Gratitude is an important aspect of human social interaction. It is valued by both religious and secular people and societies.
It can also have a unique and profound impact on your brain – and your life!
The Roman statesman Cicero said of gratitude that it “is not just the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.”
Fable writer Aesop said “Gratitude is the sign of noble souls.”
Eckhart Tolle tells us “It is through gratitude for the present moment that the spiritual dimension of life opens up.”
Science tells us “Gratitude is good for the brain.”
Okay, that last one isn’t an actual quote, but it is true.
From activating and improving the quality of function in important areas of the brain to improving hormone and neurotransmitter flow and availability, gratitude is a powerful way to make your brain and your life better.
Gratitude, however, is a complex beast. It can arise as a result of receiving gifts, certainly. But there are levels to it, and each is quite interesting.
The degree of effort or thought that goes into the giving of a gift has an impact on how grateful we are for it.
The relative value of the gift – how singular, rare or precious it is or how important the need it fulfills for the recipient – also impacts the degree of gratitude.
We often feel gratitude for receiving things or actions that benefit our subjective well-being or increase our resilience to trauma. An example of this would be the gratitude felt by a Jewish person in Germany or Poland who was hidden and fed during the Holocaust by someone. Another would be the feeling of gratitude from someone pulled from the raging waters of a hurricane, as we have seen here in the US after recent storms in the South.
The need of the recipient and the effort required to provide the gift or benefit or perform an action seems to have an effect on the level of gratitude of the recipient.
This may explain, in part, why someone who receives a home from an organization like Habitat for Humanity may express more gratitude toward the people who physically built the house than toward the donors who fund the organization.
Gratitude also arises when we are given a social benefit, such as an introduction to someone who can help us raise our work or social stature. We often feel an obligation to let the person who helped us out know how important the act was for us.
It’s called a “social emotion,” and it signals our recognition of the things others have done for us. Gratitude not only enhances our relationships by communicating reciprocal engagement, but also signals to others that we are a fair partner. In other words, expressing gratitude is a way for us to show that we aren’t just a “taker’ or “freeloader.”
Gratitude promotes pro-social behavior. Both the provider and the recipient of a benefit can take a more positive view of the other, depending on the overall outcome of the experience. For example, if we hold the door for someone in a store (provide a benefit) and that person doesn’t say thank you or acknowledge our effort, our momentary opinion of them declines.
Moreover, our overall opinion of “people” may decline slightly, even if we don’t acknowledge it. On the other hand, when the person for whom we hold the door says thank you, we have an opportunity to acknowledge their positive place in the exchange and to reinforce our generous nature by saying something like “you’re welcome.”
Gratitude can lift our spirits in this way, whether we are the giver or the receiver. It can kindle our spirit by showing the positives in us and in other people. It can make us realize that there are other “good” people in the world.
It can help us understand that there is something bigger than us.
I’ll share some ideas for cultivating gratitude in your life shortly. But first, a look at how your brain (and other stuff) is made better by gratitude.
Science is proving that gratitude has a neural corollary. In other words, it has an impact on and in your brain.
Since gratitude is both a moral and social construct, it’s unsurprising that the areas of the prefrontal cortex associated with moral cognition, social reward and interpersonal bonding would be stimulated by it.
We’ve all heard that, when it comes to gift giving (and receiving,) it’s the thought that counts. This has been backed up by a USC fMRI study of the brain. These areas, along with those involved with emotion perception and theory of mind all got lit up during an experiment in which participants were placed in an emotional state of gratitude.
In plain English, when researchers got people to deeply feel what it must have been like as a Holocaust-era Jew to receive help from German farmers in evading Nazi forces to stay alive, those deep feelings of gratitude lit up participants prefrontal cortices, among other brain areas, like a proverbial Christmas tree. Or Hannukah Menorah, I suppose.
The deep value of the risk taken to shield these people from certain death, combined with the feelings of being valued as a human being and the value of being helped to fight another day created serious emotional energy within the brain. Measurable, visible energy proving that gratitude isn’t just an ethereal concept.
So what does it all mean? Well, a few more answers from science may help. A 2003 study asked young adults to keep journals. One group kept daily journals about what they were grateful for. The other groups kept journals about what annoyed them and reasons they were better off than others. The gratitude group exhibited greater increases in determination, attention, energy and enthusiasm than the other 2 groups.
In a similar study in adults, a weekly gratitude journal led to some measurable changes in behavior. Increased levels of activity were reported, along with reductions in physical ailments.
A Chinese study showed that gratitude can positively impact depression sufferers by reducing their levels of depression. Anxiety sufferers in the same study saw their levels decrease as well, allowing improvements in sleep. Better sleep has been shown to positively benefit anxiety and depression sufferers.
Familiar with your hypothalamus? You should be! It controls or affects a big chunk of what goes on inside you. It’s involved heavily with both stress levels and metabolism and controls sleep, eating and drinking.
A 2009 National Institutes of Health study showed that people with higher levels of gratitude had higher levels of hypothalamus activity as well. So gratitude improves hypothalamus function. That likely means better metabolic activity, better sleep and better stress response.
I took some heat recently for a post in which I said that we’re all basically addicted to dopamine. Truth is, though, we kind of are. It’s called the “reward” neurotransmitter for a reason, after all. When we pet a dog, we get a dose of dopamine. Eat a delicious meal, dopamine. Have some wine or a cocktail, dopamine. Have sex, dopamine. You get it, right?
Dopamine is also important for initiating action, both at the cellular level and in life. It’s involved in motor control, meaning it will help you move well. After a good workout, you’ll feel good, meaning you’re more likely to repeat that activity. I mention all of this because studies have shown that grateful people seem to have more dopamine activity.
Gratitude has real power in our lives. The brain has a limited capacity for focus and concentration. It really can’t put energy into both positive and negative thoughts at the same time. So keeping our minds full of things to be grateful for floods the brain with positive input.
Since our brains are fond of confirmation bias (that is, they look for evidence to prove what is already believed,) we’ll begin to find more things to be grateful for. This process is reinforced and assisted by dopamine and by all the brain circuitry in the areas where gratitude is originated and registers.
Gratitude is powerful. Why not use it to your advantage?
What are you grateful for? How many little things do you take for granted? It doesn’t have to be the zombie apocalypse to take 10 seconds to be grateful for running water and flush toilets.
Want to become more grateful? Here are some ideas:
- Be thankful when the alarm goes off – Ok, maybe not necessarily grateful that it went off, but try to think of 3 things to be grateful for immediately upon waking. (“I’m thankful I’m alive!”) If you pray, try a prayer of thanksgiving first thing upon waking.
- Keep a gratitude journal – Take some time each day to write down the things you are grateful for in a journal. They may be huge things like promotions at work or major life events. But they may also be small things, like the perfect latte the barista made you that morning or the smooth commute to work. It all matters and we’re trying to make a habit of gratitude, so feel free to include it all!
- Count your blessings – Pick a time each day or week to write down all of the things you’ve been blessed with in this life. You can do it for the current moment or create a running list of everything you are aware of or can remember. If this seems overwhelming, start with a target in mind. 3 to 5 things each time you write, for example.
- Give mental “thank you’s” – Try thanking someone for something they’ve done for you or given you. Doing it mentally means you can go back as far as you like in life. Maybe thank that great coach or teacher for their tutelage and understanding. Want to try something really radical and powerful? Try thanking someone for something they’re going to do. Like maybe thank your kid for cleaning his/her room – even though it hasn’t been done yet. Just put it out there.
- Write a thank you note – This one is powerful because it creates a tactile, real world connection to your gratitude. This also helps nurture your relationships. For a bigger bang, try delivering it personally and maybe even reading it to the recipient.
- Pray – Prayers of gratitude cultivate an “attitude of gratitude. Prayer is a meditative state that permits total focus on one thing and activates portions of the brain that connect us neurally to our spiritual being.
- Meditate – This one goes right along with prayer. Meditation permits focus without judgement. We’re able to focus our energy on one idea or thought. Meditating on gratitude is powerful for growing our grateful spirit.
While it may sound a bit mercenary to “use” gratitude to make your life better, it really isn’t. Since gratitude cultivates better brain activity, better neurotransmitter and hormone health and positive changes in our behavior and attitude, everyone around us benefits as well.
And isn’t that one way to make the world a better place?
Keep the faith and keep after it!
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Fox, Glenn, et al. “Neural correlates of gratitude,” Frontiers in Psychology, (Sept. 2015): Vol. 6, https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01491
Grant AM, et al. “A Little Thanks Goes a Long Way: Explaining Why Gratitude Expressions Motivate Prosocial Behavior,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (June 2010): Vol. 98, No. 6, pp. 946–55.
Lambert NM, et al. “Expressing Gratitude to a Partner Leads to More Relationship Maintenance Behavior,” Emotion (Feb. 2011): Vol. 11, No. 1, pp. 52–60.
Sansone RA, et al. “Gratitude and Well Being: The Benefits of Appreciation,” Psychiatry (Nov. 2010): Vol. 7, No. 11, pp. 18–22.
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