Updated: Mar 17
The neuroscience of gratitude, and three easy steps to implement a gratitude practice into your day...
After spending over two months in California, and most recently a couple of months in Colorado, the time for me to return to Vietnam is now very near. The month of May is right around the corner, and I'll soon be on a motorbike back in Southeast Asia..
As much excitement as this brings, it's also interesting to reflect back on my time here in America. When I do reflect, it's apparent how each moment is now really only just a memory. These moments now exist as probably some form of connections and neurons in my brain, never to be lived again.
Competitive pick-up games with my soccer community in Santa Monica, seeing old friends in L.A., and spending time with my Mom in Colorado. It's crazy how fleeting each experience really is. One moment we're living it, the next moment it's gone forever.
This leads me to the attitude of gratitude. Any google search regarding the scientific benefits of a gratitude practice will show up with results similar to this: Gratitude:
. Opens the door to more relationships
· Gratitude improves physical health
· Gratitude improves psychological health
· Gratitude improves empathy and reduces aggression
· Grateful people sleep better
· Gratitude improves self-esteem
· Gratitude increases mental strength
· Improves sleep. ...
· Leads to more exercise
· Reduces pain. ...
· Lowers blood pressure. ...
· Strengthens the immune system. ...
· Lowers stress. ...
· Activates the healing relaxation response. ...
· Helps you live longer.
Now we know how beneficial gratitude is, but the tricky part is that not only do we forget to practice it, but humans are not wired to feel grateful. Our default is to look for what’s wrong, complain, and think about all the areas where we suffer. A cool thing about gratitude is that neuroscience now shows that when we take some moments to remember to be grateful, the action in the brain is the exact opposite of what happens when we focus on the negative (something is wrong, wishing we were different, wanting someone else to act according to our expectations of them, feelings of lack, etc). So when these gratitude neurons fire together, they wire together, making gratitude much more likely to reappear later without you even trying. It’s like going to the gym for your mind. Gratitude is a HUGE key to happiness.
Another great thing about a gratitude practice is you don’t have to try to feel anything special, nor do you have to really even mean it! Just taking the time to come up with something to be grateful for gets those neurons firing. It can be something big or small that you can be grateful for. I am thankful that I have two eyes that allow me to see and two ears that allow me to hear. I am grateful for a pain-free breath and body. I am happy that my younger brother is hanging in there despite his challenges. I’m grateful that my Mom is doing her best despite her health difficulties. I am glad there’s a pick-up soccer game on top of a hill near me in Colorado with a great view of the town below and the snow-capped mountains in the distance. I’m grateful I can take a walk along the river with my Mom while she enjoys watching the ducks do their thing.
It’s said that happiness is not getting what we want. Happiness is wanting what we have.
So, from my personal experience and according to Rick Hanson, an awesome neuroscientist who is worth a follow, as a result of practicing gratitude, your life will transform in many ways:
· Contentment becomes stronger than dissatisfaction
· Peace becomes stronger than frustration
· Appreciation becomes stronger than criticism and complaining
· And resilience to life’s challenges increases
Rick Hanson says: Overall, life just becomes sweeter and more fun through practicing gratitude. And the happier and more contented we are, the kinder we become to those around us – meaning all that come into contact with us begin to feel the benefits too.
So, this whole business of well-being is a skill. The way we acquire a skill is often through practice. Here are 3 steps to try to implement into your day:
1) The neuroscience says that for the practice to ideally take effect in our brain, we should take 15-30 seconds around 6 times a day to pause and notice something we are grateful for. Breathe it in, let it marinate, and sit with it. If you only do it two or three times, that’s fine, it’s still working. An easy trick it to take a daily activity like brushing your teeth, touching a doorknob, or answering the phone, and use that as your reminder to be grateful. You can even be grateful that you have healthy teeth, or a toothbrush and toothpaste, and even running water!
2) When you notice the smile someone gives you on the street, or an act of kindness like someone holding the door open for you, don’t be quick to dismiss it. Allow the warmth of that feeling or the good energy to sink it, and relish in it for 15-30 seconds. My mom recently had one of her friends over for dinner, and her friend had a very nice, easy going way about her that made the dinner very easy and relaxing. We can take moments to be grateful for experiences like this.
3) In the morning, take a quiet moment to set an intention to remember to be grateful during the day. This is different from setting an intention to be grateful.. you’re setting the intention to remember to be grateful. This is just planting the seed, because gratitude practice isn’t easy. It requires seeds and then cultivation of those seeds.
Speaking of Vietnam, the people there seem so content with what they have, whether it’s a lot or a little. The streets are bustling at night with people smiling and chatting as they eat dinner on the sidewalks, go to the cinema, or just ride their motorbikes around to wherever. After spending time there, I really do notice and appreciate how challenges are simply accepted as challenges and not something to be avoided, and how the simple things like food, friends, and family are so important and so appreciated. It’s not like that doesn’t also exist elsewhere, of course, but the difference is somehow noteworthy at times. To me, it seems like in general, the people there are not focused on what they don’t have, but really living in appreciation for what they do have.
Thanks for reading! For counseling in Vietnam, feel free to contact me.
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Ducks doing their thing during a recent walk along the river with my Mom.