Gratitude is the healthiest emotion. If you dwell on the negative, the brain reinforces those negative emotions. The good news is that you can change how your brain thinks.
Have you ever said, 'That's how I am, I can't change'? Science used to believe this, with our limited knowledge of how the brain works. We used to think that our personality was fixed, our characteristics were fixed. But research has come on in leaps and bounds over the last few years, and understanding of the brain has changed significantly.
I’m no scientist, but I’ve read many, many books on thinking, behaviour and habits. I’ve often come across this idea of neuroplasticity – the idea that we can change the neural pathways in our brains. Jane Ransom, in her TEDx talk, says that exercising gratitude physically remaps the brain, reforms the subconscious mind.
You can watch the TEDx talk here
To be effective it requires three elements
Feel the emotion of being grateful, really connect with it
Extend your gratitude to the people in your life. Family, friends, loved ones. For the purposes of improving things at work, extend your gratitude to those who help you at work, a colleague you’ve become friends with, a manager who helped you get promoted, someone who’s helped you learn a new task…. Even a little thing, someone who made you a coffee today, or gave you a smile as you arrived.
Like physical exercise strengthens our muscles, a gratitude exercise strengthens those new neural pathways. Ransom suggests a minimum of two weeks; I think that for the benefits to remain, the exercise needs to be more ongoing. However, it does seem that even two weeks can help you feel happier. Maybe a couple of times a week once the pathways have been set up? But every day to start with.
Ransom gives some examples from her own life of how this has helped her. Let me share a story about someone I‘m close to (no names to preserve the confidentiality). She has long had a very negative attitude towards life. Hated her job – or specifically the management and how they treated her. But was also quite negative in other areas of her life. I persuaded her to start a gratitude journal, which she did, and kept up for a year writing three things every day. I’ve noticed the difference in the way she encourages others to be less critical of themselves, and often makes supportive comments. This is such a turnaround from the previous habit of commiserating with others, moaning about life. They say misery loves company, and it so easy to fall into the trap of agreeing that life is unfair. But focusing on what she’s grateful for has helped her to be less critical of others, less down about herself and happier in life.
Write it down
Get a nice notebook. Science has shown us that our brain engages differently if we write, so you'll get more benefit if you do this. No-one need see it, it's just for you. Start writing down three things you’re grateful for at the end of each day. Do this for the minimum of two weeks, but I’d encourage you to keep it up, even if only two or three times a week after the initial period.
Let me know how this goes for you in the comments below.