By Lauren Dummit, LMFT, CSAT,
Co-Founder & Clinical Director,
Triune Therapy Group
In today’s consumerist society it is easy to get caught up in a perpetual cycle of the desire for more, comparing ourselves and our lives to others’, and focusing on what others have that we lack, whether it’s time, convenience, wealth, or enlightenment.
We do have a choice and can choose to perceive the glass as either half empty or half full. This choice can profoundly affect the way we feel and experience our lives. There is always something to be grateful for, even when life is at its most challenging. In fact, it is when we are struggling that the practice of cultivating gratitude can be the most transformative. Research shows that simply keeping a gratitude journal can significantly increase well-being and life satisfaction.
Blessings can be found everywhere. When our attention is focused on the negative, the abundance in our lives is easy to overlook.
Focusing on what we lack leads to a constant state of fear, stress, anxiety, jealousy, resentment, depression, etc. By actively choosing to notice all of the bounty that already exists in our lives, from the minute to the more obvious, we can drastically alter our perceptions.
We may realize that every breath is a miracle and each smile can become a gift. We also begin to notice the ways in which hardship and difficulty teach us invaluable lessons. The world reflects back to us what we ourselves embody; and with the practice of gratitude, the inevitable blessings that flow our way give us even more to be grateful for. The more we appreciate life, the more life appreciates us and life bestows us with goodness.
Over the past several years, I’ve participated in a daily gratitude email chain with a group of friends, and this basic practice has truly been the most significant contributing factor to my overall sense of happiness. To contemplate at least five things that I appreciate each day enables me to feel both humbled and so very lucky; and in reading the daily lists of the ten other women, I am reminded of things I may not have considered. Some days I am overwhelmed with a sense of awe, joy, and peace and am able to feel completely content with my life right now as it is in that moment. This practice keeps me grounded in the present and creates a feeling of being in love with my life.
Studies have linked gratitude with increased satisfaction, motivation, energy, better sleep and health, and has the ability to reduce stress and sadness. With gratitude, we are more engaged in our environment, which leads to increased personal growth, self-acceptance, and a sense of purpose and meaning.
Gratitude can be a natural antidepressant because certain neural circuits are activated, changing the chemistry of the brain. Production of dopamine and serotonin increases, and these neurotransmitters then travel neural pathways to the “bliss” center of the brain — a process similar to that of many antidepressants. Practicing gratitude can be a way to naturally mimic the effects of medication and create feelings of contentment.
It may be more difficult for addicts in early recovery to access this degree of pleasure simply by focusing on gratitude because they have often been using certain substances or high risk behaviors to stimulate the dopamine and serotonin in their brain at such a high intensity that they have actually worn these neural pathways out.
However, the more one stimulates 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.” 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).
- Write down five things each day that you appreciate.
- It is helpful to journal at about the same time so you develop a routine.
- Meditating on our blessings helps us to let go of daily stress and replace it with gratitude and joy, rewiring our brains so that finding the bliss becomes more instinctual.
- Practice and repeat. This routine is like going to a mental gym. Think of it as weight lifting for your neural pathways. The more we practice cultivating gratitude, the stronger the muscle gets, and the exercises that once felt so difficult begin to feel like second nature.
- Positive Psychology Program. (2017, April 28). What is Gratitude and What Is Its Role in Positive Psychology? Retrieved November 21, 2017, from https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/gratitude-appreciation/
- Fletcher, E. (2015, November 24). The Neuroscience of Gratitude. Retrieved November 21, 2017, from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/emily-fletcher/the-neuroscience-of-gratitude_b_8631392.html
- Taylor, M. (n.d.). An Experiment in Gratitude. Retrieved November 17, 2017, from http://www.dailyom.com/cgi-bin/display/articledisplay.cgi?aid=36647
- Carnes, P. (2015). Facing the shadow: starting sexual and relationship recovery: a gentle path to beginning recovery from sex addiction. United States: Gentle Path Press.
- Sacks, O. (2015). Gratitude. Toronto, Canada: Estate of Oliver Sacks.