What are you most grateful for in this moment? Right here, right now. Seriously, stop and ask yourself. If you’re having a tough day and aren’t able to come up with anything off the top of your head, that’s all the more reason to ask the question. The New York Times recently referenced a scientific study that found that even if you aren’t able to think of anything to be grateful for, simply asking the question is powerful enough to change your brain chemistry. But the reality is there is ALWAYS something to be grateful for.
So take a moment right now, and think of five things that you have going for you. It doesn’t have to be huge; try “I have clean air to breathe,” “I have legs to walk on,” “I have people who love me,” or “I have a place to sleep tonight.”
Wondering why this exercise is important? Take it from Oprah, who says that starting a gratitude journal and writing down five things a day for which she’s grateful has been the single most powerful decision she’s ever made. If you’re not an Oprah fan, here is a bit more science to get you on the gratitude train.
Gratitude can be a natural antidepressant. When we take the time to ask what we are grateful for, certain neural circuits are activated. Production of dopamine and serotonin increases, and these neurotransmitters then travel neural pathways to the “bliss” center of the brain — similar to the mechanisms of many antidepressants. Practicing gratitude, therefore, can be a way to naturally create the same effects of medications and create feelings of contentment.
It gets better: The more you stimulate these neural pathways through practicing gratitude, the stronger and more automatic they become. On a scientific level, this is an example of Hebb’s Law, which states “neurons that fire together wire together.” But it’s also something you can see plainly in everyday life: If you’re forging a new path through the woods, the first trip is the most challenging and you have to be deliberate. But the more times the path is traveled, the more defined it becomes and the easier it is to follow it. Your brain works the same way: The more times a certain neural pathway is activated (neurons firing together), the less effort it takes to stimulate the pathway the next time (neurons wiring together).
Because of this, what we put our attention on grows. If we’re constantly looking at the negative and searching for problems, the neural pathways for negative thinking become stronger. But practicing gratitude can shift our attention to look for what is going right instead of looking for problems to solve. Over time, this encourages our brains to more consistently search for the constructive themes in our life instead of the destructive ones, helping us water the flowers instead of watering the weeds.
If deliberately practicing gratitude isn’t familiar to you, here’s how to start:
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