Unlocking Happiness: Rewiring Your Brain Through Gratitude

Brain happiness
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By Lori Ryland, Ph.D., LP, CAADC, CCS, BCBA-D, Chief Clinical Officer, Pinnacle Treatment Centers

If you read my posts on Thrive, you know two things. First, you know I work in the field of addiction treatment and recovery. It’s my calling, my passion, and my career. Second, you know I’m a no-nonsense person. I’m diplomatic, but I call things as I see them. I’m never afraid to tell a hard truth when I think it’s the best path forward. Along with that goes my affinity for practical solutions to challenges that may seem insurmountable or overwhelming. No matter how big the problem or how difficult the path forward, I have a knack for forming a simple, direct plan of action to achieve big goals – and overcome those enormous, intimidating challenges.

My plans always include a stepwise approach with basic daily actions anyone can implement right away.

That’s what I’m going to offer in this article: a stepwise approach to rewiring your brain through the practice of gratitude.

If that sounds impractical or contradicts the no-frills ethos I advocate in my intro, I encourage you to read on – because gratitude works.

About Gratitude in Recovery

If you’ve ever been in recovery, sat in on an AA or NA meeting, or know someone who has, it’s likely you’ve heard the phrase “The Attitude of Gratitude.”

Community support programs encourage people in recovery to be grateful for everything in their lives. That includes recovery itself, their recovery peers and communities, and how recovery changes and improves almost every aspect of their lives. Along with a commitment to service, prioritizing gratitude helps people in recovery transcend the destructive patterns of addiction – which often include behaviors and actions that run contrary to the values inherent in service, of gratitude, and appreciation. I speak from personal knowledge. In my work in addiction treatment, I see people emerge from the isolation of addiction and take the first steps to contributing to their recovery community and peers every day.

One of the primary ways they do this – and one tried and true way out of the loneliness and isolation of addiction – is through cultivating a commitment to helping others and gaining experiential knowledge of the power of gratitude.

Another thing I love about gratitude is that it combines two things that are important to me: the power of emotion and the practicality of scientific evidence.

Yes: there is a scientific basis for practicing gratitude.

The Science of Gratitude

Let’s start our science-based look at this topic by defining how gratitude works.

Dr. Robert Emmons at the University of California – Davis (UC Davis) – the world’s pre-eminent expert on the science of gratitude – says experiencing gratitude is a two-step process. Step one is recognizing positive experiences in your life. The second step is recognizing those positive experiences originate somewhere other than you. That’s how and when gratitude manifests: when you realize something positive in your life comes from outside yourself, and you consciously feel appreciation for it.

Emmons, in collaboration with colleagues at UC Davis, initiated his research on gratitude in 2003. Since then, his team has published close to 100 papers and six books about the practical benefits of gratitude. In their work, his team shows that people who practice gratitude, compared to people who don’t, experience – among others – three distinct types of benefits.

  1. Social benefits. These include:
    • Increased feelings of connectedness to friends and family
    • Increased participation in social events
    • Increased feelings of forgiveness
    • Increased experiences of generosity and compassion
  2. Physical benefits. These include:
    • Improved exercise habits
    • Decreased signs of hypertension
    • Improved rest and sleep cycles
    • Strengthened immune system
    • Reduction in minor daily pain and discomfort
  3. Psychological benefits. These include:
    • Higher levels of joy
    • Higher levels of optimism
    • Heightened alertness
    • A more positive outlook

When you read a list like that, you might be skeptical. And your skepticism might even border on outright disbelief, especially when things with quantifiable metrics – like hypertension – are connected to something as ethereal and qualitative as gratitude.

In other words, you might have questions. Such as: can one simple change in attitude really do all that? Can recognizing and acknowledging the good things in your life that come from outside yourself lead to more joy, less loneliness, stronger immunity – and decrease symptoms of hypertension?

The answer is yes.

Dr. Emmons is a well-respected research psychologist and founding editor-in-chief of The Journal of Positive Psychology. I will qualify the findings above, though, by saying the research is correlative, which is why I use the phrase compared to. People with a daily practice of gratitude report increased levels of all of the above, compared to people without a daily practice of gratitude. That doesn’t mean gratitude is the only factor or the sole cause for the good in their lives. But it does mean that compared to people who don’t practice gratitude, people who do experience those benefits.

Gratitude in Real Life

Gratitude is not just for people in recovery. It works for everyone.

Here’s how everyone and anyone – including you – can initiate a practice of gratitude.

Gratitude: How to Rewire Your Brain in Three Steps

  1. Lead with gratitude. This means beginning every morning with an intentional practice of gratitude. This can happen internally, in your thoughts or your feelings. Or you can externalize it, and get it down on paper in a gratitude journal or any piece of paper you can find. Even in your notes on your smartphone. Whatever you choose, I advise you to do it first thing in the morning. Here’s how: think of or write down three things you’re grateful for. Stick with each of them for one or two minutes each, at first. Gradually increase the time you spend in this gratitude space. Then, throughout your day, pay attention to how this practice changes your mood and your overall experience of the day. I bet you’ll notice changes.
  2. Find positive things all day. During the day, whether you’re at work, play, or doing ho-hum errands, notice the beautiful and good things. For example: your family, your job, the sunlight through the trees, or thunderheads gathering in the distance. No note-taking is necessary. Simply acknowledge and appreciate them: that’s really all you have to do.
  3. Ground into gratitude before sleep. Like your morning practice, you can do this internally, in your thoughts and emotions, or externally, with the written word. Think of or list at least three things from day you’re grateful for. Let yourself experience the feelings connected to those things. Those feelings are gratitude. Being there and spending time with those emotions is the practice of gratitude. Next you can complete your grounding by revisiting the things you identified in your morning practice. The day comes full circle. You prepare yourself for a sleep that’s restful and restorative, physically, psychologically, and emotionally.

These steps are simple and straightforward. They take very little time. Do them every day, and you’ll begin to understand gratitude in a way you never have before. If you do this every day, there’s a very good chance you’ll experience all the benefits we list above: your overall physical, mental, and social wellbeing will improve.

You’ll ask yourself why no one taught you how to do this years ago.

And then, when someone asks you why you seem so much happier and well-adjusted, you can answer with one word: gratitude.

The materials provided on the Pinnacle Blog are for information and educational purposes only. No behavioral health or any other professional services are provided through the Blog and the information obtained through the Blog is not a substitute for consultation with a qualified health professional. If you are in need of medical or behavioral health treatment, please contact a qualified health professional directly, and if you are in need of emergency help, please go to your nearest emergency room or dial 911.