This Is Your Brain on Gratitude

If you found yourself feeling a little deflated after the New Year and craving the warm, fuzzy feelings of the holidays, it may be time to integrate gratitude into your regular routine. While many Americans dedicate a single annual event to giving thanks, far fewer incorporate that practice into everyday life—and that’s doing a major disservice to our psychological health, according to experts.

“I like to think of gratitude as fertilizer for the mind, spreading connections and improving its function in nearly every realm of experience,” says Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, founding editor-in-chief of The Journal of Positive Psychology, and the author of Thanks!, one of his many books on gratitude. “Ask your brain to do algebra every day and it gets better at algebra. Ask it to worry and you will find more things to be anxious about. Ask your brain to give thanks and it will get better at finding things to be grateful for. Not only does your brain find these things easier, but it actually refashions itself based on what you ask it to do. And the more you do it, the more rewards you’ll reap. ”

How Gratitude Can Change Your Brain

If boosting brain strength is a matter of practice, can you just insert a lot more “thank yous” into your everyday interactions and expect to feel awesome? Not quite.

Because the state of gratitude is such a complex interaction of cognitive and emotional components, scientists haven’t been able to sum up what’s happening when a person feels grateful, nor have they learned how to induce those events. “There’s no gratitude chemical,” says Emmons. “There’s no ‘G’ spot or gratitude center in the brain.”

But they do have a sense of what’s going on up there when you express gratitude. “Some parts of the brain growth denser, packing in more gray matter like a muscle bulking up from exercise,” Emmons explains. And just as bicep curls lead to more strength in that muscle area, practicing gratitude leads to more strength in areas of the brain like the hypothalamus, which is involved in regulating stress, and the anterior cingulate cortex, which is involved in cognition and emotion regulation.

And that’s not all. Neuroscientist Glenn Fox, Ph.D., head of program design, strategy, and outreach at the University of Southern California’s Performance Science Institute, says his research has also found evidence that these complex feelings of gratitude activate regions of the brain associated with social relationships and decision-making. “It makes sense that when someone works hard to benefit us in a deep way, they are responsible for relieving our stress and drawing us closer to them,” Fox says. “These results are just the beginning, but it gives us a glimpse into gratitude’s power as a key emotion for health and good living.”

The Feel-Good Perks of Being Grateful

Of course, the benefits of being grateful aren’t just limited to your brain; the positive feelings offer benefits for the whole body. “Gratitude reduces the output of stress hormones (primarily cortisol) during challenges and crises,” Emmons says. “Research has shown that when we think about someone or something we really appreciate and experience the feeling that goes with the thought, the parasympathetic (calming-branch) of the autonomic nervous system is triggered.”

San Francisco-based psychologist Juli Fraga agrees: “Looking at life through the window of appreciation can elicit a sense of calmness and wellbeing.”

When that same pattern is repeated, it also provides some protection for your ticker. “The electromagnetic heart patterns of volunteers tested become more coherent and ordered when they experience feelings of appreciation and gratefulness,” Emmons says.

Researchers also say that grateful people are less likely to be depressed, which makes sense given that depression is linked to high levels of cortisol. Since gratitude also strengthens social bonds and fosters feelings of love, it’s also linked to oxytocin, a.k.a. the bonding hormone. And while it’s not proven, some speculate the experience of gratitude can boost DHEA, otherwise known as the “anti-aging hormone.

How to Get More Grateful ASAP

While there are plenty of ways to integrate gratitude into your life, Fraga believes small steps can have a big impact. “Start a journal or tell a friend or loved one something you appreciate about them each day,” Fraga says. “Mindfulness meditation practice can help, too.”

Need more inspiration? Here are some tips from Sonja Lyubomirsky’s book, The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want:

  • Pick a specific time to mentally take stock of what you’re grateful for that day.
  • Every time you catch yourself thinking a resentful thought (like, “my friend was so rude today”), try replacing it with one that acknowledges what you’re grateful for (like, “she’s always so supportive when I need her”).
  • Establish a buddy system to keep you accountable of your gratitude: Designate a friend or family member who will help remind you of your gratitude goals and prompt you to seek out things you’re thankful for.
  • Write a heartfelt letter to someone you’re truly grateful for and describe what they did that made you so thankful. It doesn’t even have to be someone you know in real life; sometimes just writing a letter of thanks can help you tap into those grateful feelings and improve your well-being.

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  • Yes, we all should be grateful for what we do have. Particularly in the West. However, a general prescription without the recognition of the kind of world in which most people live, irresponsible. Practicing gratitude is good. Recognizing our good fortune and the inequities in our world, more important. If our fortunate gratitude turns into activism, bingo.

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