February 14, 2020
by Tina Arnoldi
“Keep a gratitude journal.” A common statement made to people who are depressed or experiencing other negative emotions and research says gratitude can increase happiness.And it makes us more altruistic because it biases the brain’s reward system towards rewards for others. With this research in mind, I invited experts to offer their insights on these studies and the benefits they’ve observed from practicing gratitude.
What we think about most matters because thought patterns influence how we feel. Carla Marie Manly, a psychologist, says “if we think about positive things, we will generally be more positive. If we focus on gratitude and being appreciative, we will be more upbeat and grateful. Conversely, if we focus on negativity or what we don't have, the mind will become more focused on the negative. This phenomenon is the result of the strengthening of neural pathways; the more we engage in any recurring thought or behavior, the stronger that neural pathway will become.” Author Bracha Goetz adds that “exercising gratitude helps us to engage our prefrontal cortex to focus on the many positive things in our lives, and it actually creates new neural gratitude pathways so that it becomes easier to exercise gratitude the more it is practiced. “
But can we fake it ‘til we make it? If we practice positive thinking, will it impact how we feel long term? Dr. Patrick Quillin PhD, RD,CNS believes changes in our neural pathways have a long lasting impact on our overall attitude. Quillin noted “When you begin to count your blessings, when you see the miracles around you, when you develop a sense of thanksgiving for everything you get, have, do…then you are in a state of bliss which is what you want to optimize mental and physical health. Psychologists recognize gratitude as a therapeutic intervention for mental health recovery.” Manly agrees that attitudes have a long term impact on how we feel, noting that her clients who “focus on appreciation and gratitude tend to feel more joyful and positive overall.”
Author and counselor Mary Potter Kenyon tells a personal story about how gratitude had a positive effect on her, sharing the experience of her husband David’s cancer in 2006, and after his death in 2012.
“Gratitude isn’t just for the good times,” says Kenyon. “It can help us through the bad ones. The word derives from the Latin *gratia*, meaning grace or graciousness. Through grace, I can look back at a husband’s bout with cancer and be grateful for a renewed marriage relationship that lasted another five and a half years. Grace can mean falling to your knees at the side of the bed after experiencing the death of a loved one, to thank God for bringing them into your life in the first place; the father who died when I was pregnant with my third child, the mother I had for an additional twenty-five years, the husband who unexpectedly died the day before his sixty-first birthday, and the eight-year-old grandson who died the next year. It means filling three journal pages with thankfulness forty-eight hours after the death of my husband, something I instinctively did, looking for things to be thankful for."
While other interventions, such as listening to music, may help short term, there are more health benefits with a gratitude practice because of its intentionally. When people are in a state of depression or focusing on negative emotions, Author Lisa Swift-Young, says there “needs to be a catalyst for reframing those thoughts. The best way is developing a gratitude practice daily. Developing this habit could be a preventative intervention like working out or eating properly to strengthen the immune system against physical illness. Daily gratitude practice trains one's mental health to fend off negative emotions and improve recovery to a more positive state.”
Manly also encourages a gratitude practice, such as a gratitude journal. She believes “a place in which one can consciously focus on blessings and appreciation is positive because it allows the mind and eye to focus on writing and seeing a list of positive elements.” But not everyone likes to write in the journal. It can feel overwhelming for people in the depths of depression so Manly also suggest a gratitude jar. “I ask clients to find a clear glass or jar and slowly fill it up with little statements of gratitude,” said Manly. “And, if the client feels low or rundown, a quick reading of one the gratitude phrases is a reminder of staying grateful and appreciative. Another simple tip is to train the mind to say five gratitude statements upon waking and another five as one's head hits the pillow. These simple rituals can train the brain into being focused on the joys of life and overall positivity.” And in Kenyon’s experience, “Not only does gratitude enhance your life; It enhances *you*. Grateful people are more apt to live a life of reaching out to others.”