Giving Thanks as a Form of Self-Care

People often feel a pressure to be grateful on Thanksgiving Day. And that in and of itself, can block us from feeling it. But what if gratitude is a form of self-care? As a topic of study, gratitude has become increasingly of interest to psychologists. In our fast paced, cost conscious world, even therapy has been downsized. Gratitude it turns out, is a good hack in between sessions. If you want to feel positive effects from therapy, research is showing that learning the the benefits of feeling grateful is a good place to start.

Gratitude, whether in the form of writing a letter, giving or expressing thanks produces changes in brain activity. But here is the interesting part, it doesn’t work simply to say thank you or donate money, you have to feel grateful inside of you to actually get the mood and brain changes that accrue to gratitude. We need to have an attitude of gratitude for “gratitude” to work.

“We found,” say Indiana University researchers Joshua Brown and Joel Wong in the Greater Good Newsletter, “that… when people felt more grateful, their brain activity was distinct from brain activity related to guilt and the desire to help a cause…they showed greater neural sensitivity in the medial prefrontal cortex, a brain area associated with learning and decision making”.

Three Easy Gratitude Hacks

ONE

Gratitude helps “train the brain”

“When we compared those who wrote the gratitude letters with those who didn’t” continue Wong and Brown, “the gratitude letter writers showed greater activation [in the fMRI scanner] in the medial prefrontal cortex when they experienced gratitude….even “three months after the letter writing 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.

TWO

Keeping a gratitude list produces lasting changes in mood.

The Harvard Health Letter reports that “two psychologists, Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami…asked all participants to write a few sentences each week, focusing on particular topics. “One group wrote about things they were grateful for that had occurred during the week. A second group wrote about daily irritations or things that had displeased them, and the third wrote about events that had affected them (with no emphasis on them being positive or negative). After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Surprisingly, they also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on sources of aggravation”.

THREE

Expressing gratitude towards a partner makes it easier to bring up relationship concerns.

It turns out appreciating your partner helps to give you a partner who’s easier to be close to.

A study of couples reported in the Harvard Health Letter revealed that “individuals who took time to express gratitude for their partner not only felt more positive toward the other person but also felt more comfortable expressing concerns about their relationship”.

Gratitude lets couples feel closer and opening one’s heart to feel appreciation it turns out opens one’s heart in other ways too, that ultimately lead to more honest communication.

So use these bits of research to kick start some healthy reflection on how to use gratitude to elevate your mood, stay fit, clear your head and improve your relationships. And of course, to take time for appreciation, gratitude and a Happy Thanksgiving!

As Max Ehrmann said in Desiderata,

“whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy”. (© 1927)

Senior fellow at The Meadows, psychologist, psychodramatist, author Emotional Sobreity,ACoA Trauma Syndrome, Forgiving and Moving On, Huff Post blogger, speaker