The Cognitive Benefits of Practicing Gratitude


With a confounding mix of COVID-19 and protests, life is more confusing now than ever. Depression and anxiety rates are skyrocketing. Addiction and obesity rates continue to rise in America. General unhappiness, numbness, and dissatisfaction have become the expected norm. Our world is designed to distract us.

However, the most effective treatment for this sense of malaise, especially during these disorienting times, is gratitude, a seemingly straightforward and simple concept we all undesrtand at the abstract level.

As Marcus Tullius Cicero wrote in Pro Plancio, "haec enim est una virtus non solum maxima sed etiam mater virtutum omnium reliquarum" or "for [gratitude] is not only the greatest of virtues, but also the mother of all others."

But what does it genuinely mean to be grateful? Clearly, gratitude beyond writing down a list of what you’re thankful for before dinner. And even though that is a helpful exercise, there’s a lot more to it, although it isn’t complicated.

For one, gratitude fundamentally changes three things:

  • Your view on past mishaps
  • Your mindset about present circumstances
  • Consequently, the events that occur in the future because of your positive outlook on situations.

You aren't experiencing the full momentum of gratitude if you aren't transforming your past, present, and future. 5-30 minutes of gratitude and visualization can prime your brain to operate at a higher level throughout the day. Here are some ways to motivate yourself to practice gratitude.

Gratitude journaling

There are no rules when it comes to gratitude journaling, but there are common practices. These serve as a helpful starting points for new gratitude journalers.

Grab a pen and paper.

You can buy a new journal, but it's not necessary. Note your gratitude on any sheet of paper– napkins, yellow notepads, et cetera. Or, you can say what you're thankful for out loud. Research suggests that translating thoughts into concrete language, whether written or oral, makes us more aware of our conscience and broadens our view on the world.

Journal 3 times a week

According to the Greater Good Center at UC Berkeley, gratitude journaling three times per week might have a greater impact on happiness than journaling on a daily basis. If you do choose to journal on a daily basis, however, nothing becomes a habit unless you stick with that for a few weeks. Another helpful tip would be to schedule 10–15 minutes to gratitude journal on your calendar. Make journaling part of your morning or evening routine.

Write up to 5 things you're grateful for

Aim to write down five things or less you’re grateful for to ensure you're journaling without anxiety. You want to be able to pause and reflect at your lovely life. Journaling shouldn't be adding any more stress. There should be a mix of gratitude notes about your body, work, and personal life. Here are just some starters:

  • I'm grateful I didn't __ today
  • I'm grateful for not letting me feel __ today
  • I'm grateful I was able to accomplish __ today
  • I'm grateful that I was able to stay focused on __ today
  • I'm grateful that I didn't give up on __
  • I'm grateful I got to meet or experience __
  • I'm grateful I was given the opportunity to __
  • and so much more...

Stop, look, and listen.

Once a day, just once, let go of whatever you’re doing, both mentally and physically.

Step back or lean back in your chair, take a deep breath and then…

Look up.

Wherever you are, looking up and observing the place around you has a way of bringing us back to the present. Think to yourself "everything will be ok. I'm still breathing. I'm grateful for everyone in my life and everything I've accomplished that's led me to this very moment. It's ok that I wasn't able to accomplish something today. Tomorrow is a new day and I'm grateful I'm alive." Meditation might be the best way you can learn to harness and cultivate the force of the mind. It not only teaches you how to focus, but it teaches you how to stay grounded in the present and not latch on to negative thoughts as they come into your awareness.

Do something new. Take a break.

Often what we're doing at hands overwhelms us to the point where we don't enjoy what we're doing anymore. Taking a break, whether for five minutes or five weeks or five months, given the circumstances, allows our minds to incubate and rediscover that passion we once had. Taking a break and trying something new makes us feel more grateful for the opportunities the world has once gifted us. Exercise is one of the simplest and most effective things you can do in improving your overall well being. It allows you to step away from whatever you're doing. And, I promise, stick with it and you won’t be able to help but feel grateful for the difference you’ll notice in how you look and feel.

So, whoever you are, wherever you are...I wish you the best of luck in your endeavors.

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Lauren Liu

Lauren is a high schooler in northern California, where she's the Copy editor and an Opinion columnist for her school newspaper. When she's not writing, she enjoys art, reading classical novels, exploring the convoluted realm of classics, prancing around the garden with her dogs, and initiating cat fights with her cats.

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