About a decade or so ago I started keeping a gratitude journal after author Sarah Ban Breathnach introduced many of us to the concept of listing on paper the day’s blessings. This was a way to hold focus on the goodness in our lives–the things that bring a sense of relevance and peace.
This practice is one that is helping to guide me through the murky waters of grief since losing my husband. As the shock wore off, I loosely set a goal to write at least one thing at the end of the day and I’m certain it is one of the buoys that has kept me afloat. It has been the reminder to look for something, anything, that is positive, that feeds me, that keeps my mind from getting stuck in the pain and fear that comes with losing a love. Some of the notes in the early weeks following his death were as simple as: I’m grateful for potato soup, the beautiful vegetables at the farmers market, work to do.
Cataloging my thankfulness hasn’t taken away the hurt, but it’s reminded me that a thankful heart can live in the same space as a hurting heart. Author Anne Lamott says that this is “radical gratitude in the face of whatever life throws you.”
The benefit of taking time to jot down gratefulness is that I practice staying connected with what awakens my senses (which helps to keep me from numbing out)—art, flowers, sage advice from a friend or the tiny fingers of a newborn baby. It also challenges me to focus on truth—that in the midst of confusing or painful days, God’s mercy and love are still there in front of me.
Does Gratitude Rewire Our Brains?
In the lobby of my workplace these words on a sign greet our visitors, “It’s not happy people who are grateful, but grateful people who are happy.” Seems that research is backing that up. A 2013 study by researchers Joel Wong and Joshua Brown and described in their article “How Gratitude Changes You and Your Brain,” measured the effects of gratitude on the brain. Participants were asked to write gratitude letters over a period of time and what Wong and Brown found at the end of the experience was increased brain activity on a fMRI that lasted for months, and participants even wanted to continue to do acts of gratitude months after the experiment.
Although the researchers say that the evidence is not conclusive, they share that it may indicate that people who have a knack for gratitude train their brains to be open to gratitude experiences and acts of gratitude. The researchers say that this may have overtime a positive effect on improved mental health.
Gratitude and Resilience
More research by gratitude expert Robert Emmons, Ph.D., says that people who practice gratitude tend to have a stronger “psychological immune system” and that gratitude is a component of resilience.
“People who experience gratitude can cope more effectively with everyday stress, show increased resilience in the face of trauma-induced stress, recover more quickly from illness, and enjoy more robust physical health,” he writes in his book Gratitude Works!: A 21-day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity.
Focusing on gratitude does not mean we deny that bad things have happened or can happen, he says, but the outcome of gratitude is being able to find redeeming qualities in your life despite negative events.
The late American writer William Author Ward may have been trying to shed light on the same concept as are contemporary researchers when he said, “Gratitude can transform common days into thanksgivings, turn routine jobs into joy, and change ordinary opportunities into blessings.”