Growing Grateful: Ancient Origins and New Neuroscience

"More servants wait on man than he'll take notice of. Nature, in its ministry to man, is not only the material, but is also the process and the result. The wind sows the seed; the sun evaporates the sea; the wind blows the vapor to the field; the ice, on the other side of the planet, condenses rain on this; the rain feeds the plant; the plant feeds the animal; and thus the endless circulations of the divine charity nourish man.”
                                                                                          -Ralph Waldo Emerson


Gratitude is commonly understood to mean a feeling of thankfulness.  However, it is not easy to identify gratitude as a feeling from a facial expression alone as you can with happiness or sadness.  This is probably why it is challenging to create a gratitude emoji on the phone without the little folded hands or at least some added text.

Gratitude contains the word “attitude” and for the purposes of this article, it will be explored as a type of awareness that can be cultivated as part of daily mindfulness practice. By dedicating a little time and choosing to focus our attention on the good things we experience, we can develop a positive attitude, which leads to feeling more positive emotions like happiness and contentment. 

Etymologically, gratitude has roots in the Latin word gratia, which means grace. To say “thank you” in romance languages like Italian or Spanish is “grazie” or “gracias,” respectively, and literally translates to “graces.” 

The original meaning of grace was “unmerited favor, love or help.” Accordingly, gratitude can be practiced by appreciating what is given to us unearned. This could be the unexpected service of a stranger, the soothing song of a bird, or an enchanting kaleidoscopic sunset and so on. We can also direct our awareness to all that goes on behind the scenes on our behalf in the preparation of our food when we say “grace” or give thanks before a meal. 

Gratitude has origins in a few other ancient languages that contain similar and additional clues to this age-old outlook. In Sanskrit, it is kritajna, which is a compound word derived from kripa (grace) and jnana (knowledge). In ancient Greek, the word for grace is charis. Mythologically, when an aspirant is adept at this spiritual practice of knowing the blessings, he or she is bestowed with charismata – an aura of magnetism and source of inspiration for others. 

In modern times, there are many scientifically validated benefits related to gratitude practice, and the emerging research of the brain reveals many more health insights. Psychologist Robert Emmons and his colleagues conducted a series of studies where participants practiced gratitude primarily by keeping a gratitude journal at night. They found that increasing gratitude for three weeks in this manner led to improved sleep, less pain, lower blood pressure, more life satisfaction, optimism and compassion among many other physical, psychological and social benefits (Emmons and McCullough, 2003). 

Neuroplasticity is an aspect of our brains that allows for malleability. It means that our brains change and develop more cortical thickness or gray matter in certain areas to help us perform functions that we engage in frequently. What we pay attention to and think about is very important. It is a type of exercise for the brain. 

For example, if worries keep us up at night, we get better at dwelling on the negative through this habitual pattern. Alternatively, the regular practice of gratitude and focusing on the positives before bed can help reverse that tendency and improve our ability to fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer (Wood et al, 2009). 

Researchers at the National Institute of Health conducted MRI studies of participants reporting higher levels of gratitude during different psychological experiments. This imaging revealed increased activity and stimulation in the limbic system and specifically the hypothalamus, which is an almond-sized structure involved in a variety of metabolic processes including sleep and digestion (Zahn et al, 2009). It is interesting to think that genuinely offering thanks before a meal may directly activate the neurochemical signals and biological mechanisms to help prepare our bodies to better digest and assimilate nutrition from our food. 

Becoming more grateful and developing a positive attitude in general does not happen casually. Like anything else, it requires some regular practice. So, consider starting a gratitude journal and committing to writing every night about 5 positive experiences that happened throughout the day. Do this for at least 2 weeks. 

Writing about positive experiences is a little more cognitively involved than merely making a gratitude list and requires more reflection and appreciation of the grace in your life. In time, you can get better at recognizing the goodness around you, better at mindfully participating in it, and better at remembering it. 

If you can accept uncertainty, embrace the mystery and let life unfold, then there can be gratitude for every learning experience. With a more grateful and open heart, you can navigate life with the spirit of fullness. This not only contributes to your own health and overall well-being but to peace in the world. 

Out of a sense of abundance and deep appreciation for our gifts, comes the willingness to share, cooperate and love ourselves and others. Become a seeker of inspiration and a collector of positivity. May you be grateful and may you be charismatic!  

Todd Fink