Dr Heather Bolton (Head of Psychology) and Steve Peralta (Chief Content Officer) ran a webinar on Growing Gratitude (January 30 2019).
Below you will find a selection of video and transcript snippets from the webinar. There are lots of useful recommendations on how to build gratitude into your daily life and reap the rewards (use the titles in bold to fast-track to your areas of interest!)
SO, why gratitude?
At a time when many people are holding themselves to new years resolutions and striving to stop things or achieve things, gratitude is more about stepping back to look at what’s around you and appreciating that, rather than striving to do or have something different.
There are many benefits of regular gratitude practice and these are backed up by scientific studies:
Stronger immune system, less bothered by aches and pains, lower blood pressure, better sleep
More positive emotions, increased vitality, greater optimism and happiness
And there’s also the social aspect of sharing gratitude - it leads to us feeling less lonely/isolated, feeling more compassionate towards ourselves and others
Really, the impact is far reaching. And to achieve an impact like this, gratitude is more than simply being grateful to others for doing good to us. It’s about noticing and appreciating positive things around us/in our lives and embedding that as part of our day to day approach to life. It’s really about cultivating a whole new attitude/way of seeing things.
Steve: I’ve got a question for you, Heather… some of us, including myself during my more cynical years, might think of gratitude as being a bit fluffy… and perhaps question the scientific rigour behind… so, from your perspective, do you think there are there tangible, evidence-based benefits to practising gratitude?
Dr Bolton (Heather): Yes, a lot of people are sceptical that gratitude could have a meaningful impact but there are many scientific studies proving that gratitude can cause measurable changes in brain structure and chemistry. The evidence base is actually very robust.
Scientists started studying the effect of gratitude on the brain around a decade a go - they do this by using MRI scanners where they can look at neural activity. Through this, they can examine people’s brains before, during and after engaging in gratitude exercises (we’ll be discussing some of these exercises later) and also measure any long term effects.
Studies show that gratitude practice can activate areas of brain that produce dopamine (feel good hormone) - it’s known as the reward hormone - it gives us a natural high and boosts our mood in the moment - and because the dopamine gives you a rewarding feeling, you’re more inclined to repeat the same behaviour again, so it starts to self-perpetuate.
Gratitude has also been shown to boost serotonin production - serotonin is another mood booster and has a similar impact to antidepressants.
So this shows the lift in mood that gratitude can cause, and because dopamine gives you a reward, it makes you want to do it again.
Steve: So, practising gratitude creates both short and long term gain?
Heather: Yes, studies have shown that the effect of gratitude lingers longer term, with tangible physical changes in the brain. In one study, when participants were followed up several months after completing a gratitude exercise, they showed more gratitude-related brain activity in the scanner.
But it’s not just chemicals - gratitude has been shown to increase the density of neurons and increase the blood flow in certain brain areas. The areas affected tend to be ones that are known to link to appetite, sleep and stress so you can see why this would lead to increased wellbeing.
The good news is that the more you stimulate these neural pathways through practising gratitude, the stronger and more automatic they become. On a scientific level, "neurons that fire together wire together." So if you start trying to be grateful, it will become something that’s easier to do with time.
Steve: So really, the more you do it, the less effort it takes to stimulate the pathway the next time?
Heather: Spot on. And because of the firing and wiring, what we put our attention on grows. If we're constantly looking at the negative and searching for problems, the neural pathways for negative thinking become stronger. But practicing gratitude can shift our attention to look for what is going right instead of looking for problems to solve. Over time, this encourages our brains to more consistently search for the constructive themes in our life instead of the destructive ones, altering any bias to attend to negativity.
Steve: In your experience, can you give us an example of the types of negative things we, as humans tend to focus on?
Heather: Well, as humans, we’re primed to notice things that are dangerous or threatening. It links back to a time when humans faced a lot of threats from predators, so it would have been adaptive in the past but it’s less helpful now. If you take the morning commute for example, it's easy to focus on the fact that it’s cold and dark and that the trains or roads are too busy. This morning, my train was moving really slowly and I started to get annoyed - I could easily have arrived at the office in quite a bad mood - but I tried to be grateful for the fact that I had a seat and I was warm and safe.
That covers the science in a nutshell... so let's now look at how we can practice gratitude.
During the webinar, listeners voted to hear about 'Connection Through Food', 'Gratitude Rock', and 'Three Good Things' but there were three other exercises that could be explored, which we will cover here too.
Connection Through Food
Takes the typical practice of being grateful for your meal a few steps further.
This exercise invites you to reflect on and acknowledge, and thank, every person who might have been involved in your meal in some way...
Farmer who grew your veg? The truck driver who delivered your food to the market or store? The shelf packer who packed it? The cashier… and so on.
There’s a guy, AJ Jacobs, who decided to use this same exercise to figure out all of the steps involved in him enjoying his morning coffee…. So that he could acknowledge every human being involved… and, he took this one step further by actually committing to meet these people face-to-face to thank them. This took him around the world, and led to him meeting and thanking over a 1000 people…
You can find out more in his book ‘Thanks A Thousand - A Gratitude Journey’.
Now, you probably don’t have the time to actually travel the world to thank everyone involved in your meal at dinnertime… but even just reflecting on this and silently thanking everyone can help to cultivate feelings of gratitude.
And if you’re feeling particularly grateful, you can even consider the sun, soil, rain and so on…
This exercise is great at not only building gratitude, but also helping us realise the very real interconnectedness of everything and everyone.
This exercise is about choosing an object that helps remind you to practice gratitude.
Choose a small object that you like - some people recommend a small rock or pebble but you can really choose anything, as long as you specifically select it so that it has that connection in your mind. Carry this object around with you in a pocket or handbag, or leave it on your desk where you will see it throughout the day.
Whenever you see it or touch it, pause to think about at least one thing you are grateful for. Whether it’s something as small as the tea you’re drinking at this moment, or as large as the job that allows you to feed yourself, just think of one thing that brings you joy or fulfilment.
When you take the object out of your pocket or pick it up off your desk at the end of the day, take a moment to remember the things that you were grateful for throughout the day -using the object as a trigger to jog your memory of everything you’ve mentally logged. When you pick it up again or see it again in the morning, repeat this process to remember what you were grateful for yesterday and commit to practicing gratitude again that day.
Not only will this help you remember the things you are grateful for, it can also trigger a mini-mindfulness moment in your day. It will bring you out of your head and into the present moment, giving you something to focus your attention on. It can also act as a switch to more positive thinking. When you flip this switch multiple times a day, you will likely find that your average day has become much more positive - it will help those neural networks.
Three Good Things
At the end of your day, write down three things that went well… these could be seemingly mundane things or extraordinary events… either is fine.
Then, just make a short note on how each of these things made you feel, both then, and now as you reflect on it...
Next to each thing that went well, answer the question “Why did this happen?” For example, if your friend sent you a thank-you card you might write that she, or he, is a great friend and very thoughtful.
The key to making this practice as beneficial as possible is to take your time with it and to be as sincere as you can. Really reflect on the good things and feel the gratitude for them.
If you feel you don’t have time for 3, then by all means, feel free to just go with one… make it easy and do what works for you… we’ll come back to this and the impact it has on habit formation a little later...
As simple as this exercise may sound, research has shown that doing it daily for a week increases people’s feelings of happiness and gratitude immediately afterwards, as well as one week, one month, three months, and even six months later!
Removal Of Blessings
Think about a positive event in your life, such as the birth of a child, a promotion at work, or a holiday you took. Mentally go back in time and contemplate the circumstances which made this event possible.
Now consider ways in which this event may never have happened—for example, if you hadn’t read about your holiday destination in a newspaper at random. Write down possible events or decisions that could have happened and would have prevented this event from occurring. So really start to imagine your life right now if you hadn’t enjoyed this positive event.
Alternatively, think about an important person in your life, such as a close friend, your partner or even a pet. Think back to when and where you met this person. Consider ways in which you might never have met this special person and never formed a relationship. Ask yourself, “What would have happened if I had never met my spouse?”
Mentally remove a good thing or person from your life, and you’ll experience a renewed sense of gratitude and appreciation for them.
Study: One study, split people into 2 groups:
Both groups were asked to think about something they were grateful for - only half were asked to think about how it might never have happened half of the participants were asked to think about how a positive event might never have happened and to describe ways in which it was surprising that this thing ever even happened.
The results showed that only those who thought about the absence of an event and how it was surprising and might have been absent from their lives benefitted emotionally and reported more positive feelings. It brought them away from taking if for granted.
This one is pretty obvious… go for a walk, preferably in nature…. But anywhere will do, really… and be intentional about noticing and savouring all of the pleasures around you...
This could be the smell of grass, the birds you see flying by, the mothers or fathers walking their children to school, smiling strangers, the wind against your face... anything you’re able to appreciate, really…
So-called “savouring walks” have been shown to increase people’s levels of gratitude and happiness in multiple experiments.
This is hardly a mind-blowing research outcome, but one such experiment, showed that people who were asked to focus on things they could appreciate as they walked were significantly happier and more grateful after their walk than a control group who were asked to just walk, or the group who were asked to notice the negative things around them.
Now, this result might sound obvious and be nothing to get excited about, BUT it does highlight that we always have a choice when it comes to what we choose to pay attention to… and what we pay attention to very often defines our experience… and how we think and feel...
Looking To The Future
Choose an experience, event, activity or even a relationship that you know will be coming to an end at some some point in the future. Now think about the fact that it will end. Maybe x is a job, or a class you’re taking, a team you’re part of, or even a place where you live. With only a little time left to spend doing this or being with that thing or person, acknowledge it’s a chapter of your life that will end or change in quality soon. Next, think about why you’re grateful for that thing.
This exercise can feel a little difficult - it’s not designed to make you focus on what you might lose, but to connect with your appreciation for it right now.
Acknowledging the temporary nature of things makes you more likely to make an effort to capitalize on what remains. When we focus on how a good thing is going to end soon, we appreciate it a lot more.
So that’s 6 exercises - hopefully at least one of them feels like something you can apply. But knowing how to do something and understanding its benefit is very different to actually applying it in your life and reaping its benefit. This is why, when it comes to cultivating gratitude, creating a positive habit around it is the best way to affect change. Let’s take a look at some of the science behind habit formation...
Heather: How do you make sure you practice gratitude - what habits do you have to make it stick?
There are a few positive habits I’ve managed to set up in my life, using what is known as the 4 Laws of Behaviour Change, based on the work of Charles Duhigg and James Clear in particular….
The trick here, whenever we’re looking to develop a positive habit, is to consider the 4 key steps towards behaviour change…
CUE - CRAVING - RESPONSE - REWARD…
With this in mind, there are four things you should look to set up around your intended habit…
Make it obvious, Make it attractive, Make it easy, Make it satisfying…
Steve: I’ll chat about how I’ve used these to build my own gratitude habit… which is that journal in a gratitude diary every morning...
Step 1 : Making it obvious is all about setting up a clear CUE for your habit.
You need to make sure that you cue or trigger your habit at the time you want to perform it…
Few ways you can do this… one way is to design your environment in such a way that it makes your habit obvious…
I put my journal next to my coffee cup and cafetiere at night (after I put water in cafetiere I sit down and journal while I wait for coffee to brew).
Step 2 : Making it attractive is all about tying your habit to a craving…
It’s about setting up the anticipation of a reward… which research shows releases more dopamine than receiving the reward itself… and motivates you to do what needs to be done to get your reward...
One way you can achieve this is through ‘Temptation Bundling’
Pair an action you want to do with an action you need to do
After I journal (need) I will drink my coffee (want)
Step 3 : Making it easy is all about making your RESPONSE as easy to do as possible… making the number of steps between you and your habit as few as possible - we humans will typically always follow the path of least resistance...
One way you can do this is by following the two-minute rule...
I commit to writing one sentence about one thing I am grateful for (If I want to write more I can, but I only commit to one)
Step 4: Making it satisfying is about delivering the reward that helps to reinforce the behaviour and create the desire to perform it again in the future - this requires an immediate reward...
For me, it’s the coffee, but also the habit tracker I use to cross off my habit. (satisfying in and of itself)
So, to help build a positive habit in your life ask yourself how you can make it obvious, attractive, easy, satisfying. Dopamine reward?
We have a Series on the platform called Transforming Habits, which looks at the psychology behind why unhealthy habits form in the first place, and how we can intentionally transform those.
Lots of attendees sent through their questions ahead of the webinar (thank you!). Steve and Heather read through them all and would have loved to answer them all personally… but for the sake of time, they identified common themes and selected the most popular to respond to. Here's one example below:
How can we practice gratitude when times are hard / in the face of challenge?
It can be hard to find gratitude sometimes - but the very act of looking for it can be enough to have an effect.
Gratitude is not about denying the pain, suffering or frustrations in your life. It’s not about pretending that everything is okay. It’s about acknowledging that, alongside the suffering that is a part of everyone’s life, there can also be moments (sometimes small, sometimes big) to be thankful for. Not just blue sky thinking.
Dr Alex Korb talks about the importance of seeking things to be grateful for - this process of looking for it is actually more important that the thing you’re actually grateful for - it forces you to change your focus and still activates the relevant brain regions - so even if it’s hard to find something, simply looking for it is helpful (you’re forced to look at positive) - thinking of how you can be grateful sparks brain activity critical to sleep, mood and metabolism regulation - so although it won’t solve whatever is going on, it helps you get yourself into a position where you’re more able to cope.
A short meditation to finish
Thank you to all who could join us and we hope you found this article useful. See you next time!
The Unmind Team