How would your life be different if you made a commitment to genuine gratitude? This month we’ll explore the mental, academic, physical, and spiritual benefits of cultivating an attitude of gratitude.
How can I have genuine gratitude when all I feel is disdain? And does it really matter if I feel gratitude or not? November is the perfect month to think about our thankfulness and how it can affect our lives.
What Fires Together, Wires Together
“What fires together, wires together,” our school counselor told us at a staff training. Our school doesn’t have guidance counselors, we have licensed clinical counselors with expertise in trauma and EMDR.
“When students make habits that impact them negatively,” he continued, “such as telling a false narrative about themselves, that information gets hard-wired into their brains. This new-hard-wiring can cause students to shut down or react in surprising ways to the things that trigger them.
“It takes a lot of work to identify the false narratives and re-wire their brains with the truth.” He paused and looked around the room. “But it can happen. It takes all of us working together to help our students in the re-writing process.”
I spent time in the following weeks doing research on my own about synapses and chemical bridges, re-wiring in the brain, and neuroplasticity. What I discovered shocked me.
Complaining Causes Shrinkage
A Stanford University study by Robert Sapolsky showed how glucocorticoids can cause rat brain cells (specifically cells in the hippocampus) to shrink. Cortisol—also known as the stress hormone—is our body’s main glucocorticoid. When we’re under stress for long periods of time, our bodies produce excess amounts of cortisol—and thus we can shrink our brains.
Complaining releases cortisol. When we fire up our complaints, we start to wire our brains into a negativity habit. And that negativity habit can start the vicious circle of releasing more cortisol, which causes us to feel stressed. The stress can then cause us to feel more negative. You get the picture. In the process, our hippocampus shrivels. Too bad our hippocampus shrivels and not our waists, right?
Our hippocampus regulates our learning, motivation, emotions, and memory. If we spend all our time complaining and nit-picking (whether about ourselves, our situations, others, politics, politicians, or the referee), we can weaken our ability to learn, struggle to regulate our emotions, feel unmotivated, and lose memories.
Fortunately, a shriveled hippocampus can spring back to life. How?
Genuine Gratitude Causes Expansion
You guessed it, genuine gratitude. Genuine gratitude not only helps relieve stress but also lowers cortisol production levels and rewires our brains in new and improved pathways.
We don’t have to act Eeyore for the rest of our lives, though. We can re-wire and re-train our brains with activities that promote genuine gratitude. Try one or all of these activities to help build new synapses and improve your mental health today (and forever).
Another added benefit? Ditching your Negative Nellie persona and acting like an optimist can increase your lifespan by 15%.
1. Write a Letter
Researchers discovered the long-term benefits of study participants writing genuine gratitude letters over a period of three weeks. The study organizers divided the participants, mostly college-age students seeking mental health services for anxiety and depression, into three groups. One group wrote a genuine gratitude letter to someone once a week for three weeks. A second group wrote journal-type entries about their negative experiences. The control group wrote nothing. All participants received counseling services.
Three months after the letter-writers wrote their last letter, they still experienced significant positive mental health. The journal writers and control group failed to experience the same significance in improved mental health—even though all three groups received counseling. Researchers Joshua Brown and Joel Wong concluded gratitude letter writing, in addition to traditional counseling could speed up the results of improved mental health.
“This suggests that gratitude writing can be beneficial not just for healthy, well-adjusted individuals, but also for those who struggle with mental health concerns. In fact, it seems, practicing gratitude on top of receiving psychological counseling carries greater benefits than counseling alone, even when that gratitude practice is brief.”Josue Brown and Joel Wong
- This November, commit to writing a letter of genuine gratitude to four people who have had a positive impact on your life. You could write to a parent, coach, teacher, or author. The effects of writing a letter of genuine gratitude should boost your mood through the stressful holiday season and beyond.
2. Keep a Gratitude List
You could buy a fancy journal or just grab a notebook. Set an alarm for the same time each day (I write in my gratitude journal every morning) and write down five-10 things you feel grateful for. You don’t have to think of something new for each day. Looking back over the eight years I’ve done this, I see the same things repeatedly on my list: family, a new day, a beautiful sunrise or sunset, a bird or wild animal I saw, Sabbath rest, my students.
If you feel genuine gratitude for the item, write it on your list. I know I have suffered fewer stress-related physical symptoms since I started keeping a gratitude list. If you want to keep a fancy journal and use pretty pens, go for it. If scraps of paper and a pencil work for you, that’s fine, too.
Consistency plays a key role in reaping the benefits because it helps re-wire your brain (and plump up your hippocampus).
- Start your genuine gratitude journal today. Set an alarm to remind you to write in it daily.
3. Target Practice
All too often in my life, I’ve reacted to negative situations by making the people or events surrounding them a target for my negativity. I don’t like a policy; I blame the President. This turns into an excuse for paying attention to bad press about the President and dwelling on his perceived inadequacies. Pretty soon, I start posting memes about the President on Facebook and Instagram, and a flock of other angry people gathers around.
Without realizing it, I’ve wired my brain to think negatively about the President, produced cortisol because of my complaining, and started to shrink my hippocampus. This can leave me feeling dissatisfied and depressed.
Instead, I need to do a different type of target practice. I’ve discovered over the years I have a difficult time tearing down what I build up. Instead of complaining about the President, I can pray for him. Rather than bellyache about the policies I view as horrible, I can feel genuine gratitude that I don’t have to make those tough decisions. Instead of looking for negative news about the President, I can look for positive news.
If I find myself addicted to negativity, I can cut it out cold turkey. I don’t have to watch the news, scroll through social media, or listen to podcasts full of negativity. Sometimes it takes a while to re-wire my brain. Losing the cortisol surges that come along with the negative attitude makes it worth my time, though.
- Choose someone today you want to complain about less and target them with positive thoughts, prayers, and actions.
Over and over again in scripture, God promises to help us do what is right. James 1:5 (NIV) says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.”
Pray for ways to experience and express genuine gratitude.
Psalm 119:73 (NLT) says, “You made me; you created me. Now give me the sense to follow your commands.”
God wants us to love, and love starts with genuine gratitude and regard for others.
- Pray this prayer today:
Father God, you created me to love, now please give me the sense to love ________. I often feel at a loss when dealing with __________. Please give me the wisdom I need to handle toxic situations with grace. Create in me new synapses and bridges and help me to nurture an attitude of gratitude towards _____________. I can only do this through your power and grace. Thank you for creating me with the ability to change my thought patterns and actions. I ask these things in Jesus’ name, Amen
Will Genuine Gratitude Help My Mental Health Today?
I can’t guarantee your mental health will improve the same day you start your quest to express genuine gratitude. But I know looking for the silver lining in a sticky and dark situation always gives me relief at the moment.
Science can measure the long-term effects of genuine gratitude through gratitude activities and MRI imaging. And researchers agree gratitude can have profound effects on your life.
The end of this article from UC Davis has an astounding list of benefits of gratitude. My favorite? People who keep a gratitude journal eat less fat! Who knew?
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