The Gratitude Surprise
by Toni Powell

Gratitude – a word that made me feel a little nauseous – too sweet, too sugary… too nice. And grateful people? Little Pollyannas wearing rose-coloured glasses running around pretending everything was wonderful. Hadn’t they noticed that the world sucks?

These days I have a different take, a different picture on this little word. To me gratitude is steel reinforcing bars – the one thing I need to make me strong. Gratitude is the practice that improves my relationships with the person I see in the mirror each day as well as with humanity at large. This simple way of approaching the world helps me sleep, brings me joy, improves my health, and pretty much got rid of my long and horrible bout of depression.

Yet it was this depression that introduced me to brain science and it was brain science that made sense of gratitude.

I’ll back track a little:

While I’ve always been anxious, prone to the negative view and the sort who can predict what will go wrong with ease, no one would have described me as easily depressed. So when I found myself deeply depressed, as in ‘laying on the couch wishing I was dead for a year’ sort of depressed I was surprised.

Many things had gone wrong in my life and the losses had overwhelmed me. I felt unable to stem the stream of sadness and pain that were my constant companions.

As I kept telling my husband:

“It feels like a train going around and around in my brain, and every time it goes around it hurts. I can’t take the pain any more.”

In desperation I went off to do a course about the brain and while I was there a big light went on. Once I understood how my brain worked I could easily see the path I’d inadvertantly taken to get to where I currently was – and I could see the doorway out.

I learned that my description about the train in my brain was fairly accurate – we have neural pathways in our brains that are the way information travels through our nervous system and these neural pathways are created by our thoughts.

Whatever we think on most often creates the more dominant pathways and our brains just LOVE to take the more dominant pathways. Our brains are already so busy that most of our thinking is defaulted to the strongest neural pathways.

By the time I’d left the course I knew that if I wanted to change that sad train in my brain I’d have to change what I thought about. Enter gratitude – something I already knew a lot about but, in my depressed state, could not feel.

According to Shawn Achor, world leading happiness researcher and author of The Happiness Advantage, our brains receive 11,000,000 bits of information per second yet can only process 40 bits a second. Every moment we are choosing what to process and attend to and what huge chunk to dismiss or ignore.

In reality, we choose our reality.

The gold I took away from that brain course helped me to go on to see that gratitude wasn’t a feeling. If I waited to feel something good I might wait a long, long, time. I understood, however, that gratitude could become the filter for my thoughts and that it wasn’t a sickly-gooey-feel-good emotion but a mental discipline that affects how I process the world.

Gratitude was so effective a practice, and was such a rapid change agent for me, I couldn’t believe children weren’t taught gratitude in schools or that psychologists didn’t prescribe it to every patient.

This baffled me and caused me to wonder if my experience was isolated. Would anyone adopting the practice of gratitude experience what I had?

I decided to research the subject and, over the next two years, read everything I could find on gratitude. What I discovered confirmed my experience and explained why gratitude was so effective. I was so excited that I wanted to rush out and tell everyone in the street. Instead I began work on a documentary about gratitude – I had to spread this great news.

Over the following two years I travelled and interviewed people around the world about gratitude, happiness and the brain. I talked to neuroscientists, psychologists, spiritual people, a 75 year old cultural anthropologist, happiness researchers, gratitude researchers and ordinary people living extraordinary lives. It has been eye opening, wondrous and life-changing.

I’m still working on the documentary, and in the meantime I have turned all the amazing science, my experiences, experiments and discoveries into very fun staff development workshops and, occaisionally, public Gratitude Workshops. Eventually I had to create the workshop online, The Great Full Life Class, because so many people who’d attended live workshops wanted their friends and family to have access.

It is constantly exciting and a great privilege to see this little wonder drug, gratitude, work it’s magic on people everywhere.

Toni Powell is the author of The Yellow Car (see In Brief review this issue)and regularly runs workshops for corporates such as Alliance & BHP as well as personal development for teachers. A hilarious and enlightening storyteller, Toni speaks at conferences alongside luminaries like The Dalai Lama & Brene Brown. In 2006 Toni was the subject of an inspiring ABC Australian Story. Website: or email: