In the early years of mental health practice, the focus of the research was on the minority of mentally unwell people. The goal was to study these people, how they were suffering, and how we could work to make them better. However, toward the end of the 1900s, some psychologists began to consider what we might learn from those people who were not mentally unwell but, instead, who were mentally and emotionally healthy. One of the pioneers of this work was Dr. Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology.
The focus of Dr. Seligman’s work was to discover what mentally healthy people did that helped keep them well, positive, motivated, optimistic, etc. While his research discovered many interesting characteristics of these healthy individuals (i.e. learned optimism, cultivating strengths, etc.) it also noted that the intentional practice of gratitude was also present in many of these “well” individuals’ lives.
As one example, in a 2005 study, Dr. Seligman found that people who wrote gratitude letters had a strong one-month return on happiness. However, if that practice was not continued, the feeling of positivity had fallen back to baseline after six months. The suggestion is that gratitude makes changes for our well-being only so long as we are willing to consistently practice it. Intermittent gratitude practice is not effective in creating a more consistent internal gratitude experience.
The other piece of this gratitude puzzle is the incredible brain research that has been done in the past couple of decades on neuroplasticity. In short, neuroplasticity is the ability of our brains to form new neural pathways depending on our thoughts and behaviors. While we used to believe that our brains were fully wired and formed by the end of adolescence, we now know that brain flexibility is present throughout our lives. Hebb’s Law says it well, “neurons that fire together wire together.”
This ability of our brains to change their pathways is exactly why we need to regularly practice gratitude to help our brains think gratefully. Our brains will do what we train them to do, and that can be gratitude or that can be thinking negatively. Our thought patterns will not just remain static with previously learned behaviors as we used to believe.
If you are wanting to incorporate gratitude practices in your own life, there are many research-backed options to try. It is important to note that gratitude is not equivalent to toxic positivity, which is acknowledging the good at the expense or exclusion of difficult things in our lives. Instead, it is the practice of gratitude so that our brains are better wired to seek out the positive, acknowledge blessings, and practice resilience even in the face of challenges.
If you would like to get started with some helpful, research-backed gratitude practices, please link here for four great options.
December 1, 2022. By Anne Rulo, Author, Speaker, Therapist. www.annerulo.com. FB/IG/Twitter @annemrulo