The Science Behind living, A life of Gratitude.

Gratitude is one of the most nurturing of human emotions. By sharing moments of appreciation to ourselves and to others we truly benefit from gratitude. Gratitude is derived from the Latin word ‘gratia’,  which means gratefulness or thankfulness. In its simplest form, gratitude refers to a state of thankfulness’ or a ‘state of being grateful’.

In motivational psychology, gratitude is the human way of acknowledging the good things in life. Scientists have defined gratitude as a positive emotional response that we perceive in giving or receiving. Some say that gratitude is associated with a “benefit” that was not intentionally sought after. Others say that gratitude is a response to feeling deserved. Many would define gratitude as both as well as a feeling earned because of the good intentions of another person.

Thanking yourself, thanking God, thanking nature, thanking your friends, and even strangers…. Gratitude in any form stimulates our minds and makes us feel happier. Gratitude truly has a healing effect on us. The benefits of gratitude are still not completely known but we do know many of the ways in which gratitude affects us, and it is significantly.

Gratitude in all forms is associated with happiness. Whether we say “thank you’” like someone’s blog post, listen to someone’s podcast, or just tune into a connection with appreciation, gratitude just does it for our “souls”. Yes, our souls. Gratitude inspires a feeling of pure satisfaction and encouragement. Expressions of gratitude help in building and sustaining long term relationships, deal with adversities and bounce back from them with strength and determination.

Studies have proven that gratitude improves interpersonal relationships at home and at work. The connection between gratitude and happiness is uncanny. Expressing gratitude not only to others but also to ourselves, induces positive emotions, primarily happiness. By producing feelings of pleasure and contentment, gratitude impacts our health much more than we have known in the past. 

In a survey on the gratitude of previous model citizens, 75 out of 100 people selected happiness over health, although they indicated that both were equally important for a grateful life. Recent scientific studies have suggested that the roots of many psychopathological conditions like depression, anxiety, and stress are unhappiness. Simple practices like making positive comments on your friend’s social media posts and reading their long posts, sending emails and texts, and even keeping a gratitude journal all contribute to a grateful life. Families and romantic couples who express their thankfulness to each other often have long-lasting happy relationships.

Gratitude impacts our entire mental and physical well-being. Positive psychology and mental health researchers in the past few decades have established an overwhelming connection between gratitude and good health. Gratitude is positively correlated to more vitality, energy, and even your enthusiasm to work harder. Grateful workers are more efficient, more productive, and more responsible. Expressing gratitude in the workplace is a proactive action toward building interpersonal bonds and functional professional relationships.

Employees who practice expressing gratitude at work are more likely to volunteer for more assignments, willing to take an extra step to accomplish their tasks, and happily work as a part of the team. Also, managers and supervisors who feel grateful and remember to convey the same, have a stronger group cohesiveness and better productivity. They recognize good work, gives everyone their due importance in the group, and actively communicates with the team members. Gratitude makes a leader compassionate, considerate, empathetic, and loved among others.

Neural mechanisms that are responsible for feelings of gratitude have demonstrated that at the brain level, moral judgments involving feelings of gratefulness are evoked in the right anterior temporal cortex. In the same study, it was revealed that the reason why some of us are naturally more grateful than others, is the neurochemical differences in the Central Nervous System. People who express and feel gratitude have a higher volume of grey matter in the right inferior temporal gyrus.(I know that mine must be huge@!)

I think most people who suffer from depression feel that gratitude as a ‘natural antidepressant’. The effects of gratitude, when practiced daily can be almost the same as medications. It produces a feeling of long-lasting happiness and contentment, the physiological basis of which lies at the neurotransmitter level. When we express gratitude and receive the same, our brain releases dopamine and serotonin, the two crucial neurotransmitters responsible for our emotions, and they make us feel content. They enhance our mood immediately, making us feel happy from the inside.

By consciously practicing gratitude every day, we can help these neural pathways to strengthen themselves and ultimately create a permanent grateful and positive nature within ourselves. Gratitude has a social aspect to it that argues it to be a socially driven emotion. Social psychologists believe it to be entwined with the perception of what we have done for others and what others have done for us. According to many, gratitude is an emotion that directly targets building and sustaining social bondings and reinforce prosocial responses in the future.

“It is not happiness that brings us gratitude. It is gratitude that brings us happiness.”

Gratitude may be a gesture or a group of kind words that we give or receive from others. But these simple exchanges of thankfulness goes a long way in affecting our overall biological functioning – especially the brain and the nervous system. The effect of gratitude on the brain is long-lasting. Besides enhancing self-love and empathy, gratitude significantly impacts body functions and psychological conditions like stress, anxiety, and depression. The limbic system is the part of the brain that is responsible for all emotional experiences. It consists of the thalamus, hypothalamus, amygdala, hippocampus, and cingulate gyrus. Studies have shown that the hippocampus and amygdala, the two main sites regulating emotions, memory, and bodily functioning, get activated with feelings of gratitude.

Consistent evidence has established that what we call ‘emotions’ or ‘feelings’ are neural activations in the neocortical regions of the brain. A study conducted on individuals seeking mental health guidance revealed that participants of the group who wrote letters of gratitude besides their regular counseling sessions felt better and recovered sooner. The other group in the study that was asked to journal their negative experiences instead of writing gratitude letters reported feelings of anxiety and depression.

A study conducted on evaluating the effect of gratitude on physical well-being indicated that 16% of the patients who kept a gratitude journal reported reduced pain symptoms and were more willing to work out and cooperate with the treatment procedure. A deeper dig into the cause unleashed that by regulating the level of dopamine, gratitude fills us with more vitality, thereby reducing subjective feelings of pain. Studies have also shown that receiving and displaying simple acts of kindness activates the hypothalamus, and thereby regulates all bodily mechanisms controlled by the hypothalamus, out of which sleep is a vital one.

Hypothalamic regulation triggered by gratitude helps us get deeper and healthier sleep naturally every day. A brain filled with gratitude and kindness is more likely to sleep better and wake up feeling refreshed and energetic every morning

In another study on gratitude and appreciation, scientists found that participants who felt grateful showed a marked reduction in the level of cortisol, the stress hormone. They had better cardiac functioning and were more resilient to emotional setbacks and negative experiences. Significant studies over the years have established the fact that by practicing gratitude we can handle stress better than others. By merely acknowledging and appreciating the little things in life, we can rewire the brain to deal with the present circumstances with more awareness and broader perception.

By reducing the stress hormones and managing the autonomic nervous system functions, gratitude significantly reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety. At the neurochemical level, feelings of gratitude are associated with an increase in the neural modulation of the prefrontal cortex, the brain site responsible for managing negative emotions like guilt, shame, and violence. As a result, people who keep a gratitude journal or use verbal expressions for the same, are more empathetic and positive minded by nature.

Gratitude even changes the neural structures in the brain and makes us feel happier and more content. Feeling grateful and appreciating others when they do something good for us triggers the ‘good’ hormones and regulates the effective functioning of the immune system. Scientists have suggested that by activating the reward center of the brain, gratitude exchange alters the way we see the world and ourselves.

Gratitude forces us to focus on the positive sides of life. When we give and receive ‘thank you’ notes, our brain is automatically redirected to pay attention to what we have, producing intrinsic motivation and a strong awareness of the present. Also, at the neurochemical level, gratitude acts as a catalyst for neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine – the ones that manage our emotions, anxiety, and immediate stress responses.

Grateful people can derive more happiness and pleasure in daily life. We won’t get the desired result unless we nourish and nurture the seeds properly. The effects of practicing gratitude are not immediate, and they don’t appear magically. But once started, gratitude continues to impact our physical and psychological well-being for our entire lives.

We know how to experience and express gratitude. All we need sometimes is a little push or a reminder of how powerful and vital gratitude exercises are. A study on gratitude and its connection to happiness revealed that voluntary expressions of joy – like a smile or a few kind words, influence the brain to respond and reflect positive emotions.

Empowering yourself simply means appreciating yourself. Try what actors do, stand in front of your mirror, and speak out five good things to yourself. It can be about your past achievements or your present efforts, your talents, and your virtues. Just say the words aloud. Compliment yourself with words like beautiful, loyal, disciplined, kind, loving, etc., and notice if that makes you feel better. Repeat this as often as you want and even record the entire experience on your smartphone. Look at how your mood and face changes as you compliment yourself. 

I keep memoirs expressing gratitude and documenting my own life. I even published novels on love and gratitude. You do not have to be as ambitious as I am, just keep a simple gratitude journal in your personal space. Write down or type a few things about your life that you are thankful for. Your gratitude journal can in your calendar, your email, social media posts, personal diary, or planner. As you sit to express gratitude, you will consciously choose to focus on the good memories and might even recollect some long lost happy moments.

There is power in words, so don’t overlook the small things, no matter how unimportant they may seem.

We all have someone, whose unconditional support and help mean a lot to us. We feel as if we ‘owe’ our happiness and success to them. If you have such a person, he/she might be your friend, family, or a professional associate, meet them once or twice a month.

Initiate the plan, go, and express your thankfulness one more time – let the person feel important. Exchange some good memories and offer your support. In most cases, gratitude visits bring a feeling of sanctity and positivity instantly. Show your friends and business associates gratitude often and make it a point to do so one on one. 

When you feel happy, own it. Remind yourself that you have worked hard to achieve happiness and you truly deserve it. Be it a huge achievement or a small success, acknowledge your joy, and be thankful for each moment. Accepting happiness makes us stronger and more grateful for what we have. We learn to praise our efforts and prepare ourselves better for facing challenges like worldwide covid plagues in the future.

Find a gratitude coach for daily practice – it can be anyone you feel grateful for. Set aside some minutes every day where you two (or more if you have more than one coach) sit together and discuss the things you are most grateful for. Ask questions to each other and open up informally. Sharing thoughts of gratefulness is like taking antidepressants or anti-anxiety medication. Want to get off whatever you are taking? BE GRATEFUL!

Anxiety is our body’s way of preparing us for danger. When fear sets in, our body releases hormones that create the fight or flight response, and we react almost immediately. The brain doesn’t get much time to analyze safe or threatened when the adrenaline rush begins. Too much anxiety and eventually, coping mechanisms start failing. Our brain is conditioned to function in a repeated way. For example, a person who worries too much about the adverse outcomes will subconsciously re-wire his brain to predominantly process negative information. By consciously practicing gratitude, we can train our brains to select positive emotions and thoughts, thus reducing anxiety and feelings of apprehension.

Difficult as it may sound, grieving with gratitude can bring in a ray of hope in the darkest times in life. Finding a reason to be thankful in days of despair may seem impossible. Crying doesn’t make us weak. Instead, it is an act of acceptance and awareness of our emotions. We cry because we know how we are feeling and why we are feeling so. It gives a vent to the pain and helps us to step up and change our lives. Grieving with gratitude lets us appreciate the things that we still have. Do not hesitate to seek professional help when all your coping mechanisms fail. By managing positive emotions like satisfaction, happiness, and pleasure, gratitude enhances our emotional resilience and builds our inner strength to combat stress.

A cross-sectional study published in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry found a strong positive correlation between gratitude, resilience, and feelings of happiness. The study was conducted on a large sample of the adult population, and statistical treatment showed that participants who felt more grateful and practiced gratitude journaling, were found happier and emotionally stronger than others.

Many psychologists believe that emotional resilience is an interplay of five components

Social competence – The ability to stand out among others and the urge to win a situation

Problem-solving – The ability to focus on solutions and proactively act on them

Autonomy – The motivation to exercise freedom and ask for it when required

Forgiveness – The inner power to let go of something and move on from there

Empathy – The strength to feel others and look into the matter from their point of view.

Gratitude. Gratitude builds emotional resilience by helping us to see the positive things in life 

Gratitude effectively releases stress hormones and increases positive emotions like happiness. However, gratitude is not a quick heal or an immediate relief for stress. By being more grateful on the inside and expressing it on the outside, we gain the power to combat and cope with the stress.

Depression has a psychological and a neurochemical base – both of which can be addressed by gratitude. By displacing our attention from problems to solutions, gratitude practices hit the serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin – neurotransmitters that make us feel good. With the surge of these chemicals in the brain, the apathy gets curbed away, and we revive the motivation that depression had sucked away.

Gratitude and appreciation are entwined with numerous benefits including enhanced mood and self-esteem. Gratitude as an intervention for treating depression is convenient, less time-consuming, less expensive, and useful for long-term results. Gratitude meditation is a simple grounded technique to resonate with our thoughts and feelings on all the people, situations, and things that we are truly grateful for. Through gratitude meditation, we choose to focus on ourselves (our achievements, our talents, our feelings at the moment) and on the world (our family, friends, and everyone else who unconditionally love and support us). It enhances perspective, clarifies vision, and frees us from the burden of stress and burnout almost immediately.

Practicing gratitude is synonymous with expressing our positive feelings for others and ourselves. By simple words of love and praise, we not only make others feel good, but we also feel a lot better about ourselves and our lives. Gratitude is about feeling the right way, about the right things, and at the right time. It is inseparably linked with self-discipline and motivation. It may not give us instant relief from pain and stress, but it brings the feeling of control back to us. 

In our world which seems to have many reasons to feel stress, anxiety, uncertainty, loneliness, and fear of illnesses and death, we have to use gratitude as much as possible in our daily routines. Gratitude may be the very reason we survive and enjoy our lives even when there are so many reasons to have concerns. Remember Live in Gratitude. Pay it Forward, and Cherish your Chapters of Love. 

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