Take your gratitude practice to the next level through acts of kindness, being thankful, and savoring the little things in life.
There are many things to be thankful for — despite our unique circumstances and the chaos of the world around us.
But it’s so easy to get caught up in negative thinking and focus on what we don’t have versus what we do.
Robert A. Emmons, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, and renowned expert in gratitude research, describes gratitude as a practice of recognizing the good in our lives or that which we might take for granted.
You can learn how to rewire your brain for positive thinking with “mature gratitude” and reap the benefits of developing your own practice.
Neuroplasticity: Rewiring the brain
As the saying goes, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.”
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to form new neural connections. This “rewiring” effect can lead to positive growth and change.
When the brain’s circuits get caught up in negative narratives, your thoughts might skew toward the negative. There may be some reasons for this.
The negativity bias is our tendency to be more attracted to negative stimuli than positive — which is evident in the way we’re drawn more to negative headlines than positive ones.
Mark Hoelterhoff, PhD, a positive psychology expert at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, explains that from an evolutionary perspective, the brain developed a heightened sense of awareness to potential threats or risks in order to stay safe.
“But we can move beyond that negativity bias and begin to pay more attention to the positive aspects in our life,” Hoelterhoff says.
According to Martin Seligman, renowned positive psychology theorist and director of the Penn Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, one way to change your mindset is by savoring.
When we hear a positive news story, have a positive thought, or receive positive feedback, Seligman recommends taking time to reflect on it.
“It’s that savoring approach that begins to create a new brain circuitry — a new neural network that’s geared toward looking for the positive,” says Hoelterhoff.
By contrast, the positivity offset occurs when we interpret neutral situations as mildly positive.
If most people feel mildly positive in response to neutral situations, we can draw from that in the face of negative situations and try to shift our focus toward something positive.
“In reality, the simplest and most practical way to rewire your brain for positive thinking is to take the time to reflect, be grateful, and be aware of the positive things in your life,” Hoelterhoff says.
What is ‘mature gratitude’?
A recent study suggests that a mature gratitude practice that includes kindness, being thankful for life and a higher power, and savoring the small things can help us cope during times of crisis — such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
The following are ways you can try to help you cultivate mature gratitude.
Acts of kindness
Louisa Jewell, founder and president of the Canadian Positive Psychology Association and author of “Wire Your Brain for Confidence,” says that performing and witnessing acts of kindness makes us feel good.
Being kind to others can inspire you to show kindness in return. “Kindness promoted prosocial behaviors and cooperation,” Jewell says. Prosocial behavior, according to research published in the Public Library of Science journal, is also good for our mental well-being.
Not only does kindness make the other person feel good, but it also makes you feel like a good person.
“Gratitude is a state of mind — but being thankful is a practice, which is an action we can control,” says Tara-Nicholle Kirke, author, coach, and founder of SoulTour in Oakland.
“Thankful people feel more focused and grounded, more present, and able to face life’s challenges,” she says.
According to Kirke, the key to giving thanks is to focus on the good things in life. She says the pandemic awakened us to the reality that some of the things we’d been working so hard for maybe weren’t as important as we once thought.
Instead, it’s the simple things, she says, like spending more time with our families or having quiet time in nature, that we can feel truly grateful for.
Savoring the little things
Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD, author, happiness researcher, and professor at the University of California, Riverside, explains that our life experiences are produced by what we direct our attention to.
“What we choose to draw attention to is really important to our happiness,” Lyubomirsky says. “Anything that we can do to increase happiness has to do with learning how to redirect our attention.”
Lyubomirsky describes a gratitude practice as a process of focusing your attention on what’s good about your life and the people in it. The key, however, is to start small.
Savoring the little things, like the way the sun hits your face or the smell of autumn leaves, can help redirect your attention toward the positive.
Mindfulness can be a helpful tool for cultivating present moment awareness and gratitude.
Why a gratitude practice matters
Research shows that practicing gratitude can be good for heart health and inspire happiness, satisfaction, and general well-being.
There are a number of ways you can practice gratitude depending on what works best for you.
You might practice gratitude first thing in the morning or just before bed at night. If you’re busy, your commute to work might be an ideal time for reflection.
Here are a few other ideas to consider:
gratitude journaling and writing
expressing what you’re thankful for on social media
sending someone a text to let them know you appreciate them
writing down three things that you’re grateful for
starting a “gratitude jar”
creating a collage of all the things that you’re grateful for
Remember that gratitude is a practice — not a quick fix. Taking the time each day to reflect, be mindful, and savor the positive stories and experiences all around us can help rewire the brain for positive thinking.
When we engage in prosocial behaviors and foster meaningful connections with others we create a ripple effect of kindness that could potentially be felt for generations to come.
The power of positive thinking is only effective when we turn those good vibes outward. To be grateful in the COVID era and beyond is a lifelong practice of being kind to ourselves and each other, giving thanks for what we have, and pausing to savor the little things in life.
Not only can mature gratitude help us cope during times of adversity, but it’s a practice that could help lead us toward more happiness, satisfaction, and well-being.