The idea of writing post originated in the past couple months as I realized gratitude was an area in my life I had been struggling in. A recent chat with some friends about how practicing gratitude impacts your brain really encouraged me to research and share about this topic.
So here we are! I wanted to share some of the studies that show how we can cultivate an attitude of gratitude and some practical steps you can take to do so!
What Is the “Attitude of Gratitude”?
I loved this definition of gratitude that I found in a research study:
“Gratitude is the appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful to oneself; it is a general state of thankfulness and/or appreciation[i].”
The “attitude of gratitude”, as I see it, is a state of mind in which we are choosing to view life out of a lens of thankfulness and appreciation for what we have, despite the life conditions we might be experiencing
I liked how it defined gratitude is a “general state” we can be in, because I believe we have control over our attitude. We can choose to focus on what we don’t have or are missing out on, or we can focus on how much we do have and choose to be grateful for it.
But sometimes being thankful is hard. When life is stressful and you feel like you have no friends or no money or you hate your job, looking on the bright side can be tough. But there are so many benefits to developing this positive outlook of appreciation for what we DO have.
But it takes practice. Being grateful is a skill that can be developed. Here is a look at how we can go about it.
How Practicing Gratitude Can Change the Brain
As I was researching for this post, I found a really neat article on a study that was done involving 300 adults, mostly college students who were seeking mental health counseling[ii]. They randomly assigned the participants into three different groups.
They all received counseling services, but the first group was instructed to write a letter of gratitude to another person each week for three weeks. The second group was asked to do the same, but instead write about their deepest thoughts and feelings about negative experiences. The third group did no letter writing at all.
Not surprisingly, the participants that wrote the gratitude letters reported significantly better mental health 4 weeks and 12 weeks after the letter writing exercise had ended.
But they found something else.
Three months after the counseling sessions had begun, they took some of the people who wrote gratitude letters and comparted them to those who wrote nothing to see if their brains were processing information differently.
They used an fMRI scanner and had participants partake in a task where they were asked to pass on some money to someone they felt grateful for. They got to decide how much money, if any, to give. They were asked to rate how grateful and/or guilty they felt about giving or not giving money.
Here’s what they found:
When the participants felt more grateful, their brain activity was distinctly different from those who felt guilty and donated. The most interesting thing they found is that those who wrote the gratitude letters showed greater activation in the part of their brain that is associated with learning and decision making, suggesting that people who are more grateful are more attentive to how they express gratitude. And this was all 3 months after the letter writing began.
While it is all correlational, this and many other studies show that practicing gratitude can have lasting effects on the brain.
Cultivate the Skill
Gratitude is like a skill that can be trained. If we intentionally work on developing it, we are more likely to feel more life satisfaction, contentment, joy, etc.
Another study, similar to the one above, asked one group of participants to write a few sentences each week about things they were grateful for that had occurred during the week while a second group wrote about daily irritations or things that displeased them. The third group wrote about events that had affected them, whether negative or positive.
After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude felt more optimistic and better about their lives and also exercised more and had fewer visits to the physician than those who focused on the negative[iii]. Read this article for even more interesting studies!
What I have gleaned from my research is that even though these studies are correlational, not causational, intentionally practicing gratefulness seems to significantly improve not only your view on life and the events that come your way, but also improve happiness and well-being.
Let’s Take it From Paul
The Apostle Paul is, I think, one of the greatest role models of expressing gratitude, not because he was grateful, but because he was grateful despite his circumstances. When writing to the Philippians, he says, “For I have learned in whatever situation I am in to be content.” (Philippians 4:11) And he sure did! While in prison, he gave thanks for the churches he had started and visited:
“I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers!” – Ephesians 1:16
“I thank my God every time I pray for you. In all my prayers, for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.” – Philippians 1:3
“We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you…” 1 Colossians 1:14
To have an attitude and a faith like that all while in prison…Paul was a rockstar. He reminds us in 1 Thessalonians 5:18, “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
So how do we have an attitude of gratitude despite the circumstances we are in?
What I have found from my research and personal experience is that if you want to develop gratitude, you have to be intentional about it. So many studies show that writing down what you are grateful for can have a HUGE impact on your well-being and overall contentment.
1 . Do as the original study in this post stated. Each week for 3 weeks or more, write a letter of gratitude to someone, even if you don’t send it. You can write about how thankful you are for them and how they have influenced your life.
2. Do as the second study I shared about did. Each week, write a few sentences about things you are grateful for that happened that week.
3. Practice gratefulness daily. In the morning, take a few minutes to write down five things you are grateful for. This personally helps me to start the day off in a better mindset. Also, try to look at things that you may view as a burden, and find the good in them. Try to think about things that maybe you forget to be thankful for, like the fact that you can walk or see, that you have a roof over your head, that you have access to health care or have a car to drive while some people don’t and that you have a God that loves you so much that he sent His son to die for you so that you can be saved.
4. Memorize a verse for the times you need it. There are so many great bible verses out there on gratefulness, thankfulness and contentment. When you feel down or that you are not having a very grateful attitude, recite the verse to yourself. Here are some from this post and a personal favorite:
1 Thessalonians 5:18 - “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
1 Timothy 6:6-10 – “But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”
Colossians 3:17 - “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
5. Ask God to help you be more grateful. God wants us to come to Him with our struggles, so don’t be afraid to ask Him to help you in this area if you are struggling with being thankful.
Now I am sure there are plenty of other ways to intentionally practice developing more gratitude in our lives, but after reading the studies, I think writing things down is one of the best ways. And don’t
I would love to hear your thoughts on how YOU work on developing an attitude of gratitude or staying grateful. Please comment below!
[i] “How Gratitude Changes You and Your Brain.” Greater Good, greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_gratitude_changes_you_and_your_brain.
[ii] Wong, Joel, and Joshua Brown. “How Gratitude Changes You and Your Brain.” Greater Good, 2017, greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_gratitude_changes_you_and_your_brain.
[iii] Simon, Harvey B. “Giving Thanks Can Make You Happier.” Harvard Health, Harvard Health, www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/giving-thanks-can-make-you-happier.