Use Gratitude to Rewire Your Brain
By: Dave Asprey
January 19, 2017
Every night, before bed, I sit with my two young kids and I ask them three things they’re grateful for. Then I share three things I am grateful for. We also talk about our wins for the day. The whole process takes about 10 minutes, and the benefits are exponential.
I do it because gratitude literally rewires your brain. Even a simple gratitude writing practice builds lasting neural sensitivity to more positive thinking. That means the more you practice gratitude, the more you default to positivity instead of negativity. Study after study shows that simple gratitude exercises, like keeping a journal or sharing daily wins with friends or family, can make you happier, more positive, and more emotionally open after just two weeks [1,2,3]. The benefits last, too , which leads to an overall increase in well-being, making you stronger and more resilient to stress . That’s a lot of improvement for 10 minutes a day.
Here’s a guide to gratitude, along with 11 ways you can build gratefulness into your daily life.
What is gratitude?
You might think of gratitude as a feeling that occurs after you receive something – a gift, a compliment, or a bit of luck. But gratitude doesn’t have to be a spontaneous reaction to good fortune.
The clinical definition of gratitude is the appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful to oneself; a general state of thankfulness and/or appreciation . It doesn’t take big, shiny objects to create gratitude; you can train yourself to constantly be grateful for the little things in life.
Once you learn to create and cultivate that feeling within yourself, gratitude turns into a tool you can use to actively reshape thought pathways in your brain. That’s right – you can strengthen the parts of your brain that are associated with positive thinking.
11 ways to build gratitude
1) Journaling. This is probably the most popular practice to date, thanks to the Five Minute Journal app. Writing down your gratitudes is tangible, and it’s easier to remember to be grateful daily when it involves a physical object. The process is simple: write down three things you’re grateful for in the morning, and three more before bed. If that’s too much, just pick the morning or the evening to write. The Five Minute Journal comes with its own prompts, but they’re always the same. You can upgrade your practice by keeping your own journal and adding your own prompts or writing whatever gratitudes come to you.
2) Practice mindfulness. Slow your life down. If you find you’re rushing to get to work, notice it and relax. Being a few minutes late won’t kill you. Next time you go up the stairs, pay attention to every step. Look at the trees and flowers and plants growing through cracks in the pavement when you take a walk. Literally stop to smell the roses.
There’s tremendous beauty all around us, and most of us blow right by it on the way to the next goal or obligation. Life is too short not to appreciate the little things. Take your time. Eckhart Tolle puts it well: “Nature never rushes, and yet everything gets done.”
3) Try stoicism. Buy a new car, and the pleasure of owning it will wear off pretty quickly. Take the bus for a week instead of driving, and you’ll be thankful for your car on a whole new level.
Make it a habit to live simply, at times. Deprive yourself of pleasures you take for granted. Fast on water for 24 hours. The next big, juicy steak you eat will be the best thing you’ve ever tasted. Sleep on the floor for a night. You’ll wake up tremendously grateful for your bed. You probably have a lot of comforts and pleasures in your life that you don’t appreciate. See what it’s like to live without them, and you’ll never look at them the same way again.
4) Rethink a negative situation. Here’s an old parable.
A farmer’s horse ran away. His neighbors said, “What a shame!” He said, “Maybe.”
The next day, the horse came back, and it brought more wild horses with it. The neighbors said, “How wonderful!” The farmer said, “Maybe.”
The next day, a horse stepped on the farmer’s son’s arm, breaking it. The neighbors said, “How horrible!” The farmer said, “Maybe.”
The next day, the government came to the village, drafting people for the war. They passed over the farmer’s son because of his broken arm. “How wonderful!” the neighbors said. The farmer said, “Maybe.”
It’s a silly parable, but it makes a good point. Situations are neutral; how you perceive them is what makes them good or bad. The next time someone cuts you off in traffic, curb the urge to give him the finger. Instead, be grateful you aren’t in a rush like him.
Find the silver lining in everything. Often, the silver lining is that hardship makes you learn something new or become a stronger, more resilient human. Don’t force yourself to feel a certain way if you’re not ready. This isn’t about being happy and positive all the time. Some situations suck, and it’s important that you feel your negative emotions. Just get in the habit of finding positives as well.
This practice is so powerful that it’s a part of 40 Years Of Zen. Your brain is hooked up to an EEG and you can see the change, in real time, that reframing negative situations has on your physiology.
5) Spend time in nature, away from screens and other distractions. When you’re constantly inundated with advertisements, articles, and other media influencing how you feel and act, it can be hard to feel grateful. Instead, you feel stress and are gradually less capable of making good decisions. And with your nerves taxed, it’s easy to slip into negative thought patterns. If these gratitude practices sound cheesy, just get out in nature and enjoy the silence.
6) Active appreciation. Look for opportunities to be grateful throughout your day. This is especially useful when you’re having a bad day or find yourself focusing on negative emotions. This isn’t about being fake or lying to yourself. It’s more about actively looking for things in your life that you have an authentic appreciation for. This might start out as just being grateful for your cup of coffee every morning, or the fact that you’re healthy.
7) Make a gratitude jar. A play on journaling, this one is a bit more creative. Choose a large jar or a fishbowl and as a family (or by yourself), write down your gratitude for the day and pop it in the bowl. As the bowl fills, it’s a physical representation of all the things you have to be grateful for. There are many variations of this practice, from tracking larger wins (professional and personal) to tracking the smaller gratitudes in life.
8) Practice with loved ones. Share gratitudes as a family at the dinner table. This is a great little ritual to introduce, especially if you have children. If you want, try adding some ground rules. First, each gratitude should be new; second, it should have something to do with the events of that day; and third, it should be unique from another person’s gratitude that night. This cultivates creativity and engagement.
Reflecting back on the day in a positive way can have some really powerful benefits. And since gratitude in general can help with sleep, doing it at night makes sense.
As a group of friends, roommates, or as a family, choose a time to share your gratitude with each other. You’ll not only get the benefits of more positive thinking pathways, but you’ll also foster closeness with the people you live/work with.
9) Gratitude walk. Go for a walk (maybe on your way to work), and pay close attention to everything you see and experience. Notice all the beauty, the feeling of each step in the soles of your feet, etc. This will calm your mind and bring up gratitude. Focus on the feeling gratitude creates in your body, and enjoy it.
10) Write a letter. Write a letter (at least 300 words) of love and gratitude to someone who has touched your life, big or small. A parent, a friend, a teacher who shaped your life – tell them what they’ve done for you. This has the added bonus of deepening your connections with those you care about.
11) Combine gratitude and forgiveness. You can carry around a lot of stress – even unconsciously – from anger and hurt. To practice a combo gratitude and forgiveness, write down something that’s hurt you, or maybe just acknowledge some of your anger or pain. Feel the negative emotion, then find a way the situation that caused it benefited you or shaped you into who you are today, and let the negativity go. Again, this is so powerful that it’s a component of 40 Years Of Zen. Forgiveness has a profound effect on boosting your alpha brain waves – the brain waves associated with a calm, focused mental state.
Gratitude is a daily practice, similar to meditation. Like meditation, it becomes more natural over time.
Remember: What you put into your body affects what you get out. In this case, your thoughts create the world you experience. If you put gratitude in, you’re likely to experience positive thought pathways more naturally.