Mind-Body Health

The Neuroscience Behind Gratitude: How Does Cultivating Appreciation Affect Your Brain?

The Neuroscience Behind Gratitude: How Does Cultivating Appreciation Affect Your Brain?
Some of the best “science” around is a kind I call “Grandma science.” My Grandma always had advice and rules for living a good life—advice like “Be thankful for what you have” and “Count your blessings.” And it’s nice to know that researchers who focus on topics like the neuroscience of gratitude are proving what common sense already told you—Grandma was right. Gratitude is good for you.

What Is Gratitude?

Gratitude is an awareness of the good things that happen in your life. Gratitude is both a fleeting emotion and a stable trait—you can be a grateful person or experience a thankful moment. And gratitude can be cultivated​.

There are obstacles that can limit your feelings and expressions of gratitude, such as comparing yourself to others, being lost in the past or overly focused on the future, and getting caught up in a fear of being mocked or being seen as inauthentic.

In short, gratitude involves a warm sense of appreciation for somebody or something—it’s a sense of goodwill that you can feel in your heart.

The Science of Gratitude

Sonja Lyubomirsky is a prominent positive psychology researcher and the author of several books on happiness. She believes that gratitude is a meta-strategy for health and well-being. In her book The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want, she writes: “Gratitude is an antidote to negative emotions, a neutralizer of envy, hostility, worry, and irritation. It is savoring; it is not taking things for granted; it is present-oriented.” Her research recommends gratitude as both a pathway to experiencing more positive emotions as well as a motivator for self-improvement.

An active practice of gratitude can increase neuron density and lead to greater emotional intelligence, as an article in Wharton’s Healthcare Monthly describes. In neuroscience research, Hebb’s Law says that “neurons that fire together wire together.” The more you practice gratitude, the more you strengthen the brain’s neural circuits for gratitude, making it easier to focus on feelings of gratitude. When you start to focus on the things you already have in your life that are good, your brain becomes better at discovering similar things. For example, if you consciously notice how beautiful the stars in the night sky are, you will be more likely to notice the stars and feel gratitude again. Even though the stars are always there, the gratitude focus is like a signal to your brain to notice them.

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Let’s take a deeper dive into what happens to your brain on gratitude.

1. Increased Dopamine

Research has found that when we express gratitude, the brain releases a surge of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays an important role in many vital functions, including pleasure, reward, motivation, attention, and bodily movements. This surge of dopamine gives you a natural high, creating good feelings that motivate you to repeat specific behaviors, including expressing gratitude even more.

Dopamine also increases the experience and duration of positive emotions. In short, it helps you feel good—and research shows that when you feel good, you are more likely to spread your positivity to those you work, live, and play with. As one study found, showing gratitude promotes prosocial behavior, the kind of behavior that endears you to others and moves you to act for the greater good rather than only for your own benefit.

2. Increased Serotonin Production

In addition to increasing dopamine, gratitude has also been associated with increased serotonin production. In his book, The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time, researcher Alex Korb writes, “One powerful effect of gratitude is that it can boost serotonin.

Serotonin is often called the happiness chemical because it contributes to feelings of well-being, stabilizes our mood, and helps us feel more relaxed. According to Korb, the simple act of being grateful increases serotonin production in the anterior cingulate cortex.

3. Greater Activity in the Medial Prefrontal Cortex

The medial prefrontal cortex is an area of the human brain linked to learning and making decisions. In one study, fMRI scans were performed with two groups; the first were directed to think of a recent time they felt really grateful and replay it in their mind, while the second group spoke their gratitude aloud as though it was being recorded to be shared with the person they expressed it to. The scans showed that there was a surge of activity in the medial prefrontal cortex area of the brain when subjects expressed gratitude that was different from the brain activity seen when the subjects were feeling grateful but didn’t express it. The benefit to the prefrontal cortex doesn’t come from just being grateful, but from expressing gratitude.

Research by the John Templeton Foundation has found that there is a large gap between the gratitude Americans report feeling and their expression of gratitude. According to the study, 90 percent of Americans say they feel grateful for their families, yet only 52 percent of women and 44 percent of men express gratitude on a regular basis. Some possibilities for this gap include the fear that expressing gratitude may imply indebtedness or weakness. Given the many benefits of showing gratitude, it is well worth the effort to address any fears we may have about showing our appreciation, at home, in social situations, and in the workplace.

4. Activation of the Brain’s “Altruism” and Reward System Regions

A recent study found that practicing gratitude activates a part of the human brain—the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC)—associated with what the researchers describe as neural pure altruism, which basically means that your brain craves the experience of giving. In the study, two groups of participants were asked to write in a journal every day for three weeks. The first group was given general prompts unrelated to gratitude, while the second group was prompted to write about experiences of gratitude and things they felt thankful for. When the fMRI scans of both groups were compared, the results showed that the group that had focused on gratitude had greater activation of the VMPFC and neural pure altruism.

The researchers concluded that “gratitude biases the brain’s reward system toward rewards for others versus oneself.” By giving, you become more likely to want to connect with others by giving again in the future. Gratitude truly seems to be for the greater good.

8 Ways to Express Your Gratitude

Given the benefits of gratitude for your brain and health, it’s well worth taking the time to focus on cultivating this emotion and trait in your life. Ready to amp up your daily gratitude? Try these practices:

  1. Keep a gratitude journal. Keep a small book on your bedside table and each evening write three things you were grateful for that day. You could also pop one in a desk drawer at work for a positive beginning to your day.
  2. Write a gratitude letter to a past mentor or teacher. It doesn’t matter if you are still in contact with the person you choose—they can be alive or no longer living. Write a letter, preferably by hand on nice paper, explaining what they did, how it affected you, how you felt, and why it is so important to you still. You can save it or send it.
  3. Count how many things you can find to be grateful for in each room of your home. See just how many things your kitchen has (like ice, running water, a beautiful view, sharp knives, etc.) that you can celebrate.
  4. Listen to a guided gratitude meditation, such as this one led by Deepak Chopra. You can also find guided meditations on apps such as Insight Timer, Calm, and Ten Percent Happier.
  5. Start business meetings with a “what went well” one-sentence reflection. When you prime your team by reviewing their recent accomplishments, it helps you to connect and keep going forward with enthusiasm.
  6. Savor receiving thanks. Notice if you are better at thanking than you are at being thanked (this applies to a lot of people). Work on receiving thanks with grace.
  7. Take a daily photo of something you are grateful for and post to Instagram or Facebook, tagging it with #365project.
  8. Try a gratitude jar or tree. Take a decorative mason jar or a small wooden tree and place it someplace you will see it every day, like the foyer or your kitchen counter. On a regular basis (daily or weekly) take a piece of paper and write: “I’m thankful for ______ today because ______.” Use recycled paint samples to add a splash of color. Then drop them in the jar or clip them to the tree. If you are feeling low, read your blessings to yourself.
When Deepak Chopra leads guided group meditations, he begins with a series of questions he calls the soul questions. One of these is “What am I grateful for?” Planting the seed of this question as you start your meditation is a way to start a dialogue with the universe about the daily gratitude you experience. By paying attention to the things you already have or are, you harness Hebb’s Law and strengthen your ability to see and experience more blessings in your life.

*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health programs.