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Blog May 1, 2020

Back to Basics: Setting Gratitude As Your Magnetic North

Photo by Nicholas Bartos on Unsplash

By Sheila Ohlsson Walker, Ph.D.  |   @DrSheilaOWalker

Too often, we human beings leapfrog from one perceived need to the next, missing moments of beauty happening right here, right now. In the midst of the COVID-19 quarantine, we are living a paradox. What we want and need most is one of the very things we cannot have: physical proximity (people energy!) with the friends, family, and students we love.

While there is no substitute for the quantum- and molecular-level biochemistry of in-person, authentic human connection, the healing brain chemistry of gratitude offers a potent, real-time proxy. It is a neurobiological “upward spiral” we can set into motion right now to feel more connected with the people in our lives, integrate gifts that are often overlooked (e.g. I am healthy today!) and improve our outlook, mood, and overall well-being.

Gratitude is defined as thankful appreciation for what we receive whether tangible or intangible. It is a vehicle that transports us into feeling that we are part of something larger than ourselves. This is significant given the growing body of research demonstrating that isolation (being alone) and loneliness (alone or with a person / group that leaves us feeling invisible) can be toxic to our systems. This “empty” feeling can elevate levels of stress hormones, instigating a chain reaction of inflammatory biochemistry throughout our brains and bodies.

Note that isolation differs from solitude. While both are states of being alone, solitude is characterized by some measure of “fullness” and joy (gratitude!) for the gift of space and time to breathe and reflect and simply “be.” This sense of soulful completeness often includes a sense of connection with others that transcends words, which begets an embodied sense of collective efficacy (we are in this together!)

Now that you know the story, here is the science. Feelings of gratitude activate the limbic system, a powerful set of brain structures that includes the hypothalamus and amygdala, both which play a large role in regulating our emotions, memory, and endocrine function (hormones.) It is here where brain chemicals associated with positivity, including oxytocin (the love hormone,) serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine are generated in an endogenous, uplifting molecular boost that helps us transition into a healthier and more adaptive head space.

When we wire our brains to focus on what we appreciate in others (vs. what’s missing), or think about what we do have (vs. what we don’t), we create the conditions for a constructive and expansive cycle of thought. Moreover, because what’s real in the mind is real in the body, this powerful, healing elixir, distilled from the biochemicals of gratitude, nourishes body, mind, and spirit.


While perceived negative emotions such as anxiety, fear and loneliness tend to trigger our sympathetic nervous systems (fight, flight or freeze) and narrow our scope of perceived options (e.g. Bad day! I am stressed and need ice cream…and maybe a bourbon too!), the mental frame of positivity, which includes feelings of gratitude, empathy, forgiveness, and generosity, generates a biological healing cascade that effectively broadens our perspective and behavioral repertoire (e.g. Bad day, but I’m grateful that I managed to keep it together! Though I’m craving ice cream, what will really help settle my frazzled nerves is a warm bath, a hot cup of tea and good night’s sleep.)

The field of positive psychology terms this productive and healing thought-behavior response pattern “broaden-and-build.” Gratitude can help us pause, breathe and gain perspective, allowing us to see that there are more options than just one. We initiate our own upward spirals and are the heroines and heroes in our self-narratives.

Because in general “neurons that wire together, fire together,” the neural circuitry of gratitude can be an all-encompassing reset for our integrated mind-body-spirit system. Gratitude nudges our inner cognitive processing from self-focused internal thought, which more often than not is comprised of negatively-oriented content and unproductive mood states (e.g. rumination and anxiety), and towards feeling a part of an entity larger than ourselves. This can be the galvanizing central force of the universe that is inside all of us, a higher power, the glory of the natural world, or a deep emotional connection with another person.

It is often the people in our lives – those who make us feel seen and valued – who provide the small and easy-to-miss opportunities to feel gratitude every single day. Dan Siegel would call this dynamic, quite simply, “MWe”: Me + We. Relationships are the defining feature of being human. When we honor and respect the power of human connection – a look of knowing understanding, a broad, crinkly-eyed smile or an affirmation of pure, authentic love – suddenly the effect of MWe takes over. A spaciousness opens inside of us, allowing us to see, take in and feel integrally connected with the world all around us.

Here are Some Ways to Begin Cultivating Gratitude:

  • Keep a daily gratitude journal:
    • Start by breathing into a soft space in your mind, envisioning warmth
    • Write down 3-5 things you’re grateful for: “I am grateful…” Breathe in and feel these gifts as you write…
  • Write a letter of gratitude every week; include your students! Research demonstrates the powerfully positive effects for the writer and the receiver.
  • Let moments of gratitude become micro meditations: The neurobiology of meditation provides access to softer emotions that surface when we are “human beings” rather than “human doings.”
  • Count your blessings in the (virtual) classroom with students, or around the family dinner table.
  • Don’t forget about “eustress” (positive stress,) and how it can be leveraged as a positive force in our growth and development. By viewing most challenges including the extraordinarily difficult circumstances presented by COVID-19 as an opportunity to cope, learn, and evolve, finding gratitude for life’s “slings and arrows” can help us build resilience.
  • If emotions of gratitude are difficult to access, don’t sweat it. Act with intention and “fake it till you make it.” Verbalizing positivity is a good first step in shifting perspective, and in spurring the buoyant biochemical cascade into action.
  • Find a “gratitude buddy.” Spend 2-5 minute a day sharing and feeling the things you are grateful for, together!
  • Take a walk outside under the big blue sky. Notice the trees, the grass, the flowers and the birds singing. Breathe deeply, in and out, and notice how it feels…
  • Join your community’s nightly celebration of gratitude for front line workers! Bang on your pots and pans, clap, and cheer along with your family and neighbors. Notice the simultaneous feeling of physical release, joy, and the exponentially powerful energy force that takes hold when we all stand together.

The important point is that we can intentionally choose a quiet landing spot for our thoughts. Instead of taking the fork in the road that brews up the biochemistry of stress and rumination, we can move in a direction that fosters the biochemistry of gratitude and resilience. In the passage of a long, slow breath we feel the mental freedom of warmth, safety, and love. We are out of the isolation penalty box and connected with the broader world around us. We are smiling with our eyes, our sympathetic nervous systems settle down, and we stand, once again, where our feet are. We are showing our children and students how to do the same.

As the late great Maya Angelou once said: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” In practicing gratitude, we experience the breadth and richness of the world around us and give ourselves a dose of the world’s most powerful medicine: love.

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” – Marcel Proust

Who are the people in your life who feel like sunshine? What are the little things that bring you pure joy and make your world a better place? Take a few moments to reflect and write about them, and feel the healing cascade infuse into your body, mind and spirit. Next week, we look forward to talking about the emotional fueling power of service, and how giving can be even more powerful for the giver than the receiver.

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