Gratitude: Mind, body, and relationship medicine
Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology has given us tremendous insight into ourselves by producing images of how our brains change in response to how we use them, known as neuroplasticity. This technology has provided scientific evidence to support many ancient practices, especially meditation. Cultivating gratitude can be a specific kind of meditation, and significant research shows the positive changes to our brains—and our lives!—that can happen as a result of practicing gratitude.
“Practicing gratitude benefits our bodies in terms of our cardiovascular and inflammation profiles…benefits our minds in terms of a sense of reverence … [and] benefits our relationships in terms of feeling more connected and trusting of people around us,” says Dachner Kelter, professor of psychology at University of California, Berkeley, and founder and faculty director of the Greater Good Science Center (GGSC), also at UC Berkeley.
GGSC studies the psychology, sociology, and neuroscience of well-being. According to one study highlighted on the center’s website, researchers found that “people who practice gratitude report fewer symptoms of illness, including depression, more optimism and happiness, stronger relationships, more generous behavior, and many other benefits.”
According to the same study, “Gratitude has been reported to make people think less about the negative past and cherish what they have here and now, which helps to reduce regret … Gratitude orients us to the present, which is why it may help protect against future-oriented emotions like anxiety.”
Gratitude may support long-term mental health
People who practiced gratitude in these studies “showed greater neural sensitivity in the medial prefrontal cortex, a brain area associated with learning and decision making. … This is striking as this effect was found three months after the [gratitude practice] began. This indicates that simply expressing gratitude may have lasting effects on the brain. While not conclusive, this finding suggests that practicing gratitude may help train the brain to be more sensitive to the experience of gratitude down the line, and this could contribute to improved mental health over time.”
Practicing gratitude is simple and does not take very much time. Researchers—and yogis—have developed quite a few different ways to intentionally incorporate gratitude into our lives. Here are some practices that have been been part of recent studies on gratitude:
- Writing a gratitude letter to someone (but not sending it)
- Writing a gratitude essay about something (not a person) they were thankful for
- Writing lists of people and/or things they were grateful for
- Sending a gratitude or thank you text
- Expressing gratitude more publicly, in this case via a social-media post
Gratitude meditations guide you to focus on people or things you are grateful for. They can also guide you to experience a felt sense of gratitude through contemplation and reflection. Reframing negative experiences in positive ways is an on-the-spot gratitude practice. And don’t worry if it’s not easy at first: The most important factor in the effectiveness of intentionally practicing gratitude is consistency.
Simple, brief gratitude practices
If you want to give it a try right now, below are two simple gratitude practices from IAYT-certified yoga therapists Suzanne Manafort and Jayne Robinson.
Start by pressing the palms of your hands together in front of your heart. Drop your gaze or take a slight bow with your head. See if this action helps you arrive at a place that feels like gratitude. As you arrive there, think of one thing in your life today that you are truly grateful for and acknowledge it silently.
Try to carry this feeling with you throughout your day and into your life.
As a practice, find a comfortable position and begin to focus on the movement of the breath in and out of the nose. Every time the breath changes direction, repeat the phrase as though you are breathing the intention into your cells and sending it out to the wider universe. Notice what comes up when each word lands in your awareness.