Your Brain (and Body) on Joy + Gratitude

Do you remember those commercials from the 90’s that would show us what our brains looked like on drugs? Yeah. This is similar to that but in a much happier, more celebratory and festive way. Imagine instead of a fried egg, your brain (and body) on joy and gratitude look like a beautiful snow covered landscape. Serene, magical and peaceful.

The feeling of joy, optimism and gratitude can have a profound effect on our physical and mental body from the words we choose to how healthy our heart is.

A 2007 Harvard study that followed more than 6,000 men and women aged 25 to 74 for 20 years showed that a feeling of optimism, enthusiasm, hopefulness, engagement with life and the ability to move through life’s stresses with “emotional balance” reduced the risk of coronary heart disease by half. (1) Another study showed that gratitude not only lessens feelings of envy and materialism, but that there is also a relationship between gratitude and self-reported physical health, in particular, neuromuscular disorders. (2) It also boosts our connection with others and increases our desire to give back (‘tis the season!)

Even without the science, most of us can admit to feeling better physically when our soul and heart are happy and full. But the question still remains: how exactly do we cultivate gratitude, optimism and joy?

Research suggests that the following particular mindsets and ways of being, whether innate or cultivated, can help us avoid and/or holistically manage diseases such as heart attacks, strokes, diabetes and depression:

  • Optimism: the perspective that good things will happen, and that one’s actions account for the good things that occur in life (1)

  • Emotional vitality: a sense of enthusiasm, hopefulness, engagement (1)

  • Supportive networks of family and friends (1)

  • Being good at “self-regulation,” i.e. bouncing back from stressful challenges and knowing that things will eventually look up again; choosing healthy behaviors such as physical activity and eating well; and avoiding risky behaviors such as unsafe sex, drinking alcohol to excess, and regular overeating. (1)

What this means is that the way we choose to view the world, the thoughts we think, the people we surround ourselves with and the choice we make to bounce back after hardships can have just as much of a profound effect on our bodies as exercise, eating well and getting sleep.

To understand what choices we can make to cultivate healthier mindsets and happier, more grateful ways of living, we must understand what scientific challenges we face to begin with.

Negativity bias is our mind’s innate tendency to focus on and make more profound our negative experiences than our positive (3). We also can fall prey to habituation, which refers to the science based fact that our body and minds receive boosts of happiness from new positive experiences and over time, as they become familiar and “ordinary”, we lose that excitement and joy we first received. (4)

This doesn’t mean all hope is lost. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. At Moon Cycle Bakery, we’re believers that with knowledge comes great empowerment. If we know what we may be up against and understand where we’re headed, we can makes choices that feed our body and soul simultaneously.

In this case, understanding that joy, gratitude and optimism can have profound effects on our health and well-being, can encourage us to cultivate practices and daily rituals to create a happy mind, body and spirit.

With the holidays rapidly approaching and Thanksgiving getting the shove every year as Christmas decorations are put out post Halloween, our question for you is this: how will you choose joy, gratitude and optimism this season and into the next season and the season after that? If you’re stumped, we brainstormed some ideas that we’re thrilled to share. Because sharing, after all, makes us, well, happy.

Ways to cultivate gratitude:
- Start a gratitude journal and write down a minimum of 10 things/day.
- Call someone up or send someone snail mail and tell them all the ways in which you’re grateful for them .
- Everytime you pay a bill, write a check or buy something, thank the money/check/credit card for allowing you to do so.
- Sit with uncomfortable emotions and thank them for the messages they bring. They allow you to deepen your practice of creating optimism and become curious about your relationship with obstacles.
- Write a yearly letter to yourself about all the things you hope to create, release, accept and grow (you can do so here!). You’ll be so surprised at how grateful you are a year later when you open the letter and take a step back to look at the beauty of your journey, no matter the outcome.

Ways to cultivate optimism:
- Write mantras or positive affirmations on sticky notes around your house. “You’re fucking amazing!”, “You glow with the radiance of a thousand suns”, “Hey, sexpot”.
- Reflect on one thing you’ve overcome per week or month. Give yourself a hug and have compassion for however you moved through it. Because you did, after all, move through it.
- Take something you’re worrying about and visualize the outcome the way you’d love for it to go down. Strengthen that optimism muscle and take steps towards creating the life you want to live.

Ways to cultivate joy:
- Tell someone you love them — without pretense or expectation or judgement.
- Put the windows down in the car.
- Dance naked. Or with clothes on. But naked is more fun.
-  Write a “just because” card for your partner, mom, self.
- Blast music and sing at the top of your lungs.
- Cuddle or hang out with an animal.
- Do nothing for 5 minutes and just listen to the sounds around you and the soft details in your space.

Devon Loftus