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Gratitude and the Brain: What is Happening?

Practicing gratitude and positive thinking on a daily basis throughout the year can change your brain and your life! The same area of the brain that controls emotions and behavior also controls higher-order thinking skills like focus and attention. A person's ability to analyze information can greatly benefit from keeping the brain happy through positive thinking and gratitude.

A negative mindset often leads to more negativity, but thinking more positively about a situation or circumstance leads to feelings of gratitude. Gratitude can then result in more creative thinking, increased mental productivity, and a wider attention span.

Positive vs. Negative Thinking

The nature of thoughts, whether they be positive or negative, is a reflection of positive or negative habits. If you are constantly thinking negatively about situations and feeling negative emotions, you will likely get more of the same due to the way the brain handles such feelings. When a person is under stress negatively, energy is actually drawn away from the prefrontal cortex which is the distribution hub for mind/brain functions. This can result in reduced processing.

For example, if you constantly think or say "I am tired," you will feel tired. If a student thinks, "I am terrible at math" and feels a negative emotion associated with this thought, they will be more likely to do poorly at math. On the flip side, positive mantras like "I am confident" or "I am grateful," will activate the prefrontal cortex and result in more confident behavior and better performance overall, attracting more things for which to be grateful.

What the Science Says

Scientists conducted a study in 2008 to measure the brain activity of people thinking and feeling gratitude. What they found was "that gratitude causes synchronized activation in multiple brain regions, and lights up parts of the brain’s reward pathways and the hypothalamus. In short, gratitude can boost neurotransmitter serotonin and activate the brain stem to produce dopamine." Dopamine is our brain's pleasure chemical. The more we think positive, grateful thoughts, the healthier and happier we feel.

Thanks to the flexibility or plasticity of the brain, positive thinking can become a way of life. When your brain is flushed with positive thoughts, you can expect to improve every area of your life, including your relationships, health, performance at school, reaching your dreams and goals, and more.

Ways to Practice Gratitude

Reprogramming the brain for a more positive outlook takes practice. Here are some family-friendly ways to practice gratitude that are perfect for kids who struggle behaviorally or who lack confidence:

  • Write daily in a gratitude journal.
  • Listen daily to positive affirmations.
  • Practice meditation and stillness.
  • Give gratitude to others. (i.e. "I am grateful for your help.")

Make it a habit to set aside a block of time each day to go over these gratitude practices with your child and soon you will see they become a positive way of life. With daily practice, pessimism can turn to optimism thanks to the neuroplasticity of the brain.

For over a decade, we’ve helped over 50,000 children improve the critical skills needed to create a brighter path for their future. Contact us online or call 800-877-5500 to learn more about how the Brain Balance Program can help. You can also view the current and ongoing research behind the program.

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