How to train yourself to be more grateful and why it's good for you

A psychotherapist shares cognitive behavioural therapy techniques for choosing positivity.

A psychotherapist shares cognitive behavioural therapy techniques for choosing positivity.

(Credit: Arthur Poulin/unsplash.com)

It is said that it is better to give than receive, but giving thanks may be best of all.

With Thanksgiving upcoming, we asked Doctor Mike Dow about the power of gratitude, and how to use cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to harness the power of gratitude. Dow is a psychotherapist and best-selling author of several books. His most recent, Think, Act & Be Happy, explains how we can use CBT techniques to become our own therapists.

"Say thank you!" is something we hear a lot as children. Is there more to saying "thank you" than good manners? How can feeling and expressing gratitude improve our lives?

Gratitude trains our brain to look for the what's right in our lives rather than the what's wrong.  This is especially important when we're going through a tough time. If you're sad today, mood-congruent recall in the brain will light up all your sad memories. It feels like your life has always been sad and will always be sad. It's hard to be grateful at the time when you need it most. Consciously being grateful can help you gracefully and easily return to a better mood by interrupting the feedback loop of sadness. By consciously training your brain in this way, a gratitude mindset will eventually become your default.

The many health benefits of gratitude have been proven in lots of studies. One showed it helped people to sleep better. Another: decreased aches and pains. Another: it helped them gain new friends. Emotionally, it's been shown to increase happiness and decrease depression. Gratitude can help you in so many ways, which is why it's so important to learn how to really feel it.

That's great news. Do you have any tips for how best to take advantage of the benefits of gratitude? How can we be more grateful?

There are scientifically-proven ways that we can train our brain to be more grateful. One is frequency. You should intentionally be grateful regularly, but not constantly. Research shows there is such a thing as gratitude fatigue, so it's best to get intentional about your gratitude once or twice a week. This is actually more effective than intentionally doing it every day.  When we space out our conscious gratitude exercises, the novelty feels special to the brain. But don't be surprised if a few days of intentional written or verbalized gratitude per week doesn't begin to change your brain, making your default mode to be more grateful every single day. 

The other scientifically proven trick is to take a deep dive. Consider what your life would be without a specific blessing that you are grateful for. You can do this simply by adding the word '"because." So many of us are too shallow when it comes to gratitude. For example, we might leave it at "I'm grateful for this food, my family, my friends, etc.." But this can start to feel perfunctory, and then we won't experience the emotion of gratitude as fully.

Once in a while, use that word "because" to increase depth and specificity. This will help to magnify gratitude's effects. Now, it sounds something like: "I'm so grateful for my boyfriend BECAUSE he has shown me what true, adult love looks like and feel like. Without him, I wouldn't laugh as much, feel so connected, or peaceful on a daily basis." Getting specific makes us feel our gratitude more vividly, and you can understand how this really begins to train the brain and profoundly affect your level of happiness.

Why do these techniques work?

The brain is an interesting entity. It's always processing incoming information. The first time it feels something like a drug, a lot of feel-good chemicals are released. Imagine a feel-good pain killer you receive in the hospital. A little goes a long way. Then, tolerance is the brain's way of keeping you safe. If it knows more of something is coming in, it will require more and more to get the same result.

Our sense of gratitude for our blessings can work the same way: we develop a kind of emotional tolerance for the good things in our lives, and we begin taking them for granted. The same amount of blessings you had yesterday now feel "normal," so now you need twice as many blessings to notice them. You're on a blessings treadmill, running up an incline with a carrot just out of reach. 

The gratitude techniques I'm describing help you to step off the treadmill. You're preventing tolerance by consciously training your brain to feel just as lucky with the same amount of blessings you had yesterday. In fact, you may even be able to be twice as grateful - even if you have LESS than you did before. Isn't that amazing?

Thanksgiving weekend is coming up, which is a wonderful opportunity to dig into our gratitude. Do you have any tips for making our holiday extra thankful?

I like the "because" exercise when going around the Thanksgiving table. It really allows family members or friends to get specific in their gratitude and form deep connections. 

I've treated some families who were struggling to make ends meet, and I've also treated some families who were incredibly well-off. In my experience, there's no correlation between gratitude and how much a family has. I've worked with some struggling families who were more grateful with the small amount of blessings they had. I've worked with people who objectively had everything but struggled to be grateful. I've also worked with some incredibly grateful wealthy people. This is all to say: gratitude is a mindset that can be cultivated. It surprisingly has little to do with the number in your bank account, your job title, or your married/single status. It has a lot to do with training your brain - making this mindset your everyday.

Clifton Mark is a former academic with more interests than make sense in academia. He writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and pastimes. If it matters to you, his PhD is in political theory. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter.