GRATITUDE IS THE KEYSTONE of living a Christ-centered life. It’s no secret that having an attitude of gratitude, as we have been encouraged to do by President Monson, helps us to focus outward and to have a more positive outlook. There are a variety of spiritual benefits that result from having a grateful attitude, but what is less evident is that being grateful actually has physical benefits as well.
Gratitude Alters Brain Chemistry
Thinking positively is a great exercise for the brain. In fact, nearly all exercises for the physical body are beneficial to the spirit and vice versa. This leads us to the idea that positive thinking, specifically gratitude for daily blessings, is an exercise that positively affects the brain. When in the act of expressing gratitude, dopamine is released in the brain.
The brain is the most important organ of the body. It tells your heart to keep pumping, warns you of danger, and processes information sent from the eyes into identifiable objects. Also, it controls all your motor functions, and records all your memories—the list goes on and on. Chemicals in the brain are very important to its function. These chemicals can be triggered by different activities and mindsets.
Chemicals are the principal means by which neurons communicate with one another. Dopamine and serotonin, in particular, are neurotransmitters that communicate mood. The higher the level of these chemicals, the higher the level of positivity. Simply by having a grateful attitude, the levels of these chemicals has been proven to increase.
Gratitude’s surprising influence
Many studies of how gratitude effects the brain have been conducted. One, in particular, manipulated gratitude and observed how it affected the test subjects. For the duration of ten weeks, three test groups were assembled and assigned a specific practice they needed to complete weekly. One group was asked to succinctly write down five things for which they were thankful. Another was told to record five hassles they experienced. The final group was asked to describe five events or circumstances that affected them.
The results were incontestable. The group assigned to record five things they were grateful for reported that they “felt better about their lives as a whole and were more optimistic about the future.” Another surprising discovery of the study was that those included in the gratitude group reported to having fewer health complaints and were even motivated to exercise more than the control groups.
Simply by having an attitude of gratitude, you have the power to alter your brain chemistry, and by extension your physical health.
The Benefits of Dopamine
Having low levels of dopamine is the root cause of many illnesses, one of the most prominent being Parkinson’s disease. When we participate in activities that increase levels of dopamine, we are, in turn, motivated to continue those dopamine-producing behaviors. In this way, a healthy and constant supply of dopamine significantly influences the wellbeing of our mind, body, and spirit.
Maybe start with a journal, or by sharing what you’re grateful for with your family or friends around the table. Once you get started, you’ll eventually develop a habit. Once you develop this habit, you won’t want to break it.
Exercising your brain is like exercising any muscle. The more you do it, the more apt and motivated you will be to continue doing it. Repetition is the name of the game. As your grateful brain becomes stronger, you will find that your spirit is positively influenced as well. As your body begins to rely on consistent exercise, you’ll find that your day just isn’t the same without it. The same is true of the brain.
Tips to Becoming a More Grateful Person
We could all improve a little when it comes to not only expressing gratitude but really and truly feeling it. There are a variety of things that you can do daily to increase sincere feelings of gratitude. Each of these methods may require a slightly more concerted effort, or at the very least will require minor adjustments. You’ll see changes within yourself and your outlook in just a short time.
Keep a Gratitude Journal
We have all heard of the benefits of keeping a gratitude journal, but how many of us have actually done it? Make the commitment to write down just five things you are thankful for every day. If done consistently, you’ll find that you probably won’t want to stop at just five things. As you create this habit, your spiritual eyes will become more accustomed to recognizing blessings. Your heart will be full of gratitude before you know it.
Heavenly Father has given us prayer as a tool. Making a concerted effort to thank Heavenly Father for the blessings He gives you daily will improve your relationship with Him exponentially. Although prayer, like keeping a gratitude journal, may appear to be a no-brainer, it is one we often forget. If we aren’t watchful, our prayers can become long lists of requests rather than a conversation.
The Lord’s responses to our prayers will often come in the form of more blessings. He is more inclined to bless us when we recognize those things He has already given us in the first place. Before you know it, the blessings will be a-flowin’!
This is yet another of those things that many of you will probably read and say to yourselves, “well, duh,” but it’s impossible to appreciate the nature that surrounds us too much. Notice the ornate details in all of it. The delicate veins of the leaves, the jagged angles, and shadows of mountains. The way it was all created for us to enjoy by a loving Father in Heaven. Notice it. Thank Him for it. You’ll thank yourself for doing so.
Grateful for Trials—Make a List
This tip may make a great deal of you cringe. It is apparent that trials are given to us for our growth and learning, but it is often hard, even after they have passed, to see how they were supposed to benefit us. My challenge to you is to make a list of the top ten trials you have had in your recent or distant past. Once you have done this, determine at least one positive thing that resulted from each of them.
This exercise will produce at least two things. One, it will provide you with an eternal perspective. You will find yourself more able to endure trials when you are in them because you will have the assurance that something good will result from them eventually. Two, you will begin to notice that God’s hand is in all things. He knows you individually! He is at the helm. Everything that happens in your life, whether good or bad, has been allowed for a reason, and completing this exercise honestly and meticulously will reinforce this to you. You will learn to be grateful in any circumstance.
Appreciate the Simple Things
We take so many simple things for granted: Running water, clean laundry, food in our bellies, a place to call home, and so much more.
As members of the Church, we possess knowledge about what our purpose is here on earth. We also know what will happen to us after we leave this mortal existence, have the Book of Mormon, and understand the doctrine of prayer. Most importantly, we know we are children of God; a simple truth that many are not aware of or refuse to accept.
Expressing gratitude for the simple pleasures we enjoy helps us to have a glass-half-full perspective.
Gratitude: a Healthy Addiction
When individuals seek out artificial sources to provide the desired dopamine release, this is when it can become harmful. Some of the main contributors to the decrease of dopamine activity in the brain are alcohol, caffeine, and sugar. These substances generally bring about a fleeting sense of satisfaction and so leave the brain feeling dopamine deprived in the long run. In this way, the addicted brain always feels like it is in pursuit, rather than achieving what it wants. However, there are some healthy things to get addicted to, and this is one of them.
Addiction alters brain configuration and over time begins to change the way it registers pleasure. This is true of any addiction. It’s lucky, then, that it is possible to get addicted to something that is good for you.
You would think that it is never a good idea to become dependent on something. This is true of substances, and other things that can ensnare the mind, but there are no drawbacks to an addiction to gratitude. In this case, there cannot be too much of a good thing, because all that results are more good things. Get addicted everyone!
Gratitude needs to be worked for. It doesn’t come easily sometimes, but neither does anything worth having. So work at it.
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Comment below about how gratitude has positively affected your life.