This week I’m happy to introduce you to Donna as my guest blogger while Thom and I are traveling. Donna is one of the few bloggers I’ve met in person and now consider her a good friend. She is also one of the kindest and most generous bloggers I’ve encountered, and if you go to her website Retirement Reflections you’ll likely see how her big heart shines through in every blog post. Thank you, Donna, for filling in for me and sharing some of your SMART thoughts with all of us. Here are her ideas on why it is SMART to put our gratitude in writing.
As a long-time fan of Smart Living 365. I enjoy the journey of self-discovery and awareness that it provokes. I now try to look at ideas and concepts through a SMART lens. More and more I find myself asking ‘why?’ and ‘how?’ to oft-touted notions.
This is what happens to me when I encounter studies on gratitude. We have long-often heard that cultivating thankfulness can improve our happiness, self-esteem, relationships, and even our physical health. But how does this work? Is it merely focusing on all we have that magically improves our circumstances? If so, how does this ‘magic’ take place?
Recent research offers new insights into these questions. According to this growing body of work (examples here, here and here) the act of putting our gratitude in writing can physically change our brains.
In these studies, fMRI scanners were used to measure participants’ brain activity. Initial findings suggest that participants who wrote gratitude letters showed greater activation (including oxygen metabolism in cells) in the medial prefrontal cortex when they experienced gratitude. This region of the brain is associated with decision-making, self-control, and moral judgment. In some studies (example), this positive effect was found months after the letter writing activities had ended, suggesting that gratitude may have a lasting impact on the brain. Other researchers in this area, have noted that when we experience gratitude, our brains flood with dopamine, rewarding us with a natural high and causing us to want to repeat this feeling.
Also significant in these studies:
• Participants who engaged in gratitude writing activities during the studies reported notably improved mental health. Participants in the control group who did neutral, or no writing, did not indicate similar improvement.
• The positive effect of gratitude writing was not only noticeable twelve weeks after the studies ended, these improvements often increased.
• For those who wrote gratitude letters, the mental health benefits remained even if their letters were never sent or shared.
• When participants used fewer negative emotion words in their gratitude writing, they were more likely to report better mental health.
• Mental health benefits of gratitude writing did not emerge immediately but gradually accrued over time.
• Benefits of gratitude writing were also substantial in participants who struggled with mental health issues (and when combined with counseling showed more gains than the control group who received only the counseling).
While researchers admit that the above findings are not definitive and more studies are needed, their current work suggests:
• Looking at changes in brain activity can help us better understand the wide-ranging benefits often attributed to gratitude.
• Thankfulness can shift our attention away from negative emotions and reverse our priorities to help us appreciate what we have, lessen depression and increase well-being.
• Once we begin to focus on things to be grateful for, our brains start to look for more things for which to be thankful (confirmation bias).
Much of the research in this area indicates that the act of being grateful, without ever putting our thankfulness in writing, produces many benefits. However, the above studies show that those who participated in gratitude writing often showed increased mental-health benefits over those who did not.
When I finished the first draft of this Guest Post, I shared the topic that I had chosen with Kathy. She had just finished writing a post on the same subject. It was no surprise. Sustainable. Meaningful. Aware. Responsible. Thankful. Fully embracing gratitude is all of these things.
Okay, your turn: What is your experience with gratitude writing? Please share your thoughts below.
About: Donna lived in Beijing, China for fourteen years. Leaving international life behind, she and her husband retired to Vancouver Island, Canada, in June 2015. To document this transition, Donna initiated Retirement Reflections. Her favorite part of blogging is the interaction with others. You can connect with Donna in the comment section below, or via the following social media sites. She would love to hear from you.
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