First, gratitude helps magnify your positive emotions so you’re more likely to adapt to the good things happening in your life. Additionally, gratitude helps you counteract negative emotions like resentment, regret, and envy. Much research asserts that if you’re grateful, you can’t resent someone for having something that you don’t. We will get into the data in the pages to come. The Webster definition of gratitude is an emotion of the heart, excited by a favor or benefit received; a sentiment of kindness or goodwill toward a benefactor; thankfulness.
According to the UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Research Center, “regularly expressing gratitude (the quality of being thankful and the readiness to show appreciation) literally changes the molecular structure of the brain, keeps the gray matter functioning, and makes us healthier and happier.” Countless other studies exist on gratitude’s benefits, and many will be explored in the coming chapters. For example, Tibetan monks’ brains were scanned when they meditated and practiced gratitude, and their prefrontal cortexes lit up like Christmas trees. The extent and immediacy of this reaction amazed the researchers.
The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley conducted a gratitude study with three hundred adults who were seeking mental health counseling at a university. The majority of these adults were grappling with anxiety and depression. The group that was asked to practice gratitude reported a significant increase in their mental health after the experiment concluded. Other surprising benefits transpired during this study that we will explore more deeply in Chapter 3.
THE SURPRISING REALITY OF JUST HOW MUCH IT’S “IN YOUR HEAD”
My studies of happiness would always encompass gratitude and tie it so strongly together that it could not be ignored. Every study would either allude to or conclude that grateful people are happier people, so I began to practice and incorporate gratitude into my own life.
Around this same time, I happened upon the study of neuroplasticity. As I mentioned in the introduction, neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to change and heal, especially in response to learning or experience or following injury. I was fascinated and absorbed all I could from the work of Norman Doidge (psychiatrist, author and psychoanalyst), Annie Hopper (creator of the Dynamic Neural Retraining System), Caroline Leaf (neuroscientist and author), and Joe Dispenza (neuroscientist and author). Story after story revealed people who overcame devastating injuries, hopeless diagnoses, and healed with neuroplasticity.
Shortly into my research, I came across a study about lottery winners, paraplegics, and baseline happiness. I was awestruck by the fact that after about six months, when the shock wore off, both lottery winners and paraplegics returned to the baseline happiness that they had been at before their life-changing event occurred. What an eye-opening fact! Our circumstances don’t dictate our happiness—it’s our choice. This led me to the study of neuroplasticity and our ability to change ourselves for the better.
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