Every year around this time, we begin spending a bit more time counting our blessings.
The holiday season reminds us that we have much more to be thankful for than we often realize.
But extending gratitude for the blessings in our lives doesn’t have to be a seasonal practice. In fact, the act of practicing gratitude has been scientifically proven to ‘rewire’ your brain to be happier, along with a number of other health benefits.
Often referred to as the “key to psychological well-being,” there may be more reasons to count your blessings than simply holiday tradition.
Often compared to mindfulness practice, expressing gratitude is in essence also a practice of becoming more present and conscious. However, instead of focusing your attention on the present moment (like in mindfulness), a gratitude practice requires you to focus on your blessings instead.
Any good gratitude practice encompasses a deep feeling of being thankful and ready to show appreciation for anything that shows up in your life. It is based on a foundation of increased consciousness and is meant to train your mind to focus on the many positive aspects in your life.
Clinical researchers are now finding that gratitude has the potential to cause biological changes in your brain that make you happier.
UCLA’s Mindfulness Awareness Research Center has recently shown that the act of gratitude can actually change the molecular structure of your brain and keep gray matter functioning properly (the vital brain tissue linked to memory & knowledge).
Beginning in 2008, studies using fMRI scans began to take a closer look at the impact of gratitude on brain health. The results found that similarly to any antidepressant, participants feeling grateful experienced heightened serotonin levels and activation in parts of the brain tied to dopamine production.
These two neurotransmitters are largely responsible for our mood, motivation, overall feelings of well-being, and play an essential role in anxiety and depression.
In short, counting your blessings consistently signals your brain to release more ‘feel good’ hormones that leave you feeling happier.
Many studies have found that a gratitude practice can actually boost your immune system, improve cardiovascular health, lead to better quality sleep, and decrease aches and pains.
According to the National Institute of Health, practicing gratitude can also improve physical health by increasing activity in the brain’s hippocampus. This area of the brain plays an essential role in managing stress and metabolism, as well as vital body functions such as sleep patterns and appetite regulation.
In one study, participants were split into three groups and asked to journal either neutral life events, blessings, or burdens. At the conclusion of the study, the ‘gratitude group’ reported much higher levels of well-being when compared to the other two study groups.
The happiness-boosting effects of gratitude also have a ‘trickle-down’ effect that eventually saturates many other areas of your life. People who consistently practice gratitude tend to not only be happier and healthier, but also tend to have better relationships, stronger social ties, and increased productivity.
Although more research is needed in the realm of gratitude studies, it seems pretty clear that taking a few moments to count your blessings each day is a practice that can only benefit you in the long run.
What are some ways that you give thanks? Share away in the comments below.
“It’s about you. It’s about your health. It’s about reconnecting.”