“When it comes to life the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.” G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936)
Some time ago we began reading and hearing about the value in feeling and expressing gratitude. Apparently being grateful can boost our immune system, reduce stress levels and improve sleep. It can also help improve self-esteem and lessen symptoms of depression. Broad claims, and yet neuroscience supports them.
When we pause and capture feelings of gratitude, our brain releases serotonin and dopamine, the neurotransmitters responsible for happiness. Plus our stress hormones get regulated. According to some psychologists, our brain became conditioned to be alert to the negative in our surroundings. For survival. Practicing gratitude adapts our behaviour to notice the positive instead. And sending positive impulses repeatedly along the neural pathways changes the structure of our brain. It builds new neural connections to our brain’s “bliss center”.
Since we cannot be fearful and grateful at the same time, we aim to train our nervous system to go into gratitude. In time it gets easier to transmit positive rather than negative impulses.
Months into the pandemic, downer that it is, I decided to try gratitude. Not to practice the rigour of daily writing but to regularly bring to mind aspects of life for which I am grateful. At first I thought big — loving family and friends, good health, happy retirement — then moved on to the minutiae: a gorgeous flower, a delectable recipe, a winning tennis shot (that one doesn’t repeat often).
Opinion is divided on whether we gain the most by practicing gratitude every day or once a week. By thinking of one, three or more things to appreciate at a time. By writing in a journal or just speaking to our inner self. While my pattern’s not fixed, feeling grateful is a ritual I will continue post pandemic. •
P.S. From Tilly and the Crazy Eights by Monique Gray Smith, I also follow the ritual of an Indigenous elder who starts his days with the same 17 words: “Thank you for the safe passage through the night and for the gift of living another day.”
P.P.S. It’s World Gratitude Day, celebrated annually on September 21st since 1965 when participants at an international gathering in Hawaii decided to dedicate one day each year to express gratitude for the wonderful things in the world. The following year many of them marked Gratitude Day in their own countries. Now huge numbers of people celebrate it globally. Will you express gratitude today?