Neuroscience Reveals How Gratitude Literally Rewires Your Brain to be Happier

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Saying “thank you” should express what the people mean, not just politeness to which they give little attention. According to neuroscientists when that is the real expression, people who say it will be happier and healthier. The practice of expressing gratitude is not something new in humanity, and those who do it honestly they reap true benefits.

There were many studies conducted on the outcomes of practicing gratitude, but the most eminent is a study published in 2015. The authors of the study were Dr. Michael McCullough of the University of Miami and Psychologists Dr. Robert Emmons of the University of California at Davis.

All participants were divided into three groups and got different tasks. The first group was asked to keep a daily journal of things that happened during the week for which they were grateful. The second group was asked to write down daily irritations or events that had displeased them.

The third group was asked to write down daily events and situations with no emphasis on either negative or positive emotional attachment. This study lasts 10 weeks, and at the end, each group was asked to record how they felt generally and physically about life. 

The reports of the gratitude group were more optimistic and positive about their lives than the other two groups. Additionally, the gratitude group reported fewer visits to a doctor and was more physically active than those who wrote only about their negative experiences. (1)

Better Physical Health

In another eminent research, the focus was on the physical effects of the gratitude behavior. According to this study feeling positive and grateful can improve sleeping quality and reduce feelings of depression and anxiety. What’s more, higher gratitude correlates to better moods and less inflammation and fatigue, reducing the risk of heart failure, even for vulnerable people. (2)

Gratitude and Your Brain

The gratitude begins in the brain, which shows how much is it impactful to health and well-being. The neurological experiment conducted by researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles was based on measuring brain activity by using magnetic resonance.

The subjects were induced to feel gratitude by receiving gifts. The increased activity showed the anterior cingulate cortex and medial prefrontal cortex, which are the areas associated with moral and social cognition, empathy, reward, and value judgment.

The results of this study led to the conclusion that the emotion of gratitude supports a supportive and positive attitude toward others and a feeling of relief from stressors. (3)

Gratitude stimulates the hypothalamus, which has the effects on metabolism, various behaviors, and stress. The hypothalamus also regulates hormones responsible for many critical functions, such as emotional responses, body temperature, and survival functions like sleep and appetite.

Dopamine, a pleasure hormone is one of the neurochemicals associated with the parts of the brain affected by gratitude.    

The gratitude has a positive influence on mental health and it continues after a particular event if the emotion is re-experienced.

The researchers explained that “…a simple gratitude writing intervention was associated with significantly greater and lasting neural sensitivity to gratitude.”

They also explained that the subjects who participated in gratitude letter writing showed both significantly greater neural modulation by gratitude in the medial prefrontal cortex and behavioral increases in gratitude three months later. (4)

This lasting effect of gratitude is psychologically protective, which in adolescents, showed an inverse correlation with suicide risk and bullying victimization.  Affecting brain function on a chemical level, gratitude practically promotes feelings of compassion for others and self-worth. 

Perceiving and experiencing gratitude and its many characteristics are realized in a very broad spectrum. Willingness and openness to experience gratitude affect the individual’s interpersonal relationships.

However, a common strain in relationships is caused by repeated negative feedback by one or both partners without off-setting gratitude. (5)

3 Steps to Becoming More Grateful

In the condition of stress, it might seem difficult to be grateful. But, if everyone thinks positive about it, he/she has something to be grateful for.

Here are three easy ways on which all can put themselves in the mindfulness of gratitude:

1)  Keep a daily journal of things you are grateful for (at least three things). The best times to do it is in the morning or at night before sleep.

2) Make an effort to tell people in your environment what you appreciate about them daily.

3) When you look about your accomplishments, give yourself a moment to think about quality you like about yourself or something recently achieved.

The gratitude is so powerful that can wire your brain to be compassionate and optimistic, which makes you feel good.

The positivity that people express can extend to those around them, creating a virtuous cycle.

Sources:

1)         https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/in-praise-of-gratitude

2)         https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1359105312439733?url_ver=Z39.88-2003&rfr_id=ori%3Arid%3Acrossref.org&rfr_dat=cr_pub%3Dpubmed&

3)         https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01491/full

4)         https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1053811915011532

5)         https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/pdfs/GratitudePDFs/2Wood-GratitudeWell-BeingReview.pdf

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