October 10, 2014 DrK

Gratitude: Counting Your Blessings Works For Your Brain, Your Body, And Your Business- Really!

I was infuriated with my assistant. My wife was making me crazy. My colleagues were insufferable. It was just one of those weeks where nothing went smoothly. And then I had an “AH HA” moment.
GratitudeFor the third time in a row I heard my inner voice explode, “These people are all idiots!” Confession? When I am struggling, I see idiocy around me because my brain is looking for it. The brain is a wonderful thing…it will find proof for what it already believes is true. (Known in the biz as confirmation bias.) Fortunately, over time I have become more effective at recognizing this pattern. As I am the only common link between the people irritating the shit out of me-I may be the problem.

The good news here? By simply reframing my interior monologue, I can make my confirmation bias work for me. By cultivating an attitude of gratitude, I can utilize my brain’s inherent ability to see what it wants to see.
Understanding the very real effect gratitude has on both your brain and your body can enable you to be much more effective, happy, and productive.

Gratitude and the Brain

Okay. When I start talking about gratitude what images come to mind? (Longhaired hippies in a circle singing Kumbaya, Mystic gurus teaching the path to enlightenment, right?)

It is tempting to dismiss the idea of gratitude as fluff, or new-agey hokum, but that would be a huge mistake.

In fact, the measurable benefit of gratitude is based in hard science. There have been multiple studies utilizing functional MRI’s and brain imaging techniques to map the effect of gratitude on the brain. And the effects are significant!

Gratitude affects our brains in two ways:

  • Biologic: Researchers found dramatically increased activity in the hypothalamus when subjects were asked to evoke feelings of gratitude. THIS IS IMPORTANT. The hypothalamus is responsible for many of the body’s day-to-day functions. Increased activity there correlates to better self-care, less stress, and overall better health.
  • Cognitive: When you focus on things to be thankful for and then see the effects of your gratitude, your brain automatically looks for more things to be grateful for. (“That felt good, I want more!”) This is hijacking your brain’s natural tendency toward confirmation bias to your advantage.

Personal and Professional Benefits of Gratitude

Gratitude affects every aspect of life. When you practice gratitude, the effects are far reaching. Most significantly? Cultivating a gratitude practice brings physical benefits, emotional and social benefits, and even career benefits.

  • Physical: Remember that increased hypothalamus activity in the brain? Consistent gratitude can result in better sleep, fewer aches and pains, and more exercise (and those wonderful endorphins that accompany it.)
  • Emotional/Social: In a recent article in Psychology Today, “Grateful Brain” researchers found that higher levels of gratitude are associated with lower anxiety and depression.

Simply ten minutes a day of focused time reflecting upon reasons to be grateful resulted in measurable differences in overall attitude.

  • Career: “Gratitude makes you a more effective manager, helps you network, increases your decision making capabilities, increases your productivity, and helps you get mentors and protégés. As a result, gratitude helps you achieve your career goals, as well as making your workplace a more friendly and enjoyable place to be.”

Grateful people are attractive, charismatic. Networking comes easier and collaborative work is more readily accomplished. And when your physical health is improved you have the stamina to make good decisions even when the going gets tough.

What Hinders an Attitude of Gratitude?

Western culture is distinctly uncomfortable with gratitude. We pride ourselves on being ‘self-made.’ We perceive gratitude as weakness. Best advice? Get over it.

Common Beliefs About Gratitude:

  • Expressing gratitude is cheesy. Well, yes. It can be. But here is the deal: Are you willing to miss out on the benefits of reflecting gratitude because of the ‘risk’ of being seen as corny? Sheesh, if there is benefit to being corny, why not give it a try?
  • Gratitude is for new-age hippies, not for me. Being associated with a concept that has a touchy-feely vibe can feel risky. It can feel as if the cost is too high. Eleanor Roosevelt once said “Do what you feel in your heart to be right, for you’ll be criticized anyway.” If expressing gratitude has a measurable benefit to your brain, your body, and your business, it is for everyone.

3 Ways to Get Started

  1. Start with a single thought-When you wake up in the morning, think of one thing you are happy to have, one goal you achieved, one person you are grateful to know. Dwell on that thought for a few moments to start your day. Keep it simple. You can even turn a common negative emotion around. Instead of ‘I don’t want to get up’, make a slight grateful shift to “I am grateful for my extremely comfortable bed, and I love my new sheets.” (Yeah, I can see your eyes rolling at that suggestion, but…) You will be amazed at the difference.
  2. Keep a gratitude journal-Humans are notoriously bad at accountability. Even with the best of intentions, if you merely think grateful thoughts you may not see any changes. At the end of every day make a quick note about something good that happened during the day. (Set yourself up for success- don’t shoot for the moon! It does not have to be a novel, just a quick reminder to end the day with gratitude.)
  3. Give praise –When you are grateful for someone’s actions, be sure to tell them. In a funny way, this is fairly selfish. You actually end up reinforcing your own feelings of gratitude. Don’t overthink it. Dominique Jones says, “The words you use have less impact than the tone you say them in.” Just be specific and sincere.

Moral of the Story?

Let’s get back to my week. I could tell you that I sat and reflected and everything miraculously shifted. Not entirely true. My assistant cried (and actually stomped her foot at me in my office). One of my colleagues noticed my malaise and commented on it. No comment about my wife. BUT, I was able to break free of the downward spiral MUCH more quickly than if I had continued to collect evidence of everyone’s incompetency. And as an added bonus, I felt gratified by my ability to manipulate my pesky confirmation bias into working for me instead of against me.

Author Anais Nin wrote, “We do not see things as they are, we see things as we are.” If you can remember to be grateful, the things you see will reflect that, and in the long run, you will be happier, healthier, and more productive for it.