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The Physiology of Gratitude

person at night under stars with arms reaching out gratitude qigong Shaolin Wahnam Twin Cities
Emotions have a powerful impact on our bodies, both negative and positive.

I would be remiss if I let November slip by without talking about gratitude, especially as those of us in the US come upon the Thanksgiving holiday in a few days. If you don’t celebrate this holiday, no matter. The down and in energetic movement of the Water Element so dominant in wintertime provides an excellent opportunity to be still and quiet while reflecting on our lives and the good within them.

As I always have one foot in the world of science and the other in the world of energy, this seems like a great moment to discuss the physiology of gratitude. Every emotion we experience triggers a cascade of chemical reactions in our bodies which produce different things that affect us in different ways, gratitude included. So, just what is going on inside of us when we take the time to give thanks?

In our brains, gratitude is an emotion that acts largely on the frontal cortex, which is our seat of higher reasoning. The cortex controls emotions, behavior, and higher thinking skills, such as focus and attention. When we practice gratitude, we’re actually stimulating the frontal cortex. This in turn facilitates better concentration, attention span, and creativity. Negative thoughts have the opposite effect, drawing energy away from the cortex and diminishing these higher-order skills.

I’ve talked before about how stress influences markers of health such as blood pressure, cholesterol, and heart rate variability, and these things too are also indirectly influenced by the positive emotion of gratitude. In the same way that negative emotions can push these things in the wrong direction thanks to stress hormones like cortisol, practicing gratitude lowers that same cortisol and increases feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. What’s more is that because dopamine is a reward for the brain, it will then seek out more of it by performing the same action again. One good thought begets another, and another, and another. You get the idea.

Okay, so maybe you’ve been guilty of entertaining your less than charitable thoughts. No matter. Think of your thought patterns like channels through which water passes. That water is always going to take the easiest path, i.e. the thought patterns with which you are most familiar. Creating a new channel through which gratitude can flow is a simple matter of taking the time to reflect on that for which you are grateful, of forcing yourself to walk back a snarky comment you just made to yourself, of actively choosing to interpret an event in a positive light, even if it is difficult. Hey, I didn’t say it was easy, just simple. But actually, it gets easier and easier the more you do it, and because we have the effective tool of Cosmos Qigong, it’s much easier for those of us who maintain regular training.

Incorporating gratitude into our Qigong practice can be as simple as giving thanks to the past masters who have spread this art so that we may benefit from it. Or it can be sending a blessing to somebody in standing meditation. And of course, we flood our bodies with all those feel-good chemicals too when we smile from the heart.

As for myself, I can say with all sincerity that I’m beyond grateful to Grandmaster Wong Kiew-Kit for spreading these arts, for the support of my Shaolin Wahnam family, for my students who have helped me grow as a teacher and a person, and for all of you who take the time to read this blog and work to make yourselves and the world a better place. Peace.

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I had never learned the effect of gratitude on the brain, love it! Next time I'm overwhelmed by something I'll think of what I'm grateful for in that moment to bring the blood back into my frontal cortex and reconnect with my higher thinking self :) Thank you!

Sifu Molly Kubinski
Sifu Molly Kubinski

You're so welcome! I think it's so interesting how science explains how so many parts of our practice act on our bodies and minds.

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