Gratitude is the quality of being thankful and a readiness to show appreciation for, and to return, kindness. Hopefully most people can relate to how good those feelings can be, when we spontaneously realise just how much we have already or what we now have due to the kindness of someone, whether they are a friend or a complete stranger.
In this blog, therapist and mindfulness teacher Tony O’Shea-Poon talks about the physiology of gratitude (what happens in our brains and bodies when we feel gratitude), the benefits of gratitude and how we might express gratitude so that it starts to become our normal state.
What has mindfulness got to do with gratitude?
Mindfulness is the practice of bringing our attention to our present sensory experience, noticing what is taking place and how we are responding. We observe through our senses, starting with the breath and often expanding to awareness of what we can see, hear, touch, smell, taste and what we can think and feel, in any given moment.
But mindfulness isn’t a dispassionate observance. During the practice, whether we are formally sitting in meditation or bringing awareness into our daily activities, we cultivate particular attitudes – attitudes that can support us and nourish us, leading to more peaceful states of mind.
One of these such attitudes is gratitude, the ability to notice what we have or what we have been given and to be thankful for it, usually accompanied by the desire to offer kindness to those we are grateful towards. By meditating and focusing our mind on feelings of gratitude, these feelings become stronger and can lead to real shifts in the way we think and how we act in the world.
A grateful person is someone we all like to have around, whether that be at home, in social life or in the workplace. A grateful person has a positive impact on people they come into contact with, creating a positive and supportive environment where everyone can thrive.
Thy physiology of gratitude
Imagine that you are out walking in some beautiful mountain on a sunny day. You are enjoying the experience so much that you fail to notice the late hour and that the weather has changed. You find yourself on a steep path with low lying clouds all around you. In a single moment, you lose your footing and you realise you’re in trouble. You don’t know where you are and you can’t see more than a couple of feet in front of you. It’s getting darker and colder and you can feel the panic coming. This sunny day has turned into a life or death experience!
After some time, you hear a cheerful whistling and, in the distance, a faint light. You call out for help and, within a moment or two, an elderly woman with a beautiful dog arrives and asks you if you need help. You are relieved just to find another person. The old woman says that you shouldn’t be out here and that you should follow her and her dog to their cabin, which is just a short walk away. You feel even more relieved and immediately have a warm feeling towards her. When you arrive at her cabin, it’s cosy and warm and she serves up a bowl of hot soup. When you look at this stranger across the table, you feel a rush of positive emotions, joy from the relief of worrying about survival, and a sense of close connection to the woman who has given you a wonderful gift – safety and nourishment when you were in trouble – and expecting nothing in return.
Hopefully this story reminds you of a time when you felt gratitude towards the kindness of a stranger. Stories like this were used in a major research study, reported on mindful.org, which demonstrated that, when we experience gratitude, the neurons in our brain that light up are those associated with socialising with others and the experience of pleasure. These regions are also associated with the part of the brain that controls our basis emotional regulation, such as heart rate. Feeling grateful and recognising help from others creates a more relaxed body state and thus helps to relieve stress, and reduction of stress and arousal in the body is known to help reduce pain. From this, we can deduce that cultivating feelings of gratitude can help us to feel more relaxed and to deal better with emotional and physical pain.
Those regions of the brain are also associated with neural networks that are activated during close interpersonal touch, for example when we receive a hug or someone gives us a massage. As we bond with others, these networks are triggered and make us feel very good. In practical terms, bonding with others supports our health and survival.
A different study showed that practicing gratitude can alter brain function in people who are depressed. Structural changes can take place in the brain, a process known as neuroplasticity – we can literally change and re-wire our brains to be more positive by practicing gratitude.
The benefits of gratitude
Some of the physiology of practicing gratitude speaks for itself – who would not want to feel more positive, to feel closer to others, to feel more relaxed and to be able to deal better with physical and emotional pain?
A range of other studies show that gratitude can work on many other levels, for example regulating hormones to improve sleep and digestion, strengthening the immune system to protect us from illness and motivating us to take exercise or to get on with our work.
And it doesn’t stop giving there. In fact, practicing gratitude has benefits on 3 levels according to Stephanie Domet, writing on mindful.org:
- Gratitude is good for you – for all the reasons outlined above.
- Gratitude is good for your relationships – research shows that it can support the development of positive relationships at work and positive personal relationships, including romantic relationships.
- Gratitude is good for humanity – as people experience gratitude, they quickly become naturally disposed to act kindly towards those that have given to them, but also to others, including complete strangers. At a mindfulness drop-in, one participant told us about crossing a toll bridge and paying for the person behind her on a regular basis, no matter who they were. You can imagine how you would have felt if you were the person behind and how it would make you think about extending that kindness to others in a chain of ‘pay it forward’ generosity.
How to practice gratitude
We may already say thanks many times a day, for example when someone lets us into a lane when driving, when someone holds a door open for us or when someone hands us a file we’ve been waiting for. Saying thanks is a reflex, we know that socially we’re supposed to do it and we react as we’re supposed to. Sometimes we don’t even look at the person we’re thanking or really think about what it is we’re grateful for.
On the other hand, when someone does something really big for us, we can become embarrassed and tell them that it’s too much, they shouldn’t have done it or bought it for us – sometimes we can even feel, consciously or subconsciously, that we don’t deserve it.
But expressing gratitude meaningfully, even if it feels awkward at first, can really enhance our feelings and it can soon become more natural as those new neural pathways begin to fuse together.
5 specific ways to practice gratitude
1. Express it to ourselves
A research study worked with three groups. The first group wrote a journal about their difficult thoughts and feelings, the second group had counselling and the third group wrote letters to themselves expressing what they were grateful for. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the group that wrote letters to themselves reported better mental health. Writing letters to ourselves isn’t the only way to express self-gratitude. We can remind ourselves when we wake up that we are alive and are lucky to have another day to live. We can notice what we can do physically and be grateful for our bodies. We can see all of our possessions every day and be thankful for the abundance we have. We can recognise our skills and abilities and be grateful for all that our minds can do for us, including at work.
2. Notice our tendency to react habitually
When someone shows us some kindness, in deeds or in words, we can start to bring our awareness to how we are reacting to that event. If we do say thanks hastily, what does that do to our bodies and minds? We can instead slow down and notice what is arising in us and, rather than react, think about how best to respond. When we start to practice this, at first we might not notice our reaction until sometime after the event has passed. Soon enough, we start to notice our reactions immediately after the event and then during the event itself, until eventually we learn to not react at all but to create a moment of awareness that allows us to respond more appropriately.
3. Be specific and make a point of it
When we feel even a small amount of gratitude towards someone, we can stop for a moment and take note. We can think about and name the thing that we feel grateful for. When we do that, we can be more specific about what it is we are actually feeling good about and we can feed that back to the person who was kind to us. Only when we know specifically what we are grateful for do we say thanks. It will come across as much more genuine and we will gain from the feelings we generate.
4. When things go wrong, find something good
Things do go wrong – at home, at play and at work – that is an inevitable part of life! We all experience pain and suffering at some time or other. But we don’t have to allow this to overwhelm us. In the worst possible situations, there is always something to be grateful for. If we have a serious accident, we might still be alive – that’s something to be thankful for. If we have no money, we might still have food – that’s also something to be thankful for. If we don’t enjoy our work, we can still recognise that we are lucky to be employed and to have colleagues to work with. When we are noticing all the things that a person is doing to annoy us, we might also notice that they also make a valuable contribution to our lives in other ways. Getting our mind to work like this takes practice, but it does make us much happier and changes the way we communicate and are perceived by others, affecting others’ behaviour in turn.
5. Meditate on gratitude
Bringing us back full circle to mindfulness, as well as practicing gratitude in our daily lives, we can cultivate gratitude more formally through a regular mindfulness meditation practice. As we sit, lie or stand to meditate, we notice our body and health and ability to concentrate and generate feelings of gratitude. Whatever our experience in the meditation, we can be grateful that we have discovered the practice and can gain benefit from it. As we sit in a circle, we can look kindly on others and be grateful for their presence to support us in our practice.
These are just a few ideas for ways to practice gratitude. There are bound to be many more that you can think of. The more that we practice the more benefit we can obtain, at home, in our social lives and in the workplace. The more that we practice, the easier it becomes as we strengthen neural pathways and our appreciation and kindness become second nature. As we practice, we know that we are benefitting ourselves, benefiting our relationships and benefitting the whole of humanity.
 See https://www.mindful.org/what-the-brain-reveals-about-gratitude/