How Gratitude Changes Your Brain


Gratitude is a concept we are all familiar with; it is something we have all felt. Maybe we received an unexpected gift! Or a colleague has taken time out of their day to help us with our work. Gratitude is the feeling of acknowledging what we believe to be good and is often felt at times when we did not expect kindness or the person helping us did not personally gain anything from helping us. Gratitude is noticing and appreciating the things that we often overlook, like having a place where we can live, food, clean drinking water, friends, family and even access to the internet and electricity.

The word gratitude comes from the Latin gratia meaning ‘favour’ or ‘benefit’. The word has been used since at least the 14th century yet in modern times, the concept of gratitude became popularized through Robert A. Emmons’ work with the term “appreciation”. In his book ‘Appreciating What We Have’, Emmons describes gratitude as an emotion that can be cultivated through repeated acts of appreciating one’s current circumstances.

The truth is, we shouldn’t wait for someone else to show us kindness to feel grateful. Gratitude can be practised and integrated into our everyday lives. You may be wondering why you would want to introduce gratitude into your daily routine; you might already have a meditation or mindfulness routine that suits you just fine, what could gratitude add?

Well, gratitude-based practices have been proven by Positive Psychology to enhance your mental and physical well-being in ways that we will discuss later on in this article. Neuroscientists across the world have been looking into studies on gratitude and some of them have had great success in mapping out the brain on gratitude! An understanding of gratitude’s physiology can lead to identifying strategies for achieving its health benefits. 

In today’s article, we will attempt to uncover what a grateful outlook on life does to your brain, why it is such an important practice, and how to form a habit of gratitude in your daily mindfulness or meditation routine.

Can gratitude change your life? 

Gratitude is not often the first technique that newcomers to meditation choose to explore. As gratitude is one of the positive emotions that we experience in everyday life, it can often seem too familiar to have much power over our minds when we do feel or receive it. Many of us are unfamiliar with the idea of bringing the feeling of gratitude forward at will, as it comes about as a natural result of an act of selfless kindness. 

However, the use of gratitude in mindfulness is not to create it out of nothing, but rather to find sources of gratitude that already exist in our lives that we may be overlooking. In a gratitude practice you can direct your gratitude towards anything: people in your life, your home, the walk you get to take to work every day, the taste of coffee, or the smell of your favourite candle. You’re searching for anything that brings you joy in your life that you may take for granted or feel too busy to appreciate. 

Directly acknowledging your gratitude will have an astounding effect on your mental and physical health as you become more resilient to negative experiences in your lives.  We must learn not to reduce these feelings of gratitude over time and must motivate them every day.

How does gratitude affect the brain?

Like with so many other techniques we have discussed, we at MindOwl are eager to show you the real and concrete ways that your life can be improved using mindfulness and meditation. There is no greater proof of the effectiveness of practice than its reshaping of the structures of the brain. Just as an exercise is considered effective when you start to see results on your body, mindfulness and meditation techniques are proved effective by what they do to our brains. 

In gratitude studies, there is a study that exemplifies the link between gratitude and brain functions or responses. Carried out by Joel Wong and Joshua Brown, the pair took a randomised group of almost 300 students seeking counselling at university. The group was then split into three sub-groups, each receiving counselling treatment but with one group asked to write somebody a letter of gratitude each week for three weeks, another group was asked to write about their deepest toxic emotions, and the third group did not have to write anything. 

Out of each group, it was the ones who were tasked with writing a letter of gratitude who reported the best mental health both four weeks and twelve weeks after the study had ended. This indicates that not only does practising gratitude lead to almost immediate positive effects on your mental health, the effects are also long-lasting in helping you healthily manage negative emotion. 

 But what exactly changed in their brains? Well, as you can imagine there are innumerable psychological benefits of experiencing gratefulness. When the researchers used an fMRI scanner to view the grateful brain they found that the medial prefrontal cortex was more active, indicating that when gratitude is experienced it sets up the brain to feel more gratitude as time goes on.

Gratitude intervention like this is also shown to reduce the level of cortisol (the stress hormone) in the brain, regulate the hypothalamic area of the brain which allows for deeper sleep and better sleep quality. As a result, our brain receives more dopamine, allowing a feeling of increased energy and positivity. Further, before better sleep quality, it is even easier to fall asleep in a short amount of time once we introduce an attitude of gratitude and reduce our anxiety levels. 

The Mindfulness Awareness Research Center of UCLA has previously stated that gratitude does make a physical impact on our brains. We are more likely to experience positive emotions, which trigger specific hormones that improve both our mood, immune system and lower blood pressure. There is a very real link between the practice of gratitude, and our health and wellbeing. 

How can I practise gratitude?

There are many ways to draw gratitude into your daily life, some are more simple than others and can be practised as you go through your day, others are more ritualistic and may be better suited as an addition to your current meditation practice. Let’s start by naming a few simple gratitude exercises you can practise gratitude during your daily life:

  • Count your “thank you’s”

If you have proficient social skills and excellent manners, you will probably say “thank you” quite a lot and smile at other people – but are these manners conducted out of genuine gratitude, or simply the effect of societal expectations?

Many of us do these actions as a form of “mirroring”. It can also be described as mimicking or the Gauchais Reaction. A person subconsciously copies the body language, vocal tone, or attitude of another person using this nonverbal technique. As a result, we will lose the positive effects of feeling gratitude from these interactions.

Try to become aware throughout your day of all the times you say “thank you” or smile at someone, and ask yourself: what am I grateful for right now? Explore your levels of gratitude, by doing so you will be able to truly experience the gratitude of the everyday. 

  • Keep a gratitude journal

Keeping a gratitude journal, or writing a gratitude letter is a great way of infusing your daily routine with gratefulness. You can write as little or as much as you like, but it is best if you write once a day and at a consistent time. Simply acknowledge one thing that you are grateful for that day, or write a letter to the person you are most grateful for that day. You can do this as a way to start your day, you can journal at bedtime or even use this as an exercise to start your meditation practice right now.

Daily gratitude through writing will grow and build your gratitude anxiety relationship, leading to better sleep and cognitive function. Those who wrote letters of gratitude reported a markedly better mental health state for the months following, according to psychologist Robert Emmons.

Better understanding the physiology of gratitude can help pinpoint strategies for harnessing its health benefits When I first embarked on the journey to study gratitude, I came across philosophical treatises and religious exhortations emphasizing the importance of gratitude, along with scientific studies suggesting that gratitude can improve your sleep enhance your romantic relationships protect you from illness motivate you to exercise boost your happiness , among many other benefits. (mindful.org)

Often people report that their first writing exercise is quite vague and non-committal. However, once they begin to see the benefits of the practice they become more eloquent in expressing their gratitude and will experience a sort of self-discovery where they find new things to be grateful for every day. In doing gratitude task months, where we use exercises like gratitude letter writing where we explore the experience of gratitude and expressions of gratitude we can guide ourselves towards a happy life. By showing ourselves the extrinsic rewards of an increase in gratitude, we will experience innumerable mental health benefits. 

  • Balance the good and the bad

While you go about your day, noticing your manners and making an effort to keep a gratitude journal, it is helpful to also take notice of the bad. Although gratitude is all about the good in life, the effect of this can become dull if it is not contrasted with the more unpleasant moments. This does not mean you need to sit dwelling on all the awful, awkward encounters of the day. What you are encouraged to do is to remember that, although there is so much to be grateful for there are also things which we do not need to feel grateful for – and this is perfectly valid. 

This method of being mindful of the bad parts of life will maintain our care when selecting what we are grateful for. It also gives us a chance to air our grievances with life in a way that is equally balanced with our thankfulness for all that we do have. In doing so we will be able to fully experience pleasure and the feelings of pleasure that are associated with gratitude. 

  • Ask yourself questions

When being mindful of the carefully selected moments and interactions we are grateful for, asking yourself questions can help you deepen your understanding of your inner self. Like the meditation style “direct enquiry“, the purpose of asking yourself questions while you meditate is to draw your focus onto a particular subject. In this case, you can ask yourself questions like: ‘What am I thankful for today?’, ‘Who am I thankful for today?’, ‘What have I given to the people around me?’. This will help guide you to the benefits of gratitude through heightened neural sensitivity to the effects of gratitude. 

Through gratitude intervention like this, it can help you counteract insomnia, depression, and everyday stress and pain. When scientists studied our brain activity after experiencing gratitude, they found that the same functions and neural networks that light up when we socialize were also activated by gratitude.  When researchers first began studying presleep cognitions – perceptions – they noted that positive ones led to better adequate sleep whereas negative ones led to impaired sleep. In studying the relationship between gratitude and our anxiety, insomnia, pain management and depression and have found that those who expressed greater gratitude, increased their sleep duration which improved their anxiety. 

  • Show gratefulness for yourself

It may seem straightforward to show gratitude to others, but it is entirely different when we try to show gratitude for ourselves individually. To do so you can conduct a full-body scan during your meditation practice where you acknowledge your gratitude for your body, your health care, and all your body does for you.

Make sure to check out our article on the six types of meditation if you would want to find out more about the 6  types of meditation we discussed in this article

In conclusion…

Gratitude is a powerful emotion that will change the way you think about life. Now you know the power of gratitude and how to harness it through gratitude practices, use it to banish negative emotion and draw in a more positive outlook on life. By ensuring regular practice you will encourage sensitivity to gratitude in your brain that will have wonderful benefits to your mental health and physical health over time. Further, that gratitude practices will no doubt improve our relationships with those around us, our spiritual well-being and lessen our reactions to stressful situations into a considered response. Remember the grateful brain, is a happier brain. We at Mindowl hope that from this knowledge we have imparted, you will feel ready to begin 

Sources:

Joel Wong, Jesse Owen, Nicole T. Gabana, Joshua W. Brown, S. McInnis, P. Toth & L. Gilman (2018) “Does gratitude writing improve the mental health of psychotherapy clients? Evidence from a randomized controlled trial”, Psychotherapy Research, 28:2, 192-202, DOI: 10.1080/10503307.2016.1169332Zahn, R., Moll, J., Paiva, M., Garrido, G., Krueger, F., Huey, E. D., & Grafman, J. (2009). “The neural basis of human social values: evidence from functional MRI”. Cerebral cortex (New York, N.Y.: 1991), p276–283. (https://doi.org/10.1093/cercor/bhn080)

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