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November 24, 2021

The Case for a Gratitude Practice (Just not the One that Came to Mind)

It’s the season of gratitude, and this week we are dropping tidbits about the science of gratitude. 

It turns out that the neurophysiological effects of gratitude are profound.

Inducing a state of gratitude is one of the most powerful, speedy ways to change your heart rate and markers of positive neurotransmitters in your body. 

Gratitude is perhaps one of the best volume knobs of our autonomic nervous system. 

But gratitude journals — at least as we know them — are not the most effective way to induce the state of gratitude. (Counterintuitive, yes, but this is what the studies show). 

What is effective? 1-5 minutes of this:

An Evidence-Based Gratitude Practice

Pause for a moment to think of a time someone else expressed gratitude for you – or – consider the story of someone who has survived an awful ordeal but made it through thanks to another human. It is important that there is a narrative, a story, but you don’t have to know or think of all the details in the story. Set a timer for anywhere from 1 to 5 minutes. Let the sensations of gratitude that arise sink in, marinate. 

Do this again at least weekly.

That’s it. Physiological change unlocked, as per the current evidence. 

What changed for you while doing this practice?

Incorporating Gratitude in Yoga Practice

This is worthy of consideration by yoga practitioners because it is an evidence-based way to slow down the thought waves of the mind (“yogas chitta vritti nirodhah“, Patanjali’s sutras 1.2). 

Yoga teachers may say things like “Dedicate this practice to someone you are grateful for”, or “Close your eyes and consider all the things you are grateful for”.

Instead, perhaps more effective, would be “Who expressed gratitude for you this week?”, or sharing a story of how someone made it through a challenging time in their life with a little help from someone else.

Why not a Gratitude Journal or List?

Gratitude lists can have a positive influence. (And we should all count our blessings!). However, they do not seem to change one’s physiology in a measurable way, at least not compared to the practice proposed above.

Why is that? Researchers are not exactly sure, but it seems that focusing on gratitude expressed for you (rather than your gratitude for things outside of you) or on one narrative that evokes deep gratitude generally are significantly more effective.

If you have an effective gratitude practice, or tried this technique above, let us know how it feels in the comments below.

We will be posting more science tidbits as they relate to yoga on Instagram. Follow @yogaanatomyacademy there for more.

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