Gratitude–Taking Neuroscience to the Next Level

As the year draws to a close, I find myself wondering what the heck just happened to us all and how on earth we can move forward into a new year. 2020 was a rather boring wild ride. How does that even work? I have no idea.

All I know is that I am flooded with gratitude when I think about 2020 being over and starting over with a fresh new year. I hope that we will not mess 2021 up as badly as we did 2020. It’s wonderful to have a chance to do better.

The depth of gratitude that I feel for the opportunity for a fresh start has me thinking about gratitude in general, and how we can use it to improve our mental health.

Human brains are created with a built-in negativity bias. We are hard-wired to see things in the worst possible light. There’s a great reason for this. As people evolved, the ones who remembered the scary stuff lived to procreate. As a cave person, it helped you stay alive to remember where the tiger lived. Over time, our brains became more and more prone to remembering our worst experiences.

While this was genetically advantageous to cave people, for modern humans it’s a mental health nightmare. Research shows that it takes five positive experiences to emotionally outweigh a negative one. Just think about the ramifications of that in day to day life. If something negative happens in a relationship, five good things have to happen for things to get back on an even keel. Over time the negative experiences tend to overwhelm the positive ones. No wonder relationships often end badly.

It’s not just relationships that are impacted by the negativity bias. Traumatic and hurtful experiences of any kind can fill people’s minds with negative thinking to the point that they can’t even see the good things that they have in their lives, which leads to mental health conditions like depression and post traumatic stress disorder.

This is where gratitude comes in. Practicing gratitude on a regular basis can help you to intentionally overcome the hard-wired negativity bias, leading to a happier and healthier life.

It’s not difficult, but it does take a little bit of effort. All that is required is that you bring up something positive that happened and allow yourself to absorb the experience and the feelings that go with it. Take your time with the positive emotions and really take them in. The more often that you practice gratitude, the more your brain will create new neuropathways that notice positive experiences–meaning that you will see more things to be grateful for, leading to a happier life.

In order for gratitude to work, it really does need to be a practice–something that you do on a regular basis. I’ve had clients who have a list of things in their lives that they’re grateful for that they read to themselves daily. I’ve also had clients who keep gratitude journals, where they write down two to three positive experiences per day in order to absorb the good emotions. How wonderful it must be to re-read a journal full of beautiful experiences that you’re grateful for!

These good experiences don’t need to be anything newsworthy. Someone smiling at you on the street, a tasty breakfast, a good night’s sleep, or the chance to start a fresh new day could all be examples of things you could write in your gratitude journal.

Here’s where we can take neuroscience to the next level. Every time that you pull up a memory, your current situation changes it. This is why memories feel sadder when you’re depressed, or happier when you’re in love. By pairing a negative memory with a positive experience, you can literally re-write the negative one to feel better, or at least more neutral.

This phenomenon is why therapy works. When you bring up difficult experiences in an environment that feels safe, with a person who is non-judgmental, you change the memory in your brain. Traumatic memories feel a little safer, hurtful memories feel a little kinder, and so forth.

You can do this on your own by intentionally pairing a difficult memory with a positive one, or with gratitude. Be sure that good feelings in the positive experience outweigh the negative ones in the bad experience. Then, bring up the good feelings, experience them, enhance them, and link them with the negative experience. Suddenly you’ll find that the negative experience doesn’t feel quite so difficult anymore.

It takes some practice, but it works.

As you go through the last few days of 2020, I encourage you to do your best to take note of the small, everyday things that happen, and take the time to be grateful for them. I think it will help us to make the end of 2020 as good as it can possibly be.

For more information, I suggest Rick Hanson, PhD and his TED Talk, Hardwiring Happiness, which you can find at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jpuDyGgIeh0.

Happy New Year to you and your family.

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