Thanksgiving has been a hallmark holiday celebrating the founding of our (comparatively) young country. It’s a day of food, football, and family. A day to celebrate new beginnings as reflected in our history. But beyond the fun and food, we want to remember that the central element of Thanksgiving is “thanks” or having an attitude of gratitude!
This holiday invites us into a season of thankfulness amongst the chaos of the Christmas Season that seems to blend with Thanksgiving more and more. But did you know there are serious benefits of practicing gratitude in your life year-round?
Practicing gratitude is a gateway to joy, lower stress levels, and a feeling of greater connection to the world around us. It is a scientifically proven component to healing our mental health and changing how see our circumstances in life in the long-term.
Joshua Brown, Ph.D. and Joel Wong, Ph.D., conducted a research study of 300 adults who were reporting low levels of mental health. They separated the participants into three groups. One group was assigned to write a letter of gratitude to another person once a week for three weeks, the second was to write about their deepest thoughts and feelings about negative experiences, and the third group had no writing activity. These were some of their findings.
1. Gratitude unshackles us from toxic emotions
The study discovered that those who wrote the gratitude letters used a higher percentage of “we” words and fewer negative emotion words than the other group. The second letter writing group also used positive emotion and “we” words, but their mental health did not improve until they started using less negative emotion words as well. This suggests that gratitude letter writing produces better mental health by shifting one’s attention away from toxic emotions, such as resentment and envy.
2. Gratitude helps even if you don’t share it
The participants who wrote positive gratitude letters were not required to send them to the intended recipient, however they still experienced positive mental health benefits! This suggests that writing about things they were grateful for was enough to shift their thinking in a positive direction.
3. Gratitude’s benefits take time
This study was only 3 weeks and the results didn’t show immediately. It wasn’t until 4 weeks after the study that the writing groups saw an improvement in their mental health. Those benefits increased even more 12 weeks after. This showed that the effects of practicing gratitude improve over time and are long-lasting.
4. Gratitude has lasting effects on the brain
Three months after the study the participants were asked to do a “pay it forward” activity and then have a fMRI scan of their brain. These scans showed that the participants who wrote gratitude letters had greater brain activity. This suggests that people who are more grateful are also more attentive to how they express gratitude because their brains are now more familiar with it.
Gratitude Affects the Brain
When we practice gratitude, we are finding things to be thankful for. It is more than just an emotion, it’s a conscious action. The effects can be physically seen in our brains in the anterior cingulate cortex and medial prefrontal cortex. These areas can be described as the areas that deal with our social decisions, morality, value judgement.
Social situations and the world around us can over stimulate us and cause anxiety and stress. When that happens, we tend to revert away from these conscious areas of the brain and shift into survival mode. By practicing gratitude, you are activating the portion of your brain that helps you be your best self and see life in a more positive light.
When we apply this to the practice of counseling and behavioral health, more gratitude can equal more hope, resiliency, and an overall more positive outlook.
Gratitude Applied to Mental Health
As people who are looking to improve their own mental health, we know from experience that practicing gratitude shows there is a lot more good in life than you may have originally thought. By practicing being grateful, the brain starts to physically change the way it sees and reacts to the world around you.
A mediocre day suddenly becomes full of highlights to be happy about. When you find something to be grateful for in the people around you, their presence can become a gift. By practicing gratitude, you will start to see joy in your life. Don’t wait for good things to happen to you and expect to be grateful for them when they happen -find the things to be grateful for now.
When you practice gratitude as a mental health professional you can help prevent burnout and find more encouragement just by shifting your perspective. It forces you to find the silver lining and, like the study showed, not focus or dwell on setbacks and feelings of discouragement. For example, it takes, “my client isn’t showing improvement” to “I’m glad my client is still showing up to try”.
This Season and Beyond
At Victor we believe that every individual deserves a chance to succeed, and we commit every strength, talent, and resource of our organization to those who have emotional and behavioral challenges. We see a lot of people trying to do their best in difficult circumstances, and we meet them in these places with gratitude and a recognition that it is a privilege to be involved in their journey.
We are grateful for the work we get to do, the relationships we have with our clients, and being able to serve those who need our help. If you find you want to be a part of an organization that practices gratitude, honors others and helps them soar, we invite you to click the link below and see what openings we have available.