Intentional daily acts of gratitude can improve mental health.
Tis the season to raise our glass and recount all the things we are thankful for. Although our culture has popularized this practice during the holidays, research suggests intentionally engaging in gratitude practices daily can have a positive effect on our mental states.
According to Dr. Andrew Huberman, Stanford University professor and neuroscientist, one common trait of people who are high achievers is that they exercise gratitude multiple times throughout their day.
The type of gratitude practice that he refers to is when we take a moment and stop long enough to shift our perception and attention towards something that we value. This can be something as simple as a hot cup of coffee on a cold morning, encountering green lights all the way to work, or vital aspects of our day that sustain us such as clean air to breathe, legs to walk on, and a heart that beats.
It only takes a moment to take notice of these things in our life. When we do, it shifts our focus towards the internal self.
Gratitude also changes the chemicals in our brain and body. It stimulates the release of serotonin (a neurotransmitter that boosts our mood) and oxytocin (a hormone associated with feelings of being safe). These chemical changes also have been found to improve our immunity and increase our sense of hopefulness and optimistic thinking. The circuitry within the brain that begins to fire helps us to become more focused on possibilities rather than challenges.
In a recent randomized clinical trial designed to assess the effects of 14 days of gratitude journaling, researchers found that the gratitude intervention managed to increase positive affect, subjective happiness and life satisfaction, and reduce negative affect and depression symptoms.
What’s more, gratitude creates a “neuro-cocktail” of transmitters which signal an internal sense that, “All is well. I am OK”
An internal sense of safety and inner security is the foundation upon which we are then able to shift our focus to the external world.
Our biological home must feel safe and secure before we can move forward to interact and navigate through our external environment and relationships with care and awareness.
Gratitude is a way to nurture our internal real estate, the home we have from the time we are born until we die.
When I am having a particularly hard day, or moment, I typically turn towards gratitude. It is amazing that even when I feel a sense of suffering within myself, I always have the power to shift my internal pain when I recognize and acknowledge even the broadest thing to be grateful for. It can be gratitude for my breath or even for my comfy sweater. When you let the feeling of gratitude gently seep in, it is one of the greatest soothers there is.
If you are ready to start bringing gratitude into your daily practice, here are some ways you can begin:
Look around the room you are in and notice what you are grateful for in that space.
Now, think about the building you are in. What can you be grateful for within this space?
How about the town you live in, your country, the planet?
You can also make gratitude a more personal practice, turning your attention towards your friends, family, and yourself.
Below are worksheets you can use to help your students practice gratitude.
For elementary school students:
For middle school students:
For high school students: