“It is not happy people who are thankful; It is thankful people who are happy.”
I’m not really sure who it was that came up with this inspirational quote but it’s hanging on canvas on my wall right next to my front door so I know someone did! Why my front door? So everyday before we leave the house we are reminded to be thankful.
I know that the idea that gratitude can lead to happiness is often met with skepticism. I regularly hear people say to me, “Oh, so I just think about good things and suddenly I’m not depressed anymore?” Kind of like that, yes! I wouldn’t say the transition from depressed to happy would be “sudden,” actually it would be more of a gradual transition, but a real transition nonetheless.
You can argue with me all you want, but there’s a science to this theory. You see, the brain is full of chemicals. And yes these chemicals determine mood. The neurotransmitters in our brain are constantly firing off different levels of serotonin, dopamine and endorphins. Serotonin is the chemical of mental relaxation. Too little serotonin is known to cause anxiety, agitation and depression. Dopamine is the “reward hormone” in the brain. Rewarding activities releases dopamine in the brain such as winning a race, getting a good grade on a hard test, and alleviating thirst and hunger. Endorphins are released to alleviate pain. If you were to burn yourself, endorphins would be released into the body to alleviate the pain. This is why endorphins are released during exercise. If you’ve ever heard that exercise is good for anxiety and stress that’s why! Endorphins are like taking a pain reliever and despair is pain, therefore releasing endorphins alleviates the pain of sadness as well. When dopamine is released in the brain it enhances happiness associated with the feeling of getting a reward. Releasing serotonin gives us a calm, peaceful feeling that enhances happiness. So what if we could actually control the release of these chemicals in our brains with our own thoughts? Well, guess what? Yup! We can!
Thoughts release chemicals in your brain. Every thought. So yes, if you can be in control of choosing positive thoughts, you will increase your level of happiness and potentially even alleviate depression. Scientists have found that positive, optimistic thinking releases high levels of serotonin. It’s no secret that people easily fall into unhealthy patterns of self medicating with drugs and alcohol simply because these drugs release, temporarily, the levels of these chemicals that give us a quick fix of relaxation, reward and pain relief. But if our thoughts can produce the same effects why not give that a try?
Thanksgiving is the perfect time to start your life of gratitude. Since we typically exercise the thoughts of what we are thankful for on this day, let’s make a commitment to ourselves to make this a daily activity, starting today! Here are some tips for keeping thoughts positive:
- Start and end each day with three thoughts of gratitude. Think you can’t come up with six new ones each day? You can! There is so much to be grateful for. Things you never would have thought of. My kids have said things like, “I’m grateful for the toilet.” They think its a joke, but it’s not! What would we do without toilets? I certainly am grateful we don’t have to find that out! When was the last time you woke up in the morning and said I am grateful I can see. I am grateful I can hear. I am grateful I have legs. I am grateful for my blanket. We have so much surrounding us that we take for granted every day. If we actually took the time and exercised our brains to explore these things think what that could do for our brain chemistry! If you engage in this activity you will start the day feeling calm and grounded. Doing this before bed also gives you a calming effect that will help you to rest and fall asleep easier.
- Be aware of when you are thinking negative thoughts and replace them. We are all guilty of getting stuck in a negative thought cycle and not even realizing it. It can sound something like this:
“Ugh I don’t feel like going to work today. I’m so done. I need a break.”
If we are to replace this thought with gratitude, it would sound something like this:
“I am grateful for my job and the resources it gives me to support myself and have the things in my life I enjoy. I am looking forward to the break I will have during the holidays to spend time with family and friends.
Will this actually help you feel better? Yes, it will! Imagine the difference it will make over time if you are in the habit of replacing negative thought with positive. You will be releasing the chemicals in your brain that alleviate anxiety and stress and stimulate the reward hormone.
- Do not speak to yourself in a manner that you would not speak to family and friends. The next time you catch yourself saying negative things to yourself, imagine yourself sitting at lunch with your friend and saying the exact same thing to your friend that you just said to yourself. Imagine you’re stressed out about the mess building up around the house and you feel totally defeated. You might say something to yourself like, “Ugh, why bother. This place is a disaster I’ll never catch up. I’m horrible at organizing.” Now, would you say this to your friend? “Why bother? Your place is a disaster! You’ll never catch up. You’re horrible at organizing.” Think about that for a moment. Would you actually say this to your overwhelmed friend? I bet you wouldn’t. It sounds ridiculous doesn’t it? Well if the thought of saying it to your friend is ridiculous, then why is it okay to say to yourself? It’s not! New rule…if it’s not suitable to say to a friend then it’s not suitable to say to yourself. Be your own friend!
- Practice mindfulness. Be present at every moment. Having gratitude for the present moment can bring about inner peace and calm. We are usually living in the past or the future. We get trapped in painful memories and thoughts of the past or we leap to the future and start “what if-ing” fantasies of things going horribly wrong. Rarely are we just in the moment soaking in exactly what is happening at that second. Being present enables us to have gratitude for what we have in our lives. We are able to really take in all that surrounds us that is good. Some mindful exercises include taking long, deep breaths and feeling the breath inhaling and exhaling from our body. Listening to the sounds around us. Finding five things in the room that are blue. Feeling the texture of something close to you. Looking around and trying to find something you have never noticed before. Mindfulness entails being completely present and being aware, with all of your senses, of that very moment.
- Meditation: Scientists now know that meditation actually changes brain chemistry. Regulating the chemicals in your brain that foster a happy, healthy mood can be life changing. If you can commit to meditating once a day even if it’s for 5 minutes before you go to bed, you can create a healthier, brighter and more optimistic quality of life. Meditation can consist of mindful meditation which is simply deep breathing with focus on the feeling of your breath entering and exiting your body or it may be a guided meditation that can easily be downloaded onto your phone. Whatever the preference, make a commitment to yourself to start or end each day (or both!) with a few minutes of meditation.
A healthy, positive, optimistic mindset regulates the chemicals in your brain in the healthiest way possible and elicits more healthy, positive thoughts. Positive breeds positive and thus a happier thought process will emerge under your control!