mood. Studies have also shown improved sleep, better work performance and relationships, improved self-esteem, better self-care (including increased regular exercise), reports of reduced inflammation and pain, improved heart health, improved immune function, and better resiliency.
I often encourage patients to keep a gratitude journal. Each day write down three things that you are thankful for – focusing on little things that happen throughout the day, a comment or a kind gesture. Another idea is to make a list of benefits in your life and reflect on how much genuine appreciation you have for them. Also, consider sending thank you cards or simply be more aware of saying “thank you.”
Cheers to a happy, healthy, and grateful new year!