When it comes to most things, I'm a pretty solid realist. I don't think life is all rainbows and pink unicorns or that magic marshmallows will make worries disappear in a sprinkle of glittery awesomeness. But I do believe that, from the scientific perspective, small, intentional actions can make a world of difference.

Need an example? Keep a gratitude journal.

Researchers have found that expressing gratitude, in a journal or otherwise, can have many different positive effects, helping you with sleep, depression and even pain tolerance. Dr. Alex Korb, author and neuroscientist at UCLA, explains that this is because expressing gratitude activates your hypothalamus, a part of your brain that controls a range of different body functions, including emotional regulation. From this view, the more you focus on what you're thankful for, the better handle you have on your body's homeostatic thermostat.

But here's the really amazing thing. According to Korb, gratitude also activates parts of your brain related to the release of dopamine, a transmitter typically associated with feelings of happiness. But researchers now know that dopamine levels rise in anticipation of reward. So while dopamine makes us feel amazing, its real job is to act as a positive reinforcer. It motivates us to work again, to explore.

When you keep a gratitude journal, this dopamine cycle kicks in. The more you note things to be grateful about, the more your brain says, "Hey! I feel spectacular after focusing on this stuff! Go find more of it!" You're motivated to look for more good stuff in your life. If good stuff isn't right under your nose, you're motivated to go out and create the circumstances for it. In this way, keeping a gratitude journal can be a real, scientifically-backed way to push yourself to positive behavioral change. You don't just think differently. You do differently. It's that difference in action that will start transforming you and move you forward away from bad, joy-sucking habits.

How to keep your own gratitude journal

One commonly recommended method for gratitude journals is just to take a few minutes at the end of the day to write at least three things you're thankful for that happened or that you have in an old-fashioned notebook. This is a fabulous method because, when you write with pen and paper, your brain has to decide what's most important very quickly. You're forced to keep the entry more simple and, subsequently, whatever you reflect on becomes easier to remember.

That said, this isn't the 1800s. Nothing says you can't keep your notes on a website or app, or that you can't verbalize them into your smartphone's recorder. You even can tweet them or post them on LinkedIn to inspire others if you want. No matter what medium you choose, follow these guidelines:

  • Give yourself enough time to truly feel.
  • Identify the "why" behind your gratitude, rather than just creating a typical "grocery list".
  • Include at least one point that involves at least one other person.
  • Leave the "size" of the point without judgment. It doesn't matter if you're focusing on your comfy old chair or winning the lottery. Gratitude is gratitude and the intent isn't to compare.

If you're stuck at first, it's OK. It takes time and work to get out of a rut. Simply going out into a new location can help, because you have fewer triggers to pull you into your old ways of thinking. You also can chat with others about what's warmed their hearts, or listen to some inspirational podcasts or TED talks. The more you get the perspective of others, the easier it will be to shift your own.

Published on: Feb 27, 2018