Training your brain for gratitude

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Are you a glass half-empty person or a glass half-full? Are you more likely to obsess over your friend not texting you back, or feel thankful for the amazing holiday you just had?

For a long time, I thought that positive and negative outlooks were a fixed part of our personalities. Some people seem prone to noticing what’s wrong; others are more sunny and joyful. But according to neuroplasticity – the idea that our brains are constantly changing as we respond to new situations – it’s not as fixed as I thought.

Our brains form pathways and patterns through repetition. Those who regularly notice the bad stuff train their brains to continue looking out for the negative. Luckily, the reverse is also true. If you start teaching yourself to notice the positive, you’ll develop a mind that is more grateful, thankful and happy. Here’s how to orient your brain towards the good stuff.

Start a gratitude jar

A few years ago I went on a silent retreat in Bali. At the entrance of the yoga pavilion were two containers on a stand. A sign invited you to think of something you were grateful for and then pick up a stone from one container and transfer it to the other. Then you could enter.

This is a perfect way of training your mind to take note of good things. You can do something similar by keeping a gratitude jar. Each day, write down something you’re thankful for and pop it into the jar. It doesn’t have to be anything huge. You could write, “I’m glad I can afford Netflix” or “I’m grateful for a hot shower in the morning.” You’re teaching yourself to seek out what’s good, however small.

Keep a gratitude journal

You might prefer to keep a gratitude journal. At the end of each day, write down three things you’re thankful for. You could do this in an actual notebook, or use an app.

If you think about it, giving thanks for what you have is not really a new idea. People who pray have been doing it for centuries. Who knew they were also creating patterns in their brains for gratitude?

Use apps

There are now apps to help teach your brain to focus on the positive. They’re based on a therapy process called cognitive bias modification (CBM).

I tried a fairly popular CBM app called Grief Relief. It works by showing you a series of photos and asking you to choose the person with the happiest expression. I’m not sure whether it’s making me a happier person yet, but I am getting faster at noticing the person with the smiling face!

Practise loving kindness meditation

If you’re open to a bit of zen, try practising some loving kindness meditation. It comes from the Buddhist tradition and can be used by anyone who wants to cultivate loving feelings towards themselves and others. Use an audio recording like this one to guide you through the steps of the meditation. It’s ten minutes of your day when you can focus on those good feels like love and compassion.

Say thank you

The most obvious way to develop gratitude is to express it to someone. This could be as simple as telling your mum you appreciate her Thursday night dinners, or it could be fancier, like sending someone a card or baking them a cake. You’ll make the recipient feel super special while also teaching yourself to notice the awesome people in your life.

Cultivating gratitude is not about pretending that everything is sunshine and unicorns. There are some truly crappy things happening in the world right now (cyclones and the treatment of refugees are just a couple of things that spring to mind), and it’s right that we focus on these some of the time. But there are also joyful moments just waiting for our attention. However you do it, find a way to regularly recognise the good stuff. 

Melinda Cooper

Melinda loves reading on rainy days, drinking cups of tea and making things. She is doing a PhD in English at the University of Sydney. 

Image: Justine ReyesFlickr Creative Commons license