I can make your life better right now. By right now I mean ‘right now’ as in this second. Are you up for it? What I am going to say is backed by two decades of scientific research from major universities and research centers all over this country and the world.
They have been studying this remarkable phenomenon from different approaches and all have come to the same conclusions.
These are the benefits from this simple practice. These benefits have been observed and validated in study after study.
Improves physical health
Improves mental strength
Experience fewer aches and pains
Increases happiness and satisfaction in life
Enhances empathy and reduces aggression
Improves psychological health
Superior cardiovascular health
Is a natural antidepressant
Increases academic performance
Better outcomes at work
Better interpersonal relationships
Increases overall feeling of Well-being
Literally rewires neural pathways in your brain… literally.
There is a simple life changing behavior that requires you to do only one thing. All you have to do to enjoy all the benefits I listed above is have one simple little thought in your head. Takes about a second.
I Am Thankful
You may have rolled your eyes at that statement and thought ‘oh boy, here we go’ and that’s okay. On the surface it does seem simplistic doesn’t it? Read the rest of this post. I guarantee you that it will make your life better. On the other hand, if you don’t want any of the benefits listed above... up to you.
The Science of Expressing Gratitude
Gratitude is when you recognize something positive has come into your life from an external source and you are thankful for it. When you are thankful you are expressing gratitude. This has a demonstrable effect on your physical and psychological Well-being.
Neuroscientists study the brain using various scanning devices like MRIs among others. They talk about neuro-pathways, neurotransmitters, neuro-circuits, etc. These are observable phenomena and they all are part of your brain chemistry.
What we know for a fact is the neural circuitry in our brain releases dopamine when we show gratitude. And dopamine running through our system is a good thing, it triggers positive emotions and improves relationships and pro-social behaviors. Dopamine helps us to feel optimistic, plus it just flat out makes you feel good.
When we feel thankful and express gratitude serotonin is also released by the brain. Serotonin is basically an anti-depressant. It increases feelings of Well-being and happiness.
When the production of these neurotransmitters, dopamine and serotonin, increase they travel along neural pathways to the parts of the brain that many antidepressant drugs utilize. Practicing gratitude is a natural way to create the same effects of certain medications.
If you want to find something to be thankful for be thankful for neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to change throughout an individual's life and that is a good thing. The more you practice gratitude and stimulate the production of dopamine and serotonin to travel the neural pathways (bringing to you all the benefits mentioned above) the stronger and more automatic it becomes.
Here is a great analogy for this idea. When you are making a new path through the woods, the first time is the most challenging. But after repeated trips the same path becomes well defined and much easier to follow. Same deal with the brain. The more times a neural path is taken, all the neurons firing together, the less effort it takes to stimulate the pathway again. This what I meant when I listed earlier that you can literally rewire your brain.
In a very real sense, whatever we put our attention on grows.
We can see from the genetic studies mentioned before that gratitude has been around for a long time. Research suggests that gratitude is not simply a cultural construct. It has deep roots that are embedded in our evolutionary history, our brains and DNA, and in child development. Again, these studies suggest that gratitude is an intrinsic part of being human, part of the very building blocks of human biology.
Gratitude is an evolutionarily beneficial trait that has been hardwired into the human brain, designed by natural selection. Gratitude helped people form friendships and alliances which then helped with survival.
Some have even described gratitude as “social glue” that fortifies relationships between friends, family, and romantic partners and serves as the backbone of human society.
All religions from as far back as we know to the current day extol the virtues of being thankful and expressing gratitude. But you don’t have to be religious to recognize that gratitude should be one of the organizing principles of your life.
The Superpower of Thankfulness
I did extensive research analyzing dozens of scientific studies in preparing for this post. I also read numerous other posts about how to use gratitude to gain the most benefits from expressing thankfulness. There a lot of suggestions from keeping a daily journal to writing letters and so forth. All good suggestions and worthy for sure. Oprah has said the single best thing she ever did was keep a daily journal of things she was thankful for.
I have to say though for various reasons the research has shown that the very best approach to take in expressing gratitude to enjoy all the benefits I have listed is the simplest one. We’ll do it right now. Think this thought, “I am thankful”. That’s it. Think that thought everyday to setup and wire your neural pathway to increasing the overall Well-being in your life.
When you run that thought through your mind you can add ‘for’ to it for added effect. “I am thankful for coffee.” “I am thankful for my shirt.” “I am thankful for a sunny day.” “I am thankful for my tv.” I am not trying to be flippant here.
Psychological studies have shown that when expressing gratitude, the effectiveness is greatest when expressing thanks for the small things in life.
You don’t need to sit and think about some major event or act of kindness by someone to express gratitude. For whatever reason when you are thankful for the small things in life the effectiveness of being thankful is maximized.
Writing a letter of gratitude to someone is a great idea and when appropriate I highly recommend it. However, you will probably be as surprised as I was to learn that for you the effectiveness was the same whether you actually sent the letter or not. In fact, the effectiveness (for you, not the person you are writing to) of just thinking about writing a thank you letter was the same as writing and sending one.
It’s your thoughts that count. It’s your sincere owning of being thankful that matters.
This is what you can do right now to make your life better. Take a pencil or pen and a piece of paper and write, “I am thankful” on it. Do a good job too, don’t just jot it down, take your time and print it out nice and neat. Make it about the size of a business card. In fact, using the back of a business card would be great.
Now take that and put it somewhere that you will see it every day, maybe several times a day. Put it on your desk or kitchen table, use a magnet and put it on the fridge, tape it to the front door, just don’t forget about it or ignore it. What you do is when you see the 'I Am Thankful' sign you register that phrase in your mind by saying it to yourself, not out loud.
So, when you are walking out the door in the morning and you’ve had a cup of coffee you see the note and think “I am thankful for the cup of coffee.” It doesn’t matter if it was the best cup of coffee you ever had. What matters is you drink coffee in the morning because you like to and you had a cup so be thankful for that.
You have clothes on don’t you? Be thankful for that. They may not be the most expensive clothes or the trendiest but be thankful for having clothes to wear. You sit down in the evening and you are tired from the day and it feels good to sit, be thankful for that and express that thought in your mind. “I am thankful for this chance to sit and relax.” Hey, maybe it's only 10 seconds of relief you get but be thankful for those 10 seconds.
Hundreds of millions of people all over the world don’t have regular meals. If you are lucky enough to have a dinner, be thankful for that. Be thankful for the small things in life and you will be rewarded. It doesn’t take much and you don’t have to look far to find something to be thankful for.
That's it. That is all it takes to make your life better, express gratitude for the small things in life.