How Gratitude Helps Your Brain and Mental HealthResearch has proven many significant benefits in cultivating gratitude for mental and physical health. Studies show that the practice of gratitude can increase happiness levels by an average of 25 percent and overall health by, for example, increasing the quantity and quality of sleep. Beneficial outcomes can be achieved by such simple practices as praying, writing in a gratitude journal, placing a thankful phone call, making a mental gratitude list, or writing a thank-you letter to someone.

Gratitude is primarily studied by self-reporting, but, science is turning out increasingly promising results measuring hard scientific data, such as decreasing cor­ti­sol and stress lev­els, heart rate vari­abil­ity, and brain acti­va­tion pat­terns and increases in beneficial neurochemicals. Some studies are showing that gratitude can actually rewire the frontal lobes.

What Exactly Is Gratitude?

It may seem like a no-brainer, but let’s talk about what gratitude is, exactly. It’s a feeling of thankfulness and appreciation; seeing the glass half full instead of half-empty; viewing a day as partly sunny instead of partly cloudy. Gratitude is a shift in perspective and a conscious choice. In any situation, you can choose to focus on a feeling of lack or abundance, choose a state of complaint or gratitude. Every day, in every circumstance, this choice is always available to you.

How Gratitude Changes Your Brain

It Improves Activity in the Dopamine Circuits

Feeling grateful increases your brain’s production of dopamine. Dopamine is a feel-good neurotransmitter that’s part of the brain’s reward and pleasure-seeking circuit. People with abnormally low dopamine levels may have impaired thinking and memory and slowed reaction times. A lack of dopamine causes the motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Dopamine is also linked to depression, anhedonia, the inability to feel pleasure, and lack of motivation.

In the Upward Spiral, Alex Korb explains:

The benefits of gratitude start with the dopamine system, because feeling grateful activates the brain stem region that produces dopamine. Additionally, gratitude toward others increases activity in social dopamine circuits, which makes social interactions more enjoyable.”

It Boosts Serotonin

Thinking about the positive aspects of your life can up serotonin levels.  According to Korb:

One powerful effect of gratitude is that it can boost serotonin. Trying to think of things you are grateful for forces you to focus on the positive aspects of your life. This simple act increases serotonin production in the anterior cingulate cortex. The same study that found this also showed that remembering sad events decreases serotonin production in the anterior cingulate. Thus, remembering positive events has a twofold effect, it directly increases serotonin and indirectly keeps you from remembering negative events.”

Gratitude Changes Neural Expression

One study determined that:

…even brief expressions of gratitude may have profound and lasting effects on neural activity and sensitivity…”

This particular experiment involved dividing participants into three groups and having them perform different activities every day for three weeks. Group one wrote a grateful letter to another person. The second group wrote about their thoughts and feelings pertaining to negative experiences. Group three didn’t write anything at all. Each group received counseling services.

Only group one that wrote the letter reported better mental health when the researches followed up with them at four and 12 weeks. The findings suggest that counseling combined with gratitude is more beneficial than counseling alone. Upon analyzing the results, the researchers determined that practicing gratitude helps mental health in four distinct ways.

Four Ways Gratitude Shifts Thinking Patterns

Thinking gratefully disconnects us from toxic, negative emotions and the ruminating thoughts that often accompany them. Intentionally looking for things for which to be thankful engages your frontal lobe and shifts your focus to positive emotions.

  1. Expressing gratitude helps even if you don’t explicitly share it with someone. We’re happier and more satisfied with life because we actively looked for things in our lives for which to be grateful.
  2. The positive effects of gratitude writing compound like interest. You might not immediately notice the subtle benefits of a daily or weekly practice. However, after several weeks and months, the effects will be noticeable.
  3. A gratitude practice trains your brain to be more in the habit of experiencing gratitude. Your brain is a feedback loop. Positive emotions and neurochemicals can generate more positive. Similarly, negative thinking encourages more of the same.

12 Ways You Can Grow Your Gratitude

According to the article, 14 Health Benefits of Practicing Gratitude According to Science, here are suggestions you can do daily or weekly to cultivate an attitude of gratitude:

  1. Journal about things, people, or situations for which you are grateful. Consider including negative situations like avoiding an accident, for instance.
  2. Think about someone for whom you are grateful
  3. Write a gratitude letter to someone for whom you are thankful. Consider sending it or giving it to them in person.
  4. Meditate on gratitude (present moment awareness).
  5. Do the “Count Your Blessings” exercise (at the end of the day, write down three things for which you were grateful)
  6. Practice saying “thank you” in a real and meaningful way. Be specific. For example, “Thank you for taking the time to read this article and leave a comment. I enjoy reading your contributions because they broaden my understanding of this subject.”
  7. Write thank-you notes. Some might say this is a lost art. Challenge yourself to write one hand-written note every week for one month.
  8. Be mindful of your five senses. How does each enhance your life?
  9. Create visual reminders to practice gratitude. Sticky notes, notifications, and people are great for this.
  10. Focus on the good that others have done on your behalf.
  11. Actions lead to gratitude. Smile, say thank you, and write gratitude letters.
  12. Give something up. We tend to adapt to newness; sometimes it’s a good idea to give something up so that we can increase our appreciation of it.

My Personal Experience

At first, it may be difficult to see life from the perspective of gratefulness. It may even feel forced or fake. That’s OK.  With regular practice over time, being grateful will feel more authentic and become a habit and default setting in your brain.

Practicing gratitude has drastically changed my life. I began my practice at a time in my life when I had just tried to kill myself resulting in a serious brain injury. I could barely walk with any coordination or talk understandably. Because of the suicide attempt and my mental condition, I had lost custody of my two sons. Being appreciative did most definitely feel fake. However, the alternative, focusing on all that was wrong in my life, only made me feel worse by perpetuating feelings of hopelessness and pain. Even though I had no idea what I was doing, I stuck with it, and it definitely helped.

There really is no right or wrong way to practice gratitude. “Right” is whatever is right for you. I may have to get out the magnifying glass, at times, but I can always find something for which to be grateful.

9 Comments

  1. Gratitude is powerful, isn’t it! I love how research is backing that up. I’m a Virgo and tend to look at things with a critical eye. Thanks for this reminder to practice gratitude daily. It’s especially important to help eradicate that critical tendency.

    • Thank you again for inspiration to ge forward. Gratitude is indeed a celebration of the gift of life. It’s also an amazing help with pain management as you know. I am humbled by your courage – depression is pain too – real pain. I eagerly await your posts – they are the amazing things that I cherish on this journey. After two near deaths with acute infection followed by MRSA you have been there to help me back. Yesterday went to discuss results of wearing electrocardiograph for 2 weeks. I had trouble telling him what was going wrong because I focus on what is going right. Since June I’ve learned to walk again and am back 4 mornings a week in aged care facilities with my 2 K9 Circus Dogs. Yes depression still lurks – BUT there are so many amazing people out there to meet and so many more tricks for my amazing little Papillons to show me. Carpe Diem Together – Robyn

    • Sandra, gratitude is powerful. I know it has been a powerful force in my life. I’m glad you find it helpful to steer the critical eye. 🙂

  2. Yes Yes yes, gratitude is so powerful in bringing in abundance, joy, love and always start my day in such a positive way Always keep a gratitude journal and a rock as well , thanks for writing this

  3. You are a star. Thank you for your journey which helps people with theirs.

  4. This was the best article I ever read on how gratitude affects the brain. The scientific explanation convinced me to start a gratitude journal. I started today. Thank you for this article! I’m sharing it with my therapist and my friends.

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