6 Ways Gratitude Affects Your Brain

by JR Thorpe

Every year around Thanksgiving, many of us pause and think about all the things that we're thankful for — like food, family, health and everything positive in our lives. But if you've been paying attention to neuroscience over the past few years, you'll have noticed that thankfulness, or gratitude, is garnering a lot of attention beyond the holiday season — as a powerful instigator of better mental health, more positive brain function, and associated health benefits.

What is gratitude? It's the practice of being thankful — literally "counting your blessings," like your grandma always said, both by taking note of things to be grateful for, and expressing that gratitude to others when applicable. To qualify for all of those gratitude-related mental benefits, you have to be prepared to put in regular effort to think about what's awesome in your life. Sounds easy, but it can be challenging — especially if you're prone to dwelling on the negatives, as we all are on occasion. That's why studies of gratitude stress getting your gratitude down in writing — they usually get subjects to keep a "gratitude journal," where you write down five things each day that you're thankful for. There are even best-selling gratitude apps, for folks who want to keep a running list of all the things they're thankful for.

Sorry to get all It's A Wonderful Life on you, but the science is pretty solid: being grateful for the good things in your life — even the tiny ones — and being willing to show it may be a way to train your brain to develop better habits and create a healthier future. It doesn't do all the work for you, but it certainly seems like a good start. With that in mind, here are six mental changes you can look forward to if you begin practicing gratitude.

1. Your Brain Floods With Reward Chemicals

A lot of the studies on the benefits of gratitude have come out of the University of California Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center, which focuses its resources on uncovering the real medical benefits of stuff like giving to charity or saying thank you to your mom. The GGSC is a good place to start if you want to investigate the real ways gratitude can improve your life; according to their research, it starts with the brain's reward system.

Basically, a brain that is experiencing gratitude, specifically gratitude focused on a specific person — i.e. thanking other people for their behavior towards you, rather than thanking fate in general for not killing you this year — is flooded with positive chemicals of a unique kind. It's not just simple pleasure, like the kind you get from eating a chocolate or having sex. Instead, the brain's response to gratitude is to activate a reward center, one specifically targeted at boosting our bonds with other people. It rewards you, makes you more inclined to want to feel this feeling again, and makes you feel attached to others at the same time. Gratitude, for the brain, is a really social emotion.

2. Your Anxiety And Depression Symptoms May Lessen

Though no scientists recommend gratitude as a replacement for proper therapy and medication when it comes to anxiety or mood disorders — and you should absolutely not try to substitute a gratitude practice in place of professional mental health care — research has show that a grateful brain might be able to help mediate some of the symptoms of these problems.

According to a 2012 Chinese study reported in Psychology Today, keeping a daily gratitude journal had some interesting effects on people suffering from anxiety and depression. The anxious slept better, which helped lessen some of their symptoms (we'll talk more about gratitude and sleep shortly). But the depressives experienced even more positive changes: overall, they slept better too, but even if they didn't, their depressive symptoms were still rated as better on regular mood tests. So it's good for calming the anxious and for boosting the moods of the depressed — possibly, in the latter case, because it's a challenge to negative thought patterns, which can be a core component of serious depression.

3. Your Hypothalamus Works Better

Gratitude does something quite peculiar to the brain's system: it activates the hypothalamus. Not one of the most glamorous parts of the brain, but a seriously important one. The hypothalamus is responsible for regulating all kinds of bodily functions, including hunger, sleep, body temperature, metabolism, and how the body grows. It's one of the body's control centers, and gratitude seems to motivate it to excel.

A 2009 series of studies using MRIs of brains showed that the limbic system in general — of which the hypothalamus is a part — is activated whenever we feel gratitude, pride, or do something altruistic for somebody else. That means gratitude actually makes our metabolism, hunger and other natural bodily functions work more smoothly. Why? I don't know, but it's true.

4. You're More Resistant To Stress

Resilience is more than just a quality in a video game. In psychology and neurology, it is a term that refers to the body and brain's ability to bounce back from seriously stressful events, like trauma, homelessness, grief or job loss. And it looks like gratitude helps us become more resilient and less vulnerable to continued stress throughout our lives. The GGSC has collected studies showing that people who are grateful recover more quickly from horribly stressful stuff. It seems to be a seriously useful coping strategy — a good thing to remember if you're dealing with something tough.

5. You Fall Asleep More Easily

Given the effects of gratitude on the hypothalamus, it's not entirely surprising that the gratitude-filled brain might find it easier to slip into normal, natural sleep than one that is not feeling thankful. It's been shown to help people with chronic pain, too: a study of adults suffering from serious neuromuscular disorders found that the gratitude exercises made them sleep more and wake feeling "refreshed." And you don't have to be suffering from an illness to benefit: LiveScience reports that a 2013 study showed grateful people fall asleep more easily, possibly because of the knock-on effects of stress reduction and better limbic system function.

6. You Experience More Positive Emotions Overall

A famous 2002 study on gratitude by conducted Robert A. Emmons and his colleagues showed that regularly grateful people seemed to have a host of more positive neurological traits overall: they were "more empathetic, forgiving, helpful, and supportive" than those who didn't engage in gratitude, and also "tend to experience positive emotions more often." Emmons and his colleagues believe that the mechanisms of gratitude depend on the prefrontal cortex, which is one of the places we form memories. It's been suggested that this means grateful people literally "train" their prefrontal cortex to retain positive information and reject negative stuff over their lives. The result? More happiness. Sounds like a pretty decent deal to me.

Images: Matt Jones/ Unsplash; Giphy (6)