Dr. Chad Sato
Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the definition of gratitude is “the state of being grateful; thankfulness.” Expanding on this definition is being thankful for all situations, good or bad. You might be asking yourself, good situations I can be thankful for, but why on earth would I be grateful for bad ones?
Throughout the past 21 years of my practice, I’ve learned how our greatest obstacles are often gifts in disguise. Have you ever experienced a challenging boss, job or family member that somehow pushed you to speak up for yourself, stand your ground or move on and discover an occupation that you really enjoyed? Think of difficult situations or people in the past, where, if it weren’t for them, you wouldn’t be the person you are today.
Now, let’s expand gratitude to our COVID-19 era, focusing on how the pandemic has benefitted you, versus how it has been the bane of our existence. Many of us are aware that depression, suicide and domestic violence are ramping up in proportion to people losing their jobs, unemployment funds running out, experiencing stress from the constant monitoring of children’s online schooling and missing face-to-face connection with loved ones and friends. In these intense moments, it’s hard to find or maintain a sense of gratitude.
Many clients have been sharing with me how this whole situation was scary at first. But soon, they also saw the benefits, such as less traffic, new opportunities to slow down and reassess their lifestyle, closer encounters with loved ones and simply more time to do things such as cook nutritious meals, walk outside, enjoy the beach and nature, declutter homes, find inventive ways to work through problems, and venture into new endeavors. Although COVID-19 still causes some uncertainty, it was amazing to hear how many people found gifts that showed up for them recently. You can do the same by looking at positive changes you have made in your life over the past seven months.
The Science Behind Gratitude
Gratitude changes and even strengthens the brain in positive ways. Research has shown that gratitude helps increase resilience, build stronger social connections and reduce stress and depression. Also research finds that gratitude stimulates two regions of the brain: the hypothalamus, which is our stress regulator, and the ventral and dorsal medial pre-frontal cortex — the brain’s reward system that produces feelings of pleasure, morality, personal connection and positive social interactions as well as the ability to understand what other people are thinking or feeling.
The more thoughts of gratitude are entertained, the more positive sensations of closeness, connection and happiness increase. When you are grateful, your relationships will naturally improve. You will feel love more and, in turn, give love more easily. You might even notice and appreciate more good things in your life; the constant production of dopamine and serotonin from your brain will enhance your mood and well-being. Researchers have discovered that people who are happy live on average 10 years longer than people who aren’t.
Gratitude has also been linked to bolstering the immune system, lowering blood pressure and producing more restful sleep. Fear and negative thoughts cause the body to release stress hormones (such as adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol) which activate a “flight or fight” reaction, which essentially shuts off the rest and recovery processes of the nervous system.
By contrast, grateful feelings and positive thoughts release more neurochemicals (such as dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin) than negative emotions. These neurochemicals create a positive physical and physiological response that helps you breathe more deeply and slowly, which in turn relaxes muscle tension, calming the nerves and decreasing blood pressure. Replacing the stress hormones leads to a more restful sleep and boosting your immune system, allowing it to perform normally and help protect you from COVID-19, bacteria and other threats.
A study performed in 2003 compared two groups. One group kept a weekly list of things they were grateful for and another group kept track of all the things that irritated them or they felt neutral about. Participants who focused on gratitude had an increased sense of well-being in comparison to the other group, so researchers concluded, “a conscious focus on blessings may have emotional and interpersonal benefits.” Arthur C. Brooks, author of “Gross National Happiness,” shared in his 2015 column in The New York Times that “acting grateful can actually make you grateful.”
Gratitude also helps boost your energy and encourages more generosity and compassion. Grateful people also have a greater capacity for joy and positive emotions. A 1993 research study discovered a way to boost your happiness even when you’re not feeling that happy. In this study, researchers discovered that by smiling voluntarily and involuntarily affected the brain activity exactly the same. They concluded that you can literally convince your brain and body to be happy, just by forcing yourself to smile. In other words, your physical body action can influence your mental/emotional state.
Simple Gratitude Exercises
Make a conscious choice to look for people or areas in your life for which you feel grateful. Research has shown you can experience only one emotion at a time. So choose gratitude and love more than negativity and fear. As you come to choose gratitude and positivity, you reinforce those pathways in your brain which help you get hardwired to look at your life positively, even when challenges arise. It takes commitment and consistency to shift from a negative to a positive mindset, but it can be done.
Practice the act of gratitude and test yourself to find new things to be grateful for or to find the silver linings in challenging experiences. By doing so, you help your brain perceive benefits during moments of fear and uncertainty.
The more you focus and hold on to gratitude, it will expand into other positive emotions such as contentment, happiness, appreciation and joy.
One exercise recommended by Rick Hanson is to focus and hold onto the positive experience of gratitude for 20 seconds or longer, in order to create a positive structural change in your brain. Otherwise, it’s common for us to just move through the positive experience (taking it for granted) and then move on to the next experience.
To cement this exercise further, Harvard happiness researcher Shawn Achor recommends, for the next 21 days, writing down three things that have happened in the previous 24 hours for which you feel gratitude. The three things must be concrete and real, but can be minor or significant. By doing this for 21 days, you begin to train your brain to perceive the world in a different way. You will start to scan the world for positives instead of the negatives. As you remember positive experiences, your brain will label them as meaningful so they imprint deeper into your brain. The concept behind this exercise is that after 21 days, this will become a habit and alter the way your brain engages and experiences the world.
Martin Seligman, author of “Authentic Happiness,” recommends writing daily letters of gratitude. You can take five to 10 minutes in the morning or evening to write and send gratitude emails to a loved one or dear friend.
Although this COVID-19 situation has created new stressors, you have the power to increase your wellness by choosing gratitude over fear. Know that consistently creating a practice to entertain gratitude and positive thoughts will, in the long term, provide enhanced mental and emotional wellness.
Dr. Chad Sato graduated from UCLA in 1995 with a bachelor’s degree in biology and earned the Doctor of Chiropractic degree with honors from Life Chiropractic College West in 1998. Sato founded his practice, Aloha Chiropractic (alohachiro.biz), in Mänoa valley, O’ahu, on Oct. 1, 1999. He is a sought-after educator, speaker, author and mind-body specialist who helps people reach new levels of empowerment when it comes to their health and wellness by staying present with their body signs, making appropriate life choices and utilizing stress instead of managing it.
This column is not intended to replace the advice of a physician. All the statements and viewpoints in this column represent the general opinion of the author. They should not be considered scientific advice or diagnoses for individual patients. Please consult a competent medical professional for expert advice about your own health condition.