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Setting Gratitude as Your Magnetic North

How gratitude catalyzes "upward spiral" biochemistry that boosts mood, health.

 Nicholas Bartos/Unsplash
Source: Nicholas Bartos/Unsplash

Grappling with the horrors of global racial injustice in the midst of the COVID-19 quarantine, we are living a paradox. What we want and need most is one of the very things we cannot have: physical proximity to the friends and family we love. While there is no substitute for the quantum- and molecular-level biochemistry of in-person, authentic human connection, the healing brain chemistry of gratitude offers a potent, real-time proxy. Gratitude produces a neurobiological “upward spiral” that we can set into motion right now, and as a result, improve our outlook, mood, and overall well-being.

Gratitude is defined as a thankful appreciation for what we receive, whether tangible or intangible. It reminds us that we are part of something larger than ourselves. This is significant given the growing body of research demonstrating that isolation (being alone) and loneliness (alone or with a person/group that leaves us feeling invisible) can be toxic to our systems. This “empty” feeling can elevate levels of stress hormones, instigating a chain reaction of inflammatory biochemistry throughout our brains and bodies.

Now that you know the story, here is the science.

Feelings of gratitude activate the limbic system, a powerful set of brain structures that includes the hypothalamus and amygdala, both of which play a large role in regulating our emotions, memory, and endocrine function (hormones). It is here where brain chemicals associated with positivity, including oxytocin (the love hormone), serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine, are generated in an endogenous, uplifting molecular boost that helps us transition into a healthier and more adaptive headspace.

When we wire our brains to focus on what we appreciate in others (vs. what’s missing), or think about what we do have (vs. what we don’t), we create the conditions for a constructive and expansive cycle of emotions and thoughts that shifts our biochemistry for the better.

While perceived negative emotions, such as anxiety, fear, and loneliness, tend to trigger our sympathetic nervous systems (fight, flight, or freeze) and narrow our scope of perceived options (e.g., "Bad day! I am stressed and need ice cream… and maybe a bourbon, too!"), the mental frame of positivity, which includes feelings of gratitude, empathy, forgiveness, and generosity, instigates a biological healing cascade that effectively broadens our perspective and behavioral repertoire (e.g., "Bad day, but I’m grateful that I managed to keep it together! Though I’m craving ice cream, what will really help settle my frazzled nerves is a warm bath, a hot cup of tea, and a good night’s sleep.").

The field of positive psychology terms this productive and healing thought-behavior response pattern “broaden-and-build.” Gratitude can help us pause, breathe, and gain perspective, allowing us to see that there are more options than just one.

Because in general “neurons that wire together, fire together,” gratitude can nudge our inner cognitive processing from self-focused internal thought, which more often than not is comprised of negatively-oriented content and unproductive mood states (e.g., rumination and anxiety), and towards something larger than ourselves—whether it is the galvanizing central force of the universe that is inside all of us, a higher power, the glory of the natural world, or a deep emotional connection with another person.

Some Ways to Begin Cultivating Gratitude:

Keep a daily gratitude journal: Start by breathing into a soft space in your mind, envisioning warmth. Write down 3-5 things you’re grateful for: “I am grateful…” Breathe in and feel these gifts as you write…

Compose a letter of gratitude to someone every week, and send it! Research demonstrates the powerfully positive effects for the writer and the receiver.

Let moments of gratitude become micro-meditations: The neurobiology of meditation provides access to softer emotions that surface when we are “human beings” rather than “human doings.”

Count your blessings around the family dinner table and with your bestie at the beginning of your next video or an in-person chat.

Don’t forget that “eustress” (positive stress) can be a positive force in our growth and development. An attitude of gratitude can reposition most challenges—including the extraordinarily difficult circumstances presented by systemic racial injustice and also COVID-19—as opportunities to learn, evolve, and, channeling the spirit of Gandhi, “Be the change we want to see in the world.”

If emotions of gratitude are difficult to access, act with intention, and “fake it till you make it.” Verbalizing positivity is a first step in shifting perspective and in spurring the buoyant biochemical cascade into action.

Find a “gratitude buddy.” Spend 2-5 minutes a day sharing and feeling the things you are grateful for together, even if you are six feet apart or talking on the phone.

As the late, great Maya Angelou once said: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” In practicing gratitude, we experience the breadth and richness of the world around us and give ourselves a dose of the world’s most powerful medicine: love.

A version of this post was published by Turnaround for Children on the 180 Blog.

More from Sheila Ohlsson Walker CFA, Ph.D.
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