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Practising Gratitude: A Story

Holding a leaf in cupped hands

I’ve been interested in the health benefits of practising gratitude for a while and recently got back in touch with a former colleague of mine who now happens to have a meditation business called mindworks meditation. Lauren (my colleague) was running a workshop entitled ‘The Transformational Power of Gratitude’; a 90-minute-deep dive into all things gratitude, including four meditations, and rounding off the session with a Yoga Nidra. How could I resist? It was everything it promised to be and sent me down a rabbit hole of research to find out more, which I would like to share with you. 

 

What is gratitude? 

Derived from the Latin gratia, meaning favour and gratus meaning pleasing, the Oxford Dictionary defines gratitude as “the quality of being thankful; readiness to feel appreciation, and to return kindness”. 

 

What are the impacts of a gratitude practice? 

Huberman (2021) argues there is a significant amount of data showing that having an effective gratitude practice can have a positive impact on a huge number of health variables. 

 

He even goes so far as to say that the “neurochemical, anti-inflammatory and neural circuit mechanisms that gratitude can evoke are on par with exercise, pharmacology and HIIT”. I.e. Practising gratitude is a very potent way that you can improve your mental and physical health, and that those effects are very long lasting (Huberman, 2021).

 

Sign. Me. Up. 

 

I’m going to talk to you about all the mental health benefits and how you can achieve them by practising gratitude for just 1 minute a day, three times a week. Yup, that’s right.  

 

We know from the research that performing a gratitude practice has a long-lasting impact on subjective well-being, with people reporting better mental health (Wong et al, 2016), feeling happier and experiencing more joy, awe and meaning in life and relationships (Huberman, 2021). 

 

Practicing gratitude can improve resilience to trauma in two ways; by helping an individual to reframe a prior traumatic experience, and so protecting them from the negative physiological and psychological effects, as well as inoculating them against potential future traumas by altering the way in which the fear and defence networks in the brain function (Huberman, 2021). The research also indicates that it can serve as a catalyst to the healing process in psychotherapy (Emmons & Stern, 2013; Wong et al, 2016). 

 

Practising gratitude positively enhances our relationships, including with self, as it functions to solidify, affirm, and strengthen them (Emmons & Stern, 2013), keeping us within a supportive social network (Algoe, 2012). Petrocchi & Couyoudijian (2015) found that gratitude significantly predicts less depression and anxiety symptoms in the general population partly due to a less critical and more compassionate relationship with self. 

 

The science behind it.

We have neural circuits in the brain that are wired for prosocial thoughts and behaviours, which when engaged, enable us to be more effective in our interactions with others and self. We also have neural circuits in the brain that are responsible for defensive behaviours.

 

In order to promote our survival, Huberman (2021) argues that there is an asymmetry in the way in which our defensive/ pro-social circuitry is set up, with defensive circuits being more robust and taking precedence over our behaviour.  However, he suggests that a regular gratitude practice can shift pro-social circuits so that they dominate our physiology and mind-set so that we are happier on average, even when we are not engaging in a gratitude practice. 

 

The main neuromodulator involved with gratitude is serotonin, which is associated with feelings of comfort, bliss, trust, and contentment with what we have within the confines of our body and immediate experience. This results in a desire to maintain our current state and appreciate what we already have. 

 

We can intentionally activate these gratitude circuits in our brain via a gratitude practice. Regular repetition of the practice means it takes less effort to stimulate the pathways the next time and those pathways become stronger. This is neuroplasticity (Costa, 2021).  

 

How do you do it? 

Somewhat counterintuitively, Huberman (2021) argues that the neuroscientific data indicate that the most potent form of gratitude practice is where you receive gratitude/ thanks rather than give it. He cites studies in which co-workers wrote a letter of thanks to another co-worker and the participants' neural activity was measured as the letters were being read/ heard. The results showed that receiving gratitude was much more effective in positively shifting the prefrontal networks than giving gratitude. Similarly, Fox et al., (2015), found that by putting study participants' into an fMRI scanner whilst they were watching powerful stories of survivors of genocide, who had received help as part of their story, they were able to shift their physiology and activate their gratitude circuits in the prefrontal cortex. 

 

Based on this research, Huberman (2021) argues that an effective gratitude practice needs to have the following elements:  

 

1. It should be grounded in a story.

 

Huberman (2021) highlights that the reason these experiments were able to significantly shift the physiology of study participants is because they were grounded in story. As humans we love a story. Our brain is oriented towards it, we have neural circuits that like to link together past, present, and future, and story is one of the main ways that we organise information in the brain. 

 

The other benefit of using story in this way is that it has been shown to impact our physiology. Pérez et al., (2021) found that when study participants in different locations listened to the same story their heartbeats synchronized in response to that story. Huberman (2021) argues this shows that our brain and body are highly coordinated and demonstrates the power of narrative in coordinating our physiology. Therefore, using a story for your gratitude practice will result in a change to your heartbeat and breathing. 

 

2. The story should be a memory of a time when you were genuinely being thanked for something and it made you feel good, or it could be a story about someone else genuinely expressing thanks/ receiving help.

 

In order to really fire up one's gratitude circuits, serotonin and oxytocin and their prefrontal networks, you’ll need to powerfully associate with the idea of receiving help (Huberman, 2021). Therefore, the story should move you and demonstrate the beauty of humanity and our capacity to help one another. 

 

3. Listen to or recall the story once in its entirety and then make shorthand notes of it.

 

An effective gratitude practice requires regular repetition, but we don’t want to be scouring the internet or our memories each time for an inspirational story. Instead, if you’re using a memory, recall a time when someone was genuinely thankful for something you did and focus on how you felt receiving that gratitude. If you’re using a story, find one that is meaningful for you and think deeply about the emotional experience of someone else receiving help/ thanks. N.B. The story doesn’t have to resemble your own life. Whether you’re using narrative or a memory, note down what the struggle was, what the help was/ situation in which thankfulness was displayed and how it impacted you emotionally using bullet points. 

 

The story I use for my gratitude practice is an episode of Desert Island Discs in which Kirsty Young interviews Dr David Nott, vascular and war surgeon for over 20 years. It is an incredibly moving depiction of the generosity of the human spirit and an utter dedication to helping throughout his career, for which he received an OBE, and is in turn helped by Queen Elizabeth II…and her corgis! If you haven’t heard it already you can do so here.

 

4. Look at the notes for as little as 1 min – 120 seconds – 3 x per week.

 

Once you’ve got your shorthand notes on a piece of paper, PC, or phone, you can look at them as little as three times a week for 1 min-120 seconds to get into a reproducible state of gratitude. As aforementioned, these neural circuits, once triggered by the shorthand notes, become more easily activated and strengthened with each repetition of the practice. 


Conclusion 

In summary, practising gratitude is a very effective, low-cost and easy way of shifting your neural circuitry to be more prosocial. Huberman (2021) states that practising regularly can make the activation of anxiety/ fear circuits less likely, whilst increasing the efficacy of positive emotion and motivation circuits. 

 

If you’ve been in individual sessions with me, or if you've come to Offload the Motherload, you’ll know I’m always banging on about dialling down the threat system and dialling up the soothing system - this appears to be one way to do it!  

 

If you’re still here, it is your turn to receive some thanks. I just wanted to say that if you’ve worked with me individually, or in a group, or even liked one of my blog or Instagram pots it all really matters to me as a small business, and I just want to say a big, big thank you!

 

References 

 

Algoe, S. (2012) Find, Remind and Bind: The Functions of Gratitude in Everyday Relationships. Social and Personality Psychology Compass. DOI:10.1111/j.1751-9004.2012.00439.x

 

Costa, C. (2021) Kiss Your Brain. [Ted Talk]. March 2021. Available at https://www.ted.com/talks/christina_costa_kiss_your_brain_the_science_of_gratitude (Accessed 30 November 2023). 

 

Emmons, R., & Stern, R. (2013) Gratitude as a psychotherapeutic intervention. Journal of Clinical Psychology. DOI:  https://doi.org/10.1002/jclp.22020

 

Fox, G., Kaplan, J., Damasio, H., & Damasio, A (2015) Neural Correlates of Gratitude. Frontiers in Psychology, DOI: https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01491

 

 

Pérez, P. et al., (2021) Conscious processing of narrative stimuli synchronizes heart rate between individuals. Cell Reports, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.celrep.2021.109692

 

Wong, Y., Owen, J., Gabana, T., Brown, J., McInnis, S., Toth, P., & Giliman, L. (2018) Does gratitude writing improve the mental health of psychotherapy clients? Evidence from a randomised control trial. Psychotherapy Research, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/10503307.2016.1169332

 

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