What comes to mind when you imagine what practicing gratitude looks like?
For many of us, it’s probably this method that we always hear about – write down a list of things that you’re grateful for, picture them in your mind, and really feel into that sense of gratitude.
There’s nothing wrong with this practice. It can be an important reminder of the good in our lives. However, if we want to experience the positive mental and physical changes that a robust gratitude practice can bring us, simply writing things down, it turns out, isn’t the most effective way to do this.
As Dr. Andrew Huberman explains in this episode of his podcast, gratitude is a prosocial mindset. Prosocial mindsets and behaviours make us more effective in interacting not only with others, but also with ourselves. There are certain neural circuits in our brains that are wired for prosocial thoughts and behaviours, which bring us closer to the sensory details of interactions, people, and experiences.
Although we’re a social species, our brains are often wired to be more defensive. However, when the prosocial circuits are active, defensive behaviours are reduced.
If your prosocial circuits are active during, for example, a meeting with a client, your body language would be more open and you would appear more approachable, projecting confidence and putting the client at greater ease. With a regular gratitude practice, we can overcome our defensive wiring and reap the benefits in both our professional and personal lives.
Besides social and interpersonal benefits, a regular, effective gratitude practice has a host of mental and physical benefits. These include reduced anxiety, stress, and inflammation, increased motivation, joy, and, of course, gratitude, and increased empathy. Gratitude builds resilience to prior trauma and and protection against potential future trauma. It may also contribute to increased neuroplasticity.
The prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain that sets the context for your experiences; it is where meaning is made. Gratitude is a mindset that activates this part of your brain.
Let’s say you’re doing something that may be uncomfortable, like public speaking. If you’re doing it because you want to – you want to teach people or broaden your audience, for example – then your prefrontal cortex can assign it positive associations and effects. If you’re doing it because you have to – like for an assignment in school – then you don’t get the same positive effects. You can’t lie to your brain that you love something if you actually don’t.
There is also overlap between the neural circuits for gratitude and joy, which is why a gratitude practice can increase your happiness. Gratitude is associated with increased serotonin, the neurochemical that stabilizes mood.
Regular gratitude also builds up the anterior cingulate cortex, which is involved in empathy and understanding others’ emotions. Gratitude is also linked to the “theory of mind,” an important skill that lets us understand others’ experiences and perspectives without necessarily having had the same experiences.
In your business, being able to put yourself in your clients’ shoes and see from their point of view will help you serve them better and result in higher-quality work, driving their satisfaction and loyalty.
The power of story
Dr. Huberman cites a study in which participants individually listened to a story. Although the participants were listening to the story in different locations, at different times, by themselves, and came from all walks of life, there was a surprising result: their heart rates while listening to the story were found to be almost identical.
As humans, we’re naturally wired for stories and storytelling. Stories are how we learn and how we make sense of the world.
Another study, “Neural correlates of gratitude” by Fox et al., had participants listen to stories from Holocaust survivors – stories in which they had been helped in some way or given a life-saving gift of food or clothing and felt strong gratitude for the help they received. While they listened to these stories, participants underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRIs) that measured and mapped their brains’ activity.
Participants “were asked to place themselves in the context of the Holocaust and imagine what their own experiences would feel like if they received such gifts,” according to the paper’s abstract.
Fox et al. found that while participants were listening to the stories and rating their gratitude, there was increased activity in their medial prefrontal cortexes and anterior cingulate cortexes, showing how simply listening to a story of gratitude affects our brains.
Putting gratitude into practice
The most effective gratitude practice is one in which you receive gratitude. Does this mean you should go around fishing for compliments and praise?
No. There’s a better and easier way to build a daily gratitude practice, and once you’ve got it down, you can grow your gratitude in as little as one minute each day.
As I discussed above, stories have power, and you can use that power to build a daily gratitude practice. Find a personal narrative that is powerful for you – find a story that, as Dr. Huberman says, “inspires you with the beauty of the human spirit or the ability of humans to help each other.” You can also think about a time when someone was genuinely grateful to you and how receiving that gratitude felt.
While taking in or thinking of this story, take point-form notes about its details: the struggle, the help received, and how it affects you emotionally. This is your “cheat sheet” that will help you build familiarity with the story and get into that gratitude mindset more easily. Each day, or every other day, spend some time thinking about this story of gratitude.
As you repeat this exercise and become more familiar with the story, your neural circuits will activate more easily, eventually allowing you to slip into your gratitude practice in as little as one minute.
Gratitude in the workplace
Building your own regular gratitude practice can definitely help your business. As I said earlier, gratitude activates the prosocial circuits in your brain that improve how you interact with others. If you run your own business or work as a freelancer, you know that strong interpersonal skills are essential to how you interact with clients, collaborators, and employees.
Showing your gratitude for your co-workers and employees, and encouraging them to build their own gratitude practices, will result in a happier, more empathetic workplace that feels welcoming and supportive.
Building your gratitude benefits every social relationship you have - not just the ones that you verbally express gratitude for.
If you want a little help growing your gratitude, check out our Gratitude Visualization on YouTube!
I have over 30 years of experience working with more than 10,000 clients in helping people unlock their productivity potential. Personal productivity is my passion! Every day I am curious and excited to learn what people are working on. I can’t wait to see you in a Bubble!