Chelsea: Hello, it’s Dr. Chelsea, and if you are in The States listening when this goes live, it’s Thanksgiving which is my favorite holiday so Happy Thanksgiving! This is The Passion for Dance podcast, and the goal is to help you learn the latest strategies in sports psychology with a focus on four pillars: mindset, resilience, motivation, and community. Today’s podcast hits two of those, and we’re gonna focus on gratitude to deepen our relationships and improve our mindset.
Gratitude has become a bit of a buzzword lately with people everywhere telling you to start a gratitude journal, have a gratitude practice every evening, write down the top three things you're grateful for today. And what you may not know is there is quite a bit of science behind the power of gratitude. It’s not just the influencers telling you to do it. It’s not just that it makes you feel warm and fuzzy in the moment, although it does that too. Expressing gratitude, either verbally or writing it down, on a regular basis can help rewire your brain.
But there’s also some new science I want to share with you that maybe writing it down and having that gratitude list isn't actually the best way to tap into the power of gratitude, and your gratitude list may not be working. So, in this episode, I’m gonna tell you a little behind the scenes of the science of gratitude.
[Motivational Intro Music]
Welcome to The Passion for Dance podcast. I’m Dr. Chelsea, a former professional dancer and a dance team coach turned sports psychologist. This podcast focuses on four main pillars: motivation, resilience, mindset, and community. Each week, you’ll learn actionable strategies, mindsets, and tips to teach your dancers more than good technique. This is a podcast where we can all make a lasting impact and share our passion for dance. Let’s do this!
Training Your Mind with Gratitude – 1:56
I want you to pause and think about how you train a new skill as a dancer. When you first learn a new skill, you do it over and over and over until the correct body placement feels more automatic. You keep training until the skill comes more naturally. Training your mind with gratitude works the same way. The more times you think about something that makes you happy or the more you express gratitude to those around you, the more natural those positive thoughts are to the brain. Simply put, gratitude can change your brain to find the good in your life both vaster and easier. You can train your brain just like you would train your muscles to perform your favorite move.
Our brains have this amazing ability for neuroplasticity which just means our brains can adapt to our lived experiences. They're always changing. We’re able to change and grow and adapt in truly remarkable ways, and practicing gratitude is one simple and very powerful way to train your brain to see more positive than negative in your life. It’s like the old saying, “You can’t live a positive life with a negative mind,” but we have to train for that positive mind.
So, especially, if you're in a time in your life when you're struggling to find the joy in your day, gratitude may be exactly what you need. Expressing gratitude grounds you in what matters in your life, especially if you feel like things are out of your control, gratitude reminds you of your values and allows you to take control of your own happiness. Even if you can't do anything about your circumstances around you, you can change how you react to those circumstances. You can choose to change your mindset and find the joy.
Gratitude is Finding Joy in the Little Things – 3:32
Gratitude helps you fall in love with the life you already have. It helps you find joy in the little things. So, let’s consider those little things.
What’s something that’s been hard for you lately? Dancers, maybe you’ve come home from rehearsal lately and just said, “Oh, I’m so sore. I’m so tired.” I’ve been talking to some coaches lately and dance teachers who are in the thick of Nutcracker season or competition and we’re just tired and sore, but there’s an opportunity for gratitude. Sore muscles equal increased strength.
Or maybe teachers listening are tired and having a hard time with those late nights and thinking, “I don't want another late night. I don't want another game. I don't want another late competition.” But there’s another gratitude opportunity there as well. Late nights are more time with my dancers that I love to be around.
Gratitude Lists – 4:20
Now, let’s talk about gratitude lists. They are all the rage. There are lots of influencers out there telling you to get a gratitude journal and list three things you're grateful for every night. But what does the science tell us? Well, honestly, it’s a mixed bag.
Some studies have found that gratitude lists don't work at all. People just go through the motions, and there’s no real connection to the emotional root of what you're grateful for. It’s kind of like affirmations. If you just say it without believing it, there’s not gonna be a difference. If you just write down what you're grateful for just to write it down and don't tap into the emotion of it, it’s not gonna change for you.
Other studies, however, have found that gratitude lists do work if you actually pause and take it to heart. Truly reflect and savor each thing on the list making sure it’s more deeply felt and experienced. Essentially, you have to activate what’s called your autonomic nervous system to enhance alertness. That heightens the feelings of the emotions you experience during your gratitude practice which makes it more effective.
So, this may feel counterintuitive, but you actually want to be more alert and even have a heightened heart rate to increase your autonomic arousal. You want to be more alert, more awake, and when you do that, that will allow you to be more in tune with the emotions that you are thinking through as you express your gratitude. Those studies have found that when you increase that arousal and are more alert, those gratitude lists are more effective. But even when you do that, just expressing gratitude in a list actually isn't the best way to improve the overall mental wellbeing and positive emotions.
Gratitude Research – 5:59
I also want to shout out right now to Dr. Huberman who has a wonderful podcast and did a great job of summarizing the research on his show. So, if you're interested in the deeper brain science aspects of this check out Dr. Huberman’s show.
To simplify the gratitude research for you right now, it turns out receiving gratitude may be one of the best ways to see the positive benefits. Listening to someone express gratitude to you face-to-face seems to be more powerful in its impact on your brain. So, what does that mean for dancers?
This Thanksgiving, I encourage you to write a letter of gratitude to another dancer, your teachers, anyone who you are grateful for. Then, take the time to read that letter to them. It may feel weird or uncomfortable at first, but always try to push through that. This is just another way to push out of our comfort zone, expand our comfort zone. So, go ahead and stretch it a little bit. Push yourself out of the box and read it to them face-to-face. Being able to express that gratitude in person changes how we receive it in very real ways for our brain and we’re more likely to see that positive impact of gratitude than just writing a list and keeping it to yourself.
Gratitude in The Form of a Narrative – 7:11
That said, I’m not ready to throw out the idea of gratitude journals. The power of writing it down could still matter, but it needs to be more than a list. So, rather than writing down three things you’re grateful for every night, what the research says is it’s more powerful if it’s in the form of a story or a narrative. When told that way, our brains are more likely to experience the positive benefits. Rather than just saying, “I’m grateful for these three bullet-point things,” if it’s got a narrative around it, our brains will process it differently and hold onto those positive aspects, and that’s why the letters work as well ‘cause you can create that narrative and that story, but you can use a journal prompt to help you find a salient gratitude story.
You want to cultivate a specific story of gratitude that you’ve experienced, a story of genuine exchange of thanks. Write it out or you can write some bullet points that will help you remember the story, but rather than just being grateful for an individual thing or a specific person, it’s about finding the story where you were able to express that gratitude or the story that brought up that feeling of gratitude for you. Then, when you read that story again or review it, you give yourself a chance to really sit with those emotions and experience what it is to receive and share that gratitude again. That gives your neural circuits in your brain that positive boost you're looking for way more than just writing a list.
Think about it like watching a dance: one that has an emotional connection and story to it and one that doesn't connect with you emotionally. It’s just going through the motions, right? You can take the exact same choreography, and if there’s no emotion in how it’s presented, it’s just steps, and it’s not gonna have the same impact on you. Whereas the same choreography that is presented with a true emotional connection in its performance, we remember those. We connect to those. We feel those more deeply. That’s what we’re trying to do here with gratitude. Rather than just being a list or just being steps, we have to connect it to an emotional story.
Gratitude Prompts – 9:21
So, to get you started, I’m gonna share a few gratitude prompts you can use to start the journal process and help you come up with a gratitude narrative, again, making it more of a story.
- The first prompt is: what relationships are you most grateful for right now? Then dig into why. Find the story behind the relationship, find the emotional reason why that relationship is so meaningful to you right now.
- The second prompt is: describe the last time you laughed so hard you cried. What is that story? There’s probably something in there that you're grateful for that made you laugh that hard.
- The third prompt is: what is something you love about your fellow dancers? Whether that be your teammates, your fellow teachers, if you are a teacher, what about your dancers? What is something you love about them? Again, get past just the bullet-point list of characteristics, but get to a story. If you truly love that someone shows up authentically and beautifully every day or if you truly love how positive someone is in practice, go deeper to find the story of a specific day or a specific time that you were grateful for.
If you want more like these, I have a whole list of 20 gratitude prompts for dancers. Some will help you create that narrative. Others will remain a little more personal. Again, the power is in the process of allowing the time to truly sit in the emotions and experience gratitude. You can get that download in the show notes or go to www.chelseapierotti.com/88 for the link!
I hope this encouraged you to think about gratitude a little differently than you have before, especially during Thanksgiving. Tell the people in your life when you are grateful for something that they have done or the impact they have made. If there’s anything I hope you take away today, it’s that expressing gratitude is more powerful than writing it down.
So, I want to say right here how grateful I am for all of you in my community. The genuine friendships and deep sense of community that has come out of this continues to amaze me, and I’m truly grateful for you all.
As we wrap up today, along with expressing gratitude, I hope you also continue to share your passion for dance with the world.
[Motivational Outro Music]