Getting caught in negativity is common. Learn simple, proven ways to turn it around, boost your mood, willpower and your brain

Culture of negativity

Do your days often seem full of hassles? Do you struggle with impatience or impulsiveness?

Given our fast-paced, results-oriented culture, and given the state of our brains, most of us could stand to shift away from negativity, and to boost our patience and self-control.

We in the U.S. have the perfect holiday to focus on something that can help us shift gears and improve our well-being and our brains: Thanksgiving. (I know it might sound trite, but stick with me for a minute.)

Gratitude has been shown to not only boost happiness, but also to improve some important executive functions of the brain.

Our pessimistic brain can change

Our brains have what psychologist Rick Hanson calls a negativity bias. (My brain knows this well, having been voted in high school to be  – among other things – “class pessimist”).

One of the most critical functions of our brain is to keep us safe. The amygdala, which is responsible for our fight-or-flight reactions, is constantly scanning for threats so it can direct us how to respond and keep us safe. In keeping with this important goal of survival, our amygdala tends to be on the lookout for bad news. And so our brains are primed for negativity. Once our brains follow the negative neural pathways and keep returning to them, the connections become stronger and seemingly hard-wired.

But because of the wonderful gift of neuroplasticity, our brains can always create new neural connections, including ones wired for positivity. Once we begin to focus our thoughts and attention to what we do have, we not only strengthen the neural pathways for gratitude, but we also prime the brain to look for the positive.

Whatever thoughts we are having, whatever we are choosing to put our focus and attention on, is what the brain begins to look for out in the world. This is what neuroscientists call the brain’s “confirmation bias.” In other words, the brain likes to be right and tends to look for information to match what it is already thinking. In this way, if you believe your life is difficult and full of hassles, the slightest bump in the road will seem like yet another big hassle. But if you believe your life is good and abundant, the hassles will be less noticeable or may even turn into lessons or gifts.

Thanks for well-being

You don’t just have to take my word for this. Studies have been done that link gratitude to a feeling of well-being.

One study from the University of California (UC) compared outcomes of people who kept a gratitude journal versus those who focused on daily hassles or neutral events. The study found that those with gratitude journals exercised more, had fewer physical ailments to report, and generally felt better about their lives. Those with the gratitude journals were also more likely to have progressed towards their goals and to have provided support to others. Pretty cool, right?

Thanks for self-control

Another joint study from UC, Northeastern University, Harvard Kennedy School and Riverside found that practicing gratitude helped to reduce feelings of impatience and to foster self-control. This makes sense because the area of the brain that gets activated by gratitude, as shown in the next study, is the prefrontal cortex which is responsible for impulse control and delaying gratification.

Researchers at Indiana University Bloomington looked at the effects of gratitude on brain activity. A group of participants who were entering psychotherapy for depression and/or anxiety were asked to write letters expressing thanks. Three months later, they were given an MRI while performing a “Pay It Forward” task in which they were given money and asked to give it to a charity to the extent that they felt grateful for it. The brain scans showed that those who had written letters of thanks had a greater neural sensitivity to gratitude, even three months later.

The scans also showed that gratitude resulted in significantly greater neural activity in the prefrontal cortex. This is great news for those who want to improve their thinking and behavior, since the prefrontal cortex is responsible for our ability to control impulses, plan for future goals, and make high-level decisions.

Tips for practicing gratitude

The more you can shift your focus toward gratitude, the stronger the habit will become and the better the results for your prefrontal cortex and your life.

Here are some ways to practice:

  • Start a gratitude journal. This is a great way to shift the focus especially at the beginning of your day, and I’ve seen it help my clients. Every day, make a list of 3-5 things (or more) for which you’re thankful.
  • Notice the simple things throughout the day that bring you pleasure like a song on the radio, delicious food, a hot drink, natural beauty, or being with someone.
  • Express thanks to someone with a letter, an email or a phone call. This is not about a 1-word message saying “thanks,” but really a heartfelt expression to someone describing how s/he helped you or has made a difference.
  • Start a group gratitude practice, whether at work or at home. When you are sitting down for a meal or a meeting, start by having everyone share something for which they are grateful.
  • Pause and name 3 things for which you’re grateful whenever you notice that you’ve gone down the rabbit hole of negativity.

What’s on your thanks-giving table?

I’m grateful for a lot, including for you, dear reader, getting to the end of this post!

What are you giving thanks for now, and what will you do to shift that focus in your brain? Share your gratitude below – by posting it publicly, more neurons will fire than if you’re just thinking it, so fire away!

Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

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