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Gratitude: What is It, How it Works and Exercises to Practice

I'm sure a lot of us have heard of gratitude, know what it is and have heard of some of the benefits. I first heard of gratitude in school and also when it was suggested to me that I should practice it. Even though I read up on some research and gained a better understanding of what it was, I remember still thinking "So what? I just write stuff down or think of things I'm grateful for and life will just get ... better?" Well sort of, but not really. Let me first explain what gratitude is:

What is Gratitude

We often use the words gratitude and thankfulness interchangeably. Gratitude is defined in the dictionary as "the state of being grateful" (Merriam-Webster). Gratitude is a state of being and a feeling of appreciation for what you have. With gratitude, you're actively aware and acknowledging what you are thankful for and how it has been beneficial in your life. Whereas thankfulness is defined as "conscious of benefit received" (Merriam-Webster). Thankfulness is kind of like an automatic response and a social norm that becomes ingrained. It's a response to an interaction. We say thank you to the person who held the door for us, we say thanks to the person who made our coffee; but these quick reactions/responses to something done for us can have feelings that quickly fade away. When you practice gratitude, the effects are longer-lasting. It's a powerful emotion that helps boost your mood and helps you tune in to what is truly important to you. So at the end of the day, gratitude is more than just being thankful - it's a deep appreciation. Now, let's move on to how gratitude works in your brain:

How Gratitude Works

Practicing gratitude rewires your brain. When you practice gratitude, your brain begins the production and release of dopamine and serotonin, which are neurotransmitters in your brain. These two neurotransmitters are responsible for those 'feel good' feelings. They help you regulate your mood, increase feelings of happiness and contentment, and can strengthen emotional connection. Practicing gratitude rewires your brain by strengthening neural circuits and pathways. Canadian psychologist Donald O. Hebb once said "neurons that fire together, wire together." So the more you practice gratitude, the more you will strengthen these neural pathways and the more positive, fulfilled and grateful you will feel overall. You can think of it like exercising a muscle - when you work on that muscle with exercises, you begin to strengthen it and the better it becomes at performing a certain task. You'll begin to form a beautiful and positive habit in practicing gratitude and the long-lasting effects will be beneficial to your overall well-being. I'll list resources at the bottom of this blog for anyone interested in reading up more about it!

Benefits of Gratitude

Gratitude has been shown to have positive effects on the following:

- increased happiness (that's long-lasting)

- increased energy

- improved sleep

- improved cardiovascular health

- reduced feelings of depression

- less chronic pain

- reduced blood pressure

- enhanced resiliency

- helps to regulate stress

- more optimistic

- more motivated

- healthier, stronger, more connected relationships

- increased connection to yourself, others and the world around you

- enhanced empathy

I feel like I could go on ... but I'll leave it there. There are many positive and healthy benefits as we can see. It's also important to note that this is a gradual development. Although gratitude will help you feel good in the moment, you won't feel dramatic changes overnight. But slowly with time, practice, patience and consistency, you will begin to notice the changes in yourself and your body. For example, you may encounter a negative experience and notice that your mental strength and resiliency is stronger. You may notice that you're navigating, combating and bouncing back from negative emotions and stressful situations with more ease. You'll find that you're able to handle change better than you used to. You'll find gratitude is helping you in many small moments.

Developing an attitude of gratitude can help you in so many ways, so let's discuss some exercises that you can begin to incorporate this practice:

Gratitude Practice & Exercises

There are many ways you can incorporate gratitude into your every day life, so here are just a few. Remember to make your gratitude practice your own. It might feel a little uncomfortable at first for some of us who are not used to this kind of expression. Try not to judge yourself in these moments. Notice what you're feeling and try to shift your attention to focus on what you're doing, why you're doing it and how it will make you feel after.

1. Gratitude Journal

This is a great way to get started. Looking into a journal that has daily prompts might be beneficial as well. My personal favourite is The Five Minute Journal. I've found it so helpful and it even has explanations, research and science in the beginning to provide examples on how it'll be beneficial. You can also create your own journal and make an outline for yourself (for example, one column is people you're thankful for, one column is something about yourself, one column is something about the world, etc).

My tips for gratitude journals, is to really explain why you're grateful for what you are. Get super specific and detailed about how why you're grateful, what it was that made you feel grateful, and how it's been beneficial to your overall well-being. Saying "I'm grateful for my family" is different than "I'm grateful for my brother who called me the other day to cheer me up because they knew I was feeling down, and it really helped me feel better." Saying "I'm grateful for my dog" is different than "I'm grateful for my dog Abbie because she helps me when I feel stressed, she makes me laugh with her goofy mannerisms and she's a wonderful companion." (I actually mean that ... Abbie my sweet pup, if you could ever read .. haha). See the difference? Writing out that second sentence has made me feel so good on the inside, I'm actually smiling now and feel happier.

Remember to try and shake things up. That's also why getting specific can be helpful. Repeating the same words over and over won't make as much of an impact. Keeping a morning/evening ritual with a gratitude journal can be a great way to keep up the habit and strengthen those connections in your brain.

2. Gratitude Letter

Expressing your gratitude for someone in a letter is such a beautiful way to spread the love. Gratitude can be so contagious, so spread some good energy by writing a letter to someone you are feeling thankful for. It might even be a nice domino effect - you can even suggest to the person you write to, to pay it forward. With this exercise, this can be in the form of a hand-written letter (I find this one to be most heart-felt and expressive when I do it), an e-mail, text message, in person, or maybe you can send an audio voice note or video. Whatever your creative and grateful heart desires!

When expressing your gratitude to someone, really try to get into the moment to be as authentic, deliberate and thoughtful as possible. Let them know how much they mean to you and maybe share some stories in your letter to provide examples.

Since we're dealing with Covid-19 at the moment - here's a great idea. Write a letter to an essential worker and express your gratitude and how much their service means to you!

3. Gratitude Jar

I think I'm going to try this one soon! Jazz up a jar, box, any kind of container and make it your own. Decorate it if you like if it helps you feel nice. Once a day, write on a small piece of paper something that you're grateful for and why. One you write it out and reflect on it, fold it up and pop it in the jar. Do this for a period of time (maybe bi-weekly, every month, every few months, once a year), and empty out the jar. Read all of what you're grateful for out and see how great it makes you feel. Not only are you practicing a daily habit, but you can then remind yourself of all the wonderful things you have in your life and why they are benefiting you.

4. Gratitude Walk

If you are able, incorporate some outdoors to enhance the positive feelings. Getting out into nature has a whole other range of benefits, so combine the two and get moving and get grateful. This is also a wonderful mindfulness practice as you can really get into the moment and process what you're grateful for. What is it about Mother Nature that you're grateful for? Maybe you're noticing the trees, the leaves changing colour, the flowers blooming. Maybe you shift inward, noticing and feeling grateful for your body, for your ability to move, your health. This is an excellent grounding exercise and a great perspective shifter.

5. Gratitude Wall

Find a wall or place in your home where you can decorate it up with some gratitudes. Grab some sticky notes and paste your gratitudes for the day on there and keep them up for as long as you like. It helps as a reminder for all the things you have and also a reminder to do your daily practice. You can also use a cork board and also a whiteboard with markers for a more eco-friendly approach!

There are so many more gratitude exercises, but I'm going to leave it off here. I think it's important to do whatever type of expression feels most wholesome and useful to you. Remember - practice makes perfect, as they say. So try to keep consistent if you can! Every morning or maybe every night, throughout the day, whatever tickles your fancy. Keeping accountable with a gratitude buddy can be a great way to stay on track. It's great to be able to weave this into your daily life and routine so that it becomes a natural and normal part of your day. This will enhance and strengthen all of the good things.

I hope this was helpful. I'm grateful for you taking the time to read my rambling and for the opportunity to share words with you!

Take care everyone and stay kind out there,

Kaitlyn :)

PS. I had the fun opportunity to speak with the lovely folks over at Elmwood Spa over on their Instagram page where we discussed all things gratitude. They have awesome weekly content and live videos on various topics that help in all areas of life. Check out their Wellness Series here for more info and excellent tips!

Resources to various links, videos and books on gratitude:

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