The Science of Gratitude: How Positive Thoughts Change The Brain

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First, I’d like to wish each and every one of you a Happy New Year!

I know many people do not look forward to the holidays and can’t conceive of looking forward to better things in the new year. For some, the new year brings disappointment and only serves as a reminder of failed past resolutions and unattained goals. 

But what if it didn’t have to be this way?

What if we ditched the resolutions and started looking to neuro-science for answers? 

Even better, what if we used that evidence to our advantage by rewiring our brains? Let me explain.

I’m not a big fan of New Year Resolutions. Just like “diets,” resolutions are often short-lived and unsustainable. And when we slip, it leads to disappointment. 

We often create such high expectations for ourselves. We think of all the ways in which we are disappointed in life, all the things that went wrong, and all the things we want to change. Usually, that disappointment is with ourselves or revolves around our lives.

Now, more than ever before, we are inundated with many different recommendations that come at us from every direction. We think, “Oh, I should try that.” Or “Wow, I really should start doing that.” 

How often have you heard about a new health trend and then thought that’s exactly what you need? Is this the missing piece of the puzzle for you?

Every time we think this way and don’t follow through, it leaves us feeling a little more disappointed with ourselves.

That is not my hope for you!

Instead, I’d like to open the new year with one word – gratitude.

Moreover, I’d like to share with you what happens in the brain when we have thoughts of gratitude and why it can be so challenging to think positively.

Now, please – don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that life is perfect or easy. I’m not dismissing the desperation and hardships that many people are experiencing around the globe. All I aim to do is educate you about the power gratitude can have and what that may look like for you. And, if you are open to it, I’ll offer a few key questions for you to think about to help get you started implementing some gratitude in your life. 

What is Gratitude?

Gratitude means something different to each of us. 

Simply put, gratitude is an emotion. It’s similar to thankfulness, appreciation, or happiness. It typically involves acknowledging and showing appreciation for something in life that’s meaningful to you or that you value. 

Gratitude is also a character trait – a strength that can grow through awareness and practice.

And because there are many different thoughts and views of what gratitude looks like and how best to practice it, there is no script to follow. There is not one way to express gratitude. For some, it may be a nightly journal where they write down 3 things they are grateful for that day. For others, it may mean actively looking for the good in each and every day or situation. And yet for others, gratitude may be a verbal expression aimed at someone else. 

Regardless of how a person practices gratitude and how cheesy it may sound to some, research has proven that the benefits of cultivating gratitude are very real. 

OUR BRAIN’S NEGATIVITY BIAS

This may come as a surprise, but our brains are hard-wired to seek out and remember negative experiences. 

If you’ve ever gotten stuck on a negative thought or replayed a traumatic experience over and over again, then you understand what I mean.

Many of us know how easy it is to get distracted by the horrible news around the world or get stuck on the negative. But have you ever wondered why that is?

Why are our brains designed to ruminate on the negative and forget the positive?

Well, it all has to do with our innate survival mode.

Through millions of years of evolution, our brains have adopted a negativity bias to keep us alive. If we’re confronted with a life-threatening situation (enter a bear encounter or raging tiger here), and we survive to live another day, that experience has been programmed in our brain forever. This way, if a similar situation happens again, we’d know exactly what to do in order to survive. That’s why our brains are wired to pay attention to the negative. 

When times are good, and things are going well, we don’t tend to remember that. Though we enjoy these moments and how good they feel at the time, our brain has no need to recall them. But if something bad happens that might put our life in danger, we must remember how to avoid it. If we don’t, it may mean the end of our existence next time.   

This was a much-needed survival mechanism of the past.

But fast forward to present-day times. Our brains still use many of the same survival skills they learned to keep us safe, but with a different focus on the types of threats we’re faced with.

Today, the threats to our emotional and mental health are much greater than any threats to our physical survival (for the most part). These are the threats we’re being inundated with daily – threats to our mental health and emotional wellbeing. 

In order to continue to survive, the brain is constantly on the lookout for any problems or dangerous situations that may put our lives at risk. That’s why we’re programmed to prioritize bad experiences and are hard-wired to seek out the negative. In the process, we forget about the positive. 

One thing that can help deprogram some of that negativity, is to bring in more gratitude. We must give intentional time to think about the positive things around us. Remember – the brain is designed to forget about them. So, we have to go out of our way to pay attention to positive experiences. 

Starting a gratitude practice and being actively on the hunt for good things in our life, can make a big overall difference. 

When we do, it changes what’s possible. Our energy changes. And rather than focusing on the negative (as the brain is designed to do), we’ll start to seek out the good.

We would like to thank Kelly for sharing his story with us.  As always, we welcome your thoughts and value your feedback.  Let us know what you think by dropping us a line or commenting below.

If you would like to get involved and share your experience with Ataxia, please contact us and join Our Community today. A place where we empower you to build a healthy lifestyle and raise overdue Ataxia Awareness. Experience transformative storytelling and share your story to inspire positive change.


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