The concept of gratitude has been talked about and studied for some time now and the benefits that come with practising gratitude are undeniable. Gratitude used to be quite an anecdotal topic of discussions but now with world-leading neuroscientists combined with cutting edge brain scanning technologies, gratitude is now being presented through a more scientific lens and the benefits of this attitude are more tangible and accessible than ever before.
One significant problem is that most research studies on gratitude have been conducted with well-functioning people. Is gratitude beneficial for people who struggle with mental health concerns? What recent studies are now showing is that gratitude writing can be beneficial not just for healthy, well-adjusted individuals, but also for those who struggle with mental health concerns. In fact, it seems, that practising gratitude, on top of receiving psychological counselling, carries greater benefits than counselling alone, even when that gratitude practice is brief.
Gratitude benefits take time but when practised consistently it has long-lasting effects on the brain. In a study group with participants who were seeking mental health counselling, people who practised gratitude for three months showed greater activation in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC). These areas have been previously associated with emotional processing, interpersonal bonding and rewarding social interactions, moral judgment, and the ability to understand the mental states of others.
This is striking as this effect was found just three months after a gratitude letter writing intervention began. This indicates that simply expressing gratitude may have lasting effects on the brain.
Gratitude allows a celebration of the present. Happiness wears off. Beware the trap of the hedonic treadmill. We adapt to it. Happiness likes newness and novelty. Gratitude involves the apperception of the value of something. So, when we appreciate the value, we are less likely to lower the value and therefore we extract more benefits. It allows us to participate in life and notice the positives more. Noticing the positives then magnifies the experience and the pleasure you get. It can delay hedonic adaptation.
“Much of our time and energy is spent pursuing things we currently don’t have. Gratitude reverses our priorities to help us appreciate the people and things we do have” – Joshua Brown
Gratitude studies have shown that there is a reduction in materialism. It stands to reason that gratitude, with its inherent focus on people and things outside the self, may make people less prone to materialism, and a few studies have found that people with more grateful dispositions are less materialistic. Grateful people may be less materialistic because they feel more satisfied with their lives—and thus, ostensibly, don’t feel much of a need to acquire new things to feel more satisfied.
With gratitude, we become stronger participators rather than spectators to life. We are always watching and spectating. Keynote speakers, sporting events, TV, YouTube, social media, etc. But with gratitude, you savour the experience to a greater degree, and you are more of a present participant.
Gratitude blocks negative and toxic emotions which can destroy our happiness. Particularly in the domain of envy, resentment, regret, and even depression. You cannot be envious or resentful AND grateful at the same time. It’s impossible. They are incompatible feelings.
Grateful people are more stress-resilient. Studies show that in the face of serious life situations such as trauma, adversity, suffering, if people are dispositional grateful, they recover faster. PTSD, anxiety, and ruminating are less likely to appear and grateful people are better able to ward off these aftermath feelings before they take root. It gives people perspective in which they can interpret life events.
Gratitude strengthens social ties and self-worth. When you are grateful that is information that someone is looking out for you, someone else is providing for your wellbeing. Or you notice a network of relationships of people past and present, who have helped you to get to where you are. You may have taken these people for granted but with an attitude of gratitude this changes. When you see this and the contributions they have made, you start to feel a lot better about your position in life.
“The easiest way for us to gain happiness is to learn how to want the things we already have” – William Irving
BENEFITS OF GRATITUDE
Gratitude is associated with many benefits for individuals, including better physical and psychological health, greater happiness and life satisfaction, less materialism, and plenty more such as:
- Improves sleep quality.
- Improves emotional regulation.
- Helps foster and develop stronger relationships with others.
- Increases feelings of happiness and positive mood.
- Fosters hope for the future.
- Reduce stress, burnout, and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Increases resilience
- Improves virtues such as patience, wisdom, and humility
HOW DOES THIS LINK TO SQUASH?
Squash, as we know, can often be a brutal and unforgiving mistress. Just as you feel you may have cracked it and figured out the magic formula, you are brought back down to earth with a hard bump. What was once so effortless before now becomes sticky. What once seemed like a positive attitude towards your game can spiral into negative resentment. What was once automatic now becomes mentally draining.
Practising and being grateful gives you perspective. It allows you to not get too down or depressed when you may be going through a slump. Especially so, it also keeps you grounded and humble when you are on fire and getting wins with ease. And arguably, and most importantly, gratitude allows you to zoom out, become more balanced, heighten your awareness, and know that whatever part of the journey you are on (see Expectations v Reality model), it will all work out in the end and that this moment is where real life and experiences take place. Not some future happiness you may be trying to achieve just if you get one more win or if you reach a certain ranking or status. Future happiness is a flawed concept. True and real happiness is savouring and appreciating and being grateful for what you have right here and right now.
Practising and cultivating gratitude is a powerful and proven way to avoid burnout. Athletes with higher dispositional gratitude and higher gratitude related to playing their sport report feeling less burned out with their sport. These results suggest that gratitude may help protect athletes from burnout, but what was also found was that when burnout did occur it may dampen gratitude. So something to be careful and mindful of.
Do not be fooled that gratitude reduces striving for success and the goal of becoming the best player you can be. Sometimes it can be seen as a softly approach and maybe there is an association that you cannot be grateful as well as striving for success. This is false. Both these attitudes can work hand-in-glove and actually complement and help each other.
With more gratitude, you are more at peace and clear in the mind with where you are at and what you have achieved. Because of this, your mind is now calmer and quieter and you begin to play better and start getting results and momentum. Because you are grateful you also stay grounded and humble and do not forget what and who got you to this good point and therefore your gratitude grows further. When done well and over time this circle of gratitude and results will keep looping and may lead you to some amazing places in your life and your squash.
In summary, gratitude has some real and proven transformational effects on the brain as well as the grateful and positive lens we look at life, and all its difficulties, through. But gratitude is not for every person. Certain traits make people more willing to give gratitude activities a try. Studies have found that people who have a strong desire to change their lifestyle, people with greater trait curiosity, and people with fewer depressive symptoms are more likely to enrol in gratitude intervention, and women are more likely to sign up than men.
- Begin a simple gratitude intervention. Start small and achievable and create a habit of doing this
- Either have a dedicated journal or notebook or use the Affirmations Journal built into the SquashMind app
- Scientists have found that your brain only remembers positive experiences if you take the time to feel them properly for 10-seconds. So, before you write down your gratitude list, pause, close your eyes, and think hard for 10-seconds about the positive things you want to write down. It is very important to feel and sit with the emotion before you write it down
- Now list at least 3 things you are grateful for at the beginning of each day. Make this a habit to do before you
- Once you have achieved this morning habit over several weeks then look to bring in an evening version of the same before you go to bed each night
During my research into this amazing topic there was so much I needed to go through and felt it necessary to include a further reading section of some of the places I visited that contributed to this blog for you to read over if you found this useful and wanted to go a little deeper.
- How Gratitude Changes You and Your Brain
- What Is Gratitude?
- What Does a Grateful Brain Look Like?
- How Does Gratitude Affect Health and Learning?
- The Effects of Gratitude Expression on Neural Activity
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