The Science of Gratitude: How Being Grateful Affects Our Brain
How often do you express gratitude in your life? Being grateful isn’t just a kind gesture; it actually creates long lasting positive changes in the neurological structure of your brain. This powerful practice can stimulate long term effects of feeling happy, motivated, and increase your ability to express gratitude.
There have been many studies showing the effects of practicing gratitude and the positive results that come from it.
In 2003 Dr. Robert Emmons from The University of California and Michael McCullough from The University of Miami conducted a study called “Counting Blessings Versus Burdens” published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
This study examined the psychological and physical effects of having a grateful disposition on a class of students over the course of 10 weeks. They split the class up into three groups, asking the first group to write down five things they were grateful for that happened in the previous week, for each of the 10 weeks.
The second group was asked to write down five daily hassles from the previous week, and the third group was asked to write down five events that happened last week, but weren’t focusing on any positive or negative aspects.
Some of the things people wrote they were grateful for included the sunset, the very opportunity to be alive, and the generosity of their friends. Some of the hassles included taxes, difficulty finding parking, and burning their macaroni and cheese.
The people who were focusing on gratitude ended up feeling 25% happier and more optimistic about their future. The study also also showed that some of the students did 1.5 hours more exercise a week then those who wrote down their hassles.
This study is a simple yet powerful example of how focusing on positivity creates more uplifting feelings within us; the more we do it, the easier it becomes to tap into.
Another neuroscience researcher named Alex Korb from UCLA wrote a book called The Upward Spiral, which describes how we can use neuroscience to reverse the course of depression.
In this book, he describes how emotions like guilt and shame actually triggered the brain’s reward center, and this is one of the reasons why it’s so easy to feel these emotions. They activate neural circuits like the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, a part of our brain which is responsible for creating a sense of the self.
The same logic goes for worrying as well. Worrying actually tricks ourselves into thinking that it’s making us feel a little better. It calms the limbic system and creates a sense of “well at least I’m doing something about my anxiety”, even if the act of worrying itself just perpetuates it.
On the flip side, focusing on gratitude actually activates the brainstem region that produces dopamine, and can also boost our serotonin levels as gratitude forces us to focus on the positive aspects of our life and in turn, increases the production of serotonin and creates a sense of happiness within us.
Another study led by Prathik Kini of Indiana university recruited 43 people suffering from anxiety or depression. Half of these people were assigned a gratitude exercise of writing letters of thanks to people in their lives. Three months later, all 43 of the participants underwent brain scans.
During these brain scans, all of the subjects participated in another gratitude task where they were told they would be given a sum of money. They were then asked if they would like to donate some of the funds to charity as an expression of gratitude. Those who chose to give away the money exhibited a specific pattern of activity in their brains.
One of the most interesting factors to note was that the participants who completed the gratitude task reported feeling more grateful two weeks after the study concluded and the members of the control group didn’t exhibit the same level of perpetual gratitude. Moreover, even months later they still showed more gratitude related brain activity under a scanner. The team of researchers describes this as a profound and long term neural effect, simply from focusing on feelings of being grateful.
These results showed that we have a sort of “gratitude muscle” in our brains that can be exercised and strengthened over time. The more we make an effort to feel gratitude, the easier that feeling will come to us in the future. Practicing gratitude creates a healthy, self perpetuating cycle in our brain which allows us to easily focus on the positivity in life.
Why is it easier to focus on negativity or the things going wrong in our life, rather than focusing on being grateful? One possibility is our brain’s capability to adapt to our surroundings. If we have a safe home to go back to and food on our plate, that recurring comfortable lifestyle can become an expectation rather than a blessing. We stop focusing on how truly blessed we are, and begin to take what we have for granted.
When an issue emerges in life, we typically aren’t used to the consistency of problems like we are used to our blessings. Generally, hassles come and go, but our comfortable lifestyle stays the same and we start to take it for granted. This is why places like third world countries can feel deep gratitude for anything in life, because they might not live a life where they can have such expectations.
Practicing gratitude includes not taking anything in your life for granted. When we can see the beauty and blessings in every aspect of our life, our gratitude can can take a fundamental shift from being grateful for our possessions – to just being grateful for being alive.
Life itself is a precious and magical gift; holding a space of gratitude can keep us constantly reminded of that.
So, what are you grateful for in your life?