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Gratitude isn’t ‘woo-woo’ nonsense: The science behind an effective gratitude practice.

The importance of a gratitude practice is often spoken and written about in the self-development space. Have you taken up journalling the things you are grateful for each day and after a few days or weeks, given up because you feel that it isn’t doing anything? That perhaps it’s a load of ‘woo-woo’ nonsense, and just another chore to add the the ever growing list of things we ‘should’ be doing?

If you are open to learning science-based and evidence based tools that can actually have a lasting impact on your well being and performance, then you may be interested to learn that there is a science behind gratitude. There is a technique that could be your ‘prescription for gratitude that works’.

You probably intuitively feel and know that having gratitude, is in some way, a good thing. You are most likely well aware that focusing on the good is a beneficial way to approach life. When you put your attention on the areas where you are making progress, where you are celebrating your wins and the wins of those around you, it allows us to see even more positive in the world around us. And despite life having low and bleak moments, most people reading this blog will acknowledge that they do have a lot in life to be grateful for.

That all sounds straightforward and obvious enough. But the interesting part is that there is a strong neuroscience component behind the practice of gratitude and the benefit it can have on your physiology. And as I am frequently heard saying: When you understand the neuroscience and get to grips with your brain, you can use the science to make effective and lasting change in your professional and personal life.

Andrew Huberman ( neuroscientist and professor (and hugely successful podcast host of The Huberman Lab) from Stanford University talks about the neuroscience of having an effective gratitude practice. Studies have shown that when you undertake an effective gratitude practice, there is a release of a variety of neuromodulators and hormones that have a cascade of effects on your physiology, positively impacting your brain and body.

The neuroscience shows that an effective gratitude practice can:

  • Reduce inflammation;

  • Improve motivation;

  • Enhance your immune system;

  • Decrease the fear circuit activation in your brain and reduce anxiety levels;

  • Improve your relationships with others, across the board;

  • Enhance your outlook and enjoyment of life; and

  • Strengthen your mental and physical resilience to stress.

An effective gratitude practice is not just a nice fluffy ‘woo-woo’ idea. With one caveat: provided it’s done in an effective manner.

So what makes a gratitude practice effective?

What you have probably read about, seen or tried already is the approach where you write down or say, 1-3 things you are grateful for each day. Now as much as this is a nice thing to do (and I admit this is something I do with my partner before dinner each evening) the ‘write it down’ or ‘say it’ out loud approach has not been shown in the evidence to have a long lasting impact on our physiology. It does not generate the release and cascade of hormones to change our brains and bodies.

Effective gratitude works through the generation of emotions seen in 2 circumstances:

  1. When somebody has expressed a genuine and heartfelt thanks to you: perhaps they've written you a letter or an email, expressing their gratitude for something you've done to help them.

  2. When you have witnessed or heard a story of human triumph: perhaps human kindness has been demonstrated through one human that has gone out of her/his way to help another human or group of people, to overcome something. Perhaps you’ve seen a documentary, read an article or book, or witnessed an event like this in your own life.

Both of these circumstances generate a certain type and strength of emotion that can impact your neural pathways. If you combine these 2 types of circumstances with a storytelling approach, it makes the technique even more powerful. Our brains love storytelling and really hook onto and harness the emotions that come from good storytelling.

Practically, what can you do to create your own prescription for gratitude that works?

Huberman sets out a simple technique:

  • Set aside a few moments to think about a time where somebody has expressed genuine and heartfelt gratitude and appreciation for something that you have done to help them - perhaps they wrote you a letter of thanks.

  • Or, think of something that really moved you: a story of human triumph, of human kindness, an inspiring story where somebody overcame an obstacle due to the support and actions of another human being.

Essentially think about at least one of these 2 types of situations where you were emotionally moved. Think through that event in detail and allow yourself to experience the emotions associated with that powerful story. Earmark this story to tap into regularly.

The process is really simple: once you have your story set out, spend a few minutes 2-3 times a week to tap into that emotion. A few minutes a week, is enough to trigger a physiological change and create a positive impact on your brain and body.


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