Today ends my weeklong experiment to see if a daily practice of writing, in some detail, about three things I’m grateful for can affect my mood and sense of well-being.
A few caveats: this was really a case study, not an experimental trial. And of course, I couldn’t hold all the other variables in my life constant. This week I also finished a major project, meaning I’m catching up on sleep.
But even so, a daily gratitude practice has made a noticeable difference. It’s easier to get out of bed in the morning. I look forward to the day more. I thank my husband more often. I feel calmer and more grounded. I’m more likely to notice little things I enjoy — a cup of coffee, a cloudless sky, the feeling of soil under my hands or autumn leaves under my feet. I think more about people I’m fortunate to have in my life.
It’s not that I notice the hard stuff less. But I seem not to dwell on it as much because I’m paying more attention to life’s rewards.
After a week of gratitude practice, I’m also able to plan more effectively and make better decisions throughout the day. That fascinates me, because studies suggest that cultivating gratitude helps us feel brighter and more alert, according to neuroscientist Rick Hanson. Hanson notes that such alertness likely stems from increased production of the brain chemical dopamine, which also enables us to plan and experience rewards.
Hanson writes, too, that activities that increase our attention span — including meditation and gratitude practice — also enhance activity in a part of our brain called the left prefrontal cortex, which inhibits negative emotions, helping us feel happier. The left prefrontal cortex consistently shows abnormally low activity in those who are clinically depressed. Does that mean gratitude practice can combat depression? Studies suggest it can, especially for people who are naturally self-critical.
I’ll revisit this topic in a few weeks to gauge whether my seven days of formal gratitude practice have had lasting positive effects. In the meantime, here’s what I’m thankful for today:
- A half hour spent planting garlic with my husband under a clear fall sky.
- The dinner he prepared of potatoes, kale and caramelized onions, all from our garden.
- The fact that I decided to try this practice and stuck it out. It took time and energy, and it wasn’t always easy to focus on what I was grateful for. But it was well worth it.