Studies have shown how regularly practicing gratitude affects the brain and psychological health
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Studies have shown how regularly practicing gratitude affects the brain and psychological health

If you want to take steps to improve your mental health, try writing exercises centered around giving thanks and expressing gratitude

We are in the heart of autumn. This is a great season to contemplate, to reflect, and to give thanks to all the good things in life. We know that gratitude feels good, but there's also studies from UCLA and UC Berkeley that show the long term benefits to both mental health and brain chemistry that comes from healthy gratitude practices. The holidays can be incredibly emotionally difficult for people, so it's good to think about how best to keep your emotional health together.

The journal Psychotherapy Research published a paper studying positive psychological interventions (PPIs) such as gratitude writing - when people would write down who and what they were grateful for. The study tested 293 individual who were under theraputic care. One group received therapy only, the other combined therapy with expressive writing (writing used to express the subject's emotional state) and the third group combined therapy with gratitude writing. The subjects were measured four weeks and twelve weeks after the therapy concluded and the group who participated in gratitude writing reported significantly better mental health than the other two group. While the sample size is very small, it does point to the psychological value of expressing gratitude. 

According to UCLA's Mindfulness Awareness Research Center, having a grateful attitude changes the molecular structure of the brain, keeps the gray matter functioning, and makes us healthier and happier. When you feel happiness, the central nervous system is affected. You are more peaceful, less reactive, and less resistant. 

From UC Berkeley's Greater Good website: 

1. Gratitude unshackles us from toxic emotions

However, people who used more positive emotion words and more “we” words in their gratitude letters didn’t necessarily have better mental health later. It was only when people used fewer negative emotion words in their letters that they were significantly more likely to report better mental health. In fact, it was the lack of negative emotion words—not the abundance of positive words—that explained the mental health gap between the gratitude writing group and the other writing group.

2. Gratitude helps even if you don’t share it

Participants in UC Berkeley's gratitude study were told to write gratitude letters but sending it was optional. Only 23 percent of participants who wrote gratitude letters sent them. But those who didn’t send their letters enjoyed the benefits of experiencing gratitude nonetheless.

3. Gratitude’s benefits take time

Most of the studies that have focused on gratitude writing show that the positive effects of the practice don't kick in until about 12 weeks into the practice. So give the practice time to kick in. 

4. Gratitude has lasting effects on the brain

People who participated in the study were placed in an fMRI machine to study the effects of the practice on brain activity.

The scientists found that when people who are generally more grateful gave more money to a cause, they showed greater neural sensitivity in the medial prefrontal cortex, a brain area associated with learning and decision making. This suggests that people who are more grateful are also more attentive to how they express gratitude.

In addition, compared those who wrote the gratitude letters with those who didn’t, the gratitude letter writers showed greater activation in the medial prefrontal cortex when they experienced gratitude in the fMRI scanner. This is striking as this effect was found three months after the letter writing began. This indicates that simply expressing gratitude may have lasting effects on the brain. 

If you're interested in trying gratitude writing, here are some suggestions from UCLA: 

Ask who in your life — past and present — has given you inspiration, motivation, love, support, and guidance.

Ask what skills, talents, personal characteristics, values, beliefs, and education opportunities you utilize every day and are you grateful for.

Ask where you have been in your life that has deeply affected you emotionally, intellectually, physically or spiritually. 

Ask how you normally express your gratitude. 

Ask what negative situation could be a positive in your life.