“Gratitude can transform common days into thanksgiving, turn routine jobs into joy, and change ordinary opportunities into blessings.” – Proverb
In positive psychology, gratitude is the human way of acknowledging the good things of life. Psychologists have defined gratitude as a positive emotional response that we perceive on giving or receiving a benefit from someone (Emmons & McCullough, 2004).
A similar explanation was put forth by Emmons and McCullough who said that:
“ Gratitude is associated with a personal benefit that was not intentionally sought after, deserved, or earned but rather because of the good intentions of another person” (Emmons & McCullough, 2003).
Thanking others, thanking ourselves, Mother Nature, or the Almighty – gratitude in any form can enlighten the mind and make us feel happier. It has a healing effect on us. (Russell and Fosha, 2008). The benefits of gratitude are endless, and in this blog, let us try to explore what gratitude it, discuss its scientific base, and understand how we can use gratitude to be happier in life.
How Gratitude Works
“Enjoy the little things. For one day you may look back and realise they were the big things.” – Robert Brault
Gratitude in all forms is associated with happiness. Whether we say ‘thank you’ to someone or receive the same from others, the feeling it brings is that of pure satisfaction and encouragement. Expressions of gratitude help in building and sustaining long term relationships, deal with adversities and bounce back from them with strength and motivation.
Gratitude brings happiness
Gratitude improves interpersonal relationships at home and work (Gordon, 2012). The connection between gratitude and happiness is multi-dimensional. Expressing gratitude not only to others but also to ourselves, induces positive emotions, primarily happiness. By producing feelings of pleasure and contentment, gratitude impacts on our overall health and well-being as well.
In a survey on gratitude in adult professionals, British psychologist and wellness expert Robert Holden found that 65 out of 100 people selected happiness over health, although they indicated that both were equally important for a good life. Holden, in his study, suggested that the roots of many psychopathological conditions like depression, anxiety, and stress are unhappiness.
Simple practices like maintaining a gratitude journal, complimenting the self, or sending small tokens and thank you notes can make us feel a lot better and enhance our mood immediately. Couple studies have also indicated that partners who expressed their thankfulness to each other often, could sustain their relationships with mutual trust, loyalty, and had long-lasting happy relationships.
Gratitude improves health
Gratitude impacts on mental and physical well-being. Positive psychology and mental health researchers in the past few decades have established an overwhelming connection between gratitude and good health. Keeping a gratitude journal causes less stress, improves the quality of sleep, and builds emotional awareness (Seligman, Steen, Park and Peterson, 2005).
Gratitude is positively correlated to more vitality, energy, and enthusiasm to work harder.
Gratitude builds professional commitment
Grateful workers are more efficient, more productive and more responsible. Expressing gratitude in the workplace is a proactive action toward building interpersonal bonds and trigger feelings of closeness and bonding (Algoe, 2012).
Employees who practice expressing gratitude at work are more likely to volunteer for more assignments, willing to take an extra step to accomplish their tasks, and happily work as a part of the team. Also, managers and supervisors who feel grateful and remember to convey the same, have a stronger group cohesiveness and better productivity. They recognise good work, gives everyone their due importance in the group and actively communicates with the team members. Gratitude makes a leader compassionate, considerate, empathetic, and loved among others.
The Neuroscientific Research Into Gratitude
“Gratitude is the healthiest of all human emotions.” – Zig Ziglar
Gratitude was significant in ancient philosophies and cultures, for example, in the Roman culture, where Cicero mentioned gratitude as the ‘mother’ of all human feelings. As an area of neuropsychological research, however, it was a rare subject of concern until the last two decades (Emmons & McCullough, 2004).
Gratitude And The Brain
Neural mechanisms that are responsible for feelings of gratitude have grabbed attention (Wood et al, 2008). Studies have demonstrated that at the brain level, moral judgments involving feelings of gratefulness are evoked in the right anterior temporal cortex (Zahn et al. 2008).
In the same study, it was revealed that the reason why some of us are naturally more grateful than others, is the neurochemical differences at the Central Nervous System. People who express and feel gratitude have a higher volume of grey matter in the right inferior temporal gyrus (Zahn et al, 2014).
Gratitude And Neurotransmitters
Emily Fletcher, the founder of Ziva, a well-known meditation training site, mentioned in one of her publications that gratitude as a ‘natural antidepressant’. The effects of gratitude, when practiced daily can be almost the same as medications. It produces a feeling of long-lasting happiness and contentment, the physiological basis of which lies at the neurotransmitter level.
When we express gratitude and receive the same, our brain releases dopamine and serotonin, the two crucial neurotransmitters responsible for our emotions, and they make us feel ‘good’. They enhance our mood immediately, making us feel happy from the inside.
By consciously practicing gratitude everyday, we can help these neural pathways to strengthen themselves and ultimately create a permanent grateful and positive nature within ourselves.
How Gratitude Affects the Brain
“It is not happiness that brings us gratitude. It is gratitude that brings us happiness.”
Gratitude may be a gesture or a group of kind words that we give or receive from others. But these simple exchanges of thankfulness goes a long way in affecting our overall biological functioning – especially the brain and the nervous system. The effect of gratitude on the brain is long lasting (Moll, Zahn, et al. 2007). Besides enhancing self-love and empathy, gratitude significantly impacts on body functions and psychological conditions like stress, anxiety, and depression.
1. Gratitude releases toxic emotions
The limbic system is the part of the brain that is responsible for all emotional experiences. It consists of the thalamus, hypothalamus, amygdala, hippocampus, and cingulate gyrus. Studies have shown that hippocampus and amygdala, the two main sites regulating emotions, memory, and bodily functioning, get activated with feelings of gratitude.
Consistent evidence has established that what we call ‘emotions’ or ‘feelings’ are neural activations in the neocortical regions of the brain (Moll et al. 2005). A study conducted on individuals seeking mental health guidance revealed that participants of the group who wrote letters of gratitude besides their regular counseling sessions, felt better and recovered sooner.
The other group in the study that were asked to journal their negative experiences instead of writing gratitude letters reported feelings of anxiety and depression.
2. Gratitude reduces pain
Counting Blessings vs Burdens (2003), a study conducted on evaluating the effect of gratitude on physical well-being, indicated that 16% of the patients who kept a gratitude journal reported reduced pain symptoms and were more willing to work out and cooperate with the treatment procedure. A deeper dig into the cause unleashed that by regulating the level of dopamine, gratitude fills us with more vitality, thereby reducing subjective feelings of pain.
3. Gratitude improves sleep quality
Studies have shown that receiving and displaying simple acts of kindness activates the hypothalamus, and thereby regulates all bodily mechanisms controlled by the hypothalamus, out of which sleep is a vital one.
Hypothalamic regulation triggered by gratitude helps us get deeper and healthier sleep naturally everyday. A brain filled with gratitude and kindness is more likely to sleep better and wake up feeling refreshed and energetic every morning (Zahn et al., 2009).
4. Gratitude aids in stress regulation
McCraty and colleagues (1998), in one of their studies on gratitude and appreciation, found that participants who felt grateful showed a marked reduction in the level of cortisol, the stress hormone. They had better cardiac functioning and were more resilient to emotional setbacks and negative experiences.
Significant studies over the years have established the fact that by practicing gratitude we can handle stress better than others. By merely acknowledging and appreciating the little things in life, we can rewire the brain to deal with the present circumstances with more awareness and broader perception.
5. Gratitude reduces anxiety and depression
By reducing the stress hormones and managing the autonomic nervous system functions, gratitude significantly reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety. At the neurochemical level, feelings of gratitude are associated with an increase in the neural modulation of the prefrontal cortex, the brain site responsible for managing negative emotions like guilt, shame, and violence.
As a result, people who keep a gratitude journal or use verbal expressions for the same, are more empathetic and positive minded by nature.
Does Gratitude Change the Brain?
The Mindfulness Awareness Research Center of UCLA stated that gratitude does change the neural structures in the brain, and make us feel happier and more content. Feeling grateful and appreciating others when they do something good for us triggers the ‘good’ hormones and regulates effective functioning of the immune system. Scientists have suggested that by activating the reward center of the brain, gratitude exchange alters the way we see the world and ourselves.
Dr. Alex Korb, in his book Upward Spiral mentioned that gratitude forces us to focus on the positive sides of life. When we give and receive ‘thank you’ notes, our brain is automatically redirected to pay attention to what we have, producing intrinsic motivation and a strong awareness of the present. Also, at the neurochemical level, gratitude acts as a catalyst for neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine – the ones that manage our emotions, anxiety, and immediate stress responses.
By acknowledging and appreciating our assets, gratitude gives us the charge of our own lives. As Robin Sharma has beautifully put it: “Gratitude drives happiness. Happiness boosts productivity. Productivity reveals mastery. And mastery inspires the world”.
What are you grateful for in your life? No matter how big or small there is always a reason to acknowledge your gifts. Please share your thoughts.
Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2004). The Psychology of Gratitude (Series in Affective Science). New York: Oxford University Press.
Merriam Webster. (2019). Gratitude. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/gratitude
Gordon, A. M., Impett, E. A., Kogan, A., Oveis, C., & Keltner, D. (2012). To have and to hold: Gratitude promotes relationship maintenance in intimate bonds. Journal of personality and social psychology, 103(2), 257.
Wong, Y. J., Owen, J., Gabana, N. T., Brown, J. W., McInnis, S., Toth, P., & Gilman, L. (2018). Does gratitude writing improve the mental health of psychotherapy clients? Evidence from a randomized controlled trial. Psychotherapy Research, 28(2), 192-202.
Korb, A. (2012). The Grateful Brain. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/prefrontal-nudity/201211/the-grateful-brain
Ekman, P., & Davidson, R. J. (1993). Voluntary smiling changes regional brain activity. Psychological Science, 4(5), 342-345.
Lau, R. W., & Cheng, S. T. (2011). Gratitude lessens death anxiety. European Journal of Ageing, 8(3), 169.