Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Become the Boss of Your Brain

Seven tips for cultivating a lifestyle of gratitude and optimal well-being.

There is so much out there, especially at this time of year, about remembering to be grateful. Though this once-a-year tip is certainly a good one, very few people realize that cultivating gratitude daily can be life-changing. This is because the neurons in the brain can actually be rewired to seek out the positive and these changes can even be seen on an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imagery) brain scan.

 Colin Behrens/Pixabay
Source: Colin Behrens/Pixabay

What’s important here is to realize the importance of becoming the boss of your brain, and to take charge, much like a good parent redirects the behavior of a toddler. The brain is lazy and wants to do what is easy and familiar. Therefore, it takes commitment and effort for any lasting changes to take place.

Picture three hiking paths. The first is overgrown with large thistle bushes. The second has tall grass and the potential for snakes to be slithering around. The third path has very short grass and looks like a windy putting green, with full visibility and is easy on the feet. This path could be walked on with flip-flops, and is the path the brain will take every time as it is easy and familiar.

 Albrecht Fietz/Pixabay
Source: Albrecht Fietz/Pixabay

So, if you are a Negative Nellie, your putting-green path will be one that is pessimistic, actively seeking out familiar scenarios that feed this habit of what-if thinking, all-or-nothing thinking, guilt-and-blame thinking, catastrophizing, and/or self-deprecation. The real bummer in this situation is that the brain is self-reinforcing, so each and every time the brain finds what it is looking for these negative thought patterns are strengthened.

Here is where gratitude comes in to save the day. Just remind yourself that because the brain is very toddler-like to expect a tantrum when you attempt to redirect its behavior. Like a good parent, it is important to be consistent and follow through.

By sticking to your guns, your brain will gradually begin to familiarize itself with and look for the positive. Just like anything else, what we practice we inevitably get good at. And, it will get easier. I promise. In fact, the average amount of time it takes for a habit to shift is about 21 days. Then, you will simply be doing gratitude maintenance.

Here is how to make it happen:

1. Select a gratitude journal. This can be something from the Dollar Store or a fancier one as long as it is inviting and you are excited to jump in each day. You can also jazz this up with your own artwork.

2. Write down three things each day you are grateful for. This should be a complete sentence that includes the words “I am grateful for” and not just “my dog.” In order for your neurons to get what they are supposed to do they need consistency (remember the toddler-brain). Simply saying this will not suffice. The written word has neurological power.

3. Less is more. It is best to stick with the three short sentences so that you will keep up with this.

4. Have a default gratitude. This is important for those days when being grateful may be a struggle. My personal default gratitude is eyesight, as I cannot imagine how drastically different life would be without this.

5. Embrace the 20-second rule. This means to have your gratitude journal in a place that is easily accessible. I have mine on the window sill in our bedroom so I literally have to walk by it to get out the door.

6. Keep a pen wedged in your journal. This is very important in order for this lovely new habit to stick. Make this as quick and easy as possible.

 Lucas Pezeta/Pexels
Source: Lucas Pezeta/Pexels

7. Tell yourself you’re back! Once you have returned your gratitude journal to its easy-access home, find a mirror and announce to yourself with enthusiasm, “I’m back!” This is a wonderful way to wind up your new three-minute morning ritual. After all, think of the alternative.

Remember that despite what many people may think, there is no such thing as the happiness lottery where the lucky winner draws the golden happiness ticket. Like anything else, becoming the boss of your brain takes effort. And, there is no better investment.


Achor, S. (2010). The happiness advantage: The seven principles of positive psychology that fuel success and performance at work. New York, NY: Random House.

More from Kimberly Quinn Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Kimberly Quinn Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today