Experts Reveal How Feeling Grateful Changes Your Brain

by JR Thorpe
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A woman looks happy with her dog. Gratitude can improve health outcomes, mental health and our conne...
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The concept of gratitude — of feeling thankful for what you have — is a very powerful one. Scientists have explored feeling grateful in detail in the past few decades, and research has found that feeling and expressing our gratitude towards others can have tangible positive effects on our physical health and psychological wellbeing. Holidays like Thanksgiving are designed around feeling grateful, but the science of gratitude says that if you practice gratitude year-round and make it a constant part of your outlook, you may glean a host of good effects.

The science of gratitude is part of a body of research known as positive psychology, which studies how certain approaches to life can affect our wellbeing. Positive psychology researchers have demonstrated that the health effects of gratitude are not to be underestimated. Studies have shown that practicing gratitude in tangible ways — by writing in a journal every day about something you're grateful for, for instance — can reduce symptoms of depression, improve health in heart failure patients, and help people in stressful jobs sleep and eat better.

"Gratitude is a valuable resource for creating resilience and helping promote health and well-being," Dr. Fuschia Sirois Ph.D., a researcher in the Department of Psychology at the University of Sheffield, tells Bustle.

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The impact of practicing gratitude on physical health is considerable, according to science. "To date we’ve conducted research that has demonstrated the benefits of gratitude for people with inflammatory bowel disease, arthritis, and fibromyalgia," Dr. Sirois tells Bustle. Even in people with severe illnesses and low levels of social support, practicing gratitude every day lowered their risk of depression up to six months later. Notably, though, the effects were slightly lower in people living with fibromyalgia, which can be a very painful condition. "Living with fibromyalgia may make it more difficult to find things to be grateful for," Dr. Sirois says. The impacts of gratitude may depend on the challenges in your life.

Gratitude may help us to feel better because it bonds us with others and helps us look after ourselves. An overview of studies on gratitude in 2010 found that it's been shown to improve interpersonal relationships, trust and emotional support. Research published in Personality & Individual Differences in 2013 also showed that gratitude may have positive health effects indirectly because it motivates us to seek out self-care behaviors, like exercising, eating nutrient-dense foods, and going to the doctor when we're sick.

"My research has shown that grateful people tend to look after themselves more by practicing more frequent health-promoting behaviors, such as eating healthier, exercising regularly, getting good sleep, and avoiding unhealthy habits," Dr. Sirois tells Bustle. This emphasis on positive habits, she says, can reduce the risk of chronic and serious illnesses in the future. However, the psychological power of gratitude goes beyond self-care; it can physically change our brains.

Gratitude helps people shift their attention to the positive when they are dealing with a negative and stressful situation.

Science shows that there isn't a single gratitude center in the brain, but it can have a significant effect on brain activity. A study published in Neuroimage in 2016 found that practicing gratitude for three months physically changed brain activity. The participants in the study wrote letters expressing their gratitude, and three months later they showed "significantly greater and lasting neural sensitivity to gratitude", according to the study. In other words, they experienced more feelings of gratitude in general, and their brains also showed a lot more activity whenever they expressed gratitude, particularly in the medial prefrontal cortex. That brain region is associated with decision-making and learning. Research in Frontiers in Psychology in 2015 also showed that gratitude causes activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, which helps us regulate our emotions.

Dr. Sirois tells Bustle that there are a few reasons why gratitude may be so neurologically and psychologically powerful. "Gratitude helps people shift their attention to the positive when they are dealing with a negative and stressful situation," she says. "Doing so means you spend less time focusing on your difficulties. Being grateful also means taking a look at the big picture, which can help to contextualize your problems and give a fresh perspective." A stressed brain, she says, looks at things through a narrow perspective, because its threat centers are activated. Gratitude prompts us to take a broader perspective, which may help with problem-solving, whether it's a tricky situation at work or a personal issue.

However, gratitude can't change everything. "It isn't a magic bullet," Dr. Sirois says — and it can be a hard habit to cultivate, particularly if you have a serious health condition, or are experiencing severe stress. If things are simply too difficult, the pressure of gratitude may feel like another source of stress, so it's important to be kind to yourself.

If you'd like to start practicing gratitude, experts say small steps are the way forward. The "three good things" activity, where you sit down every night to note down three good things that happened during the day, is recommended by the Greater Good Science Center at the University of Berkeley. It doesn't take up much time, and you may start to see positive effects over the weeks to come — with or without Thanksgiving turkey.

Studies cited:

Chang, E. C., Lucas, A. G., Chang, O. D., Angoff, H. D., Li, M., Duong, A. H., … Hirsch, J. K. (2019). Relationship between Future Orientation and Pain Severity in Fibromyalgia Patients: Self-Compassion as a Coping Mechanism. Social Work, 64(3), 253–258. doi: 10.1093/sw/swz013

Hill, P. L., Allemand, M., & Roberts, B. W. (2013). Examining the Pathways between Gratitude and Self-Rated Physical Health across Adulthood. Personality and individual differences, 54(1), 92–96. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2012.08.011

Kini P, Wong J, McInnis S, Gabana N, Brown JW. (2016) The effects of gratitude expression on neural activity. Neuroimage. 128:1-10. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2015.12.040.

Liang, H., Chen, C., Li, F. et al. (2018) Mediating effects of peace of mind and rumination on the relationship between gratitude and depression among Chinese university students. Curr Psychol.

Mills PJ, Redwine L, Wilson K, Pung MA, Chinh K, Greenberg BH, Lunde O, Maisel A, Raisinghani A, Wood A, Chopra D. (2015) The Role of Gratitude in Spiritual Well-being in Asymptomatic Heart Failure Patients. Spiritual Clin Pract (Wash DC). 2(1):5-17.

Sirois, F. M., & Wood, A. M. (2017). Gratitude uniquely predicts lower depression in chronic illness populations: A longitudinal study of inflammatory bowel disease and arthritis. Health Psychology, 36(2), 122–132. doi: 10.1037/hea0000436

Starkey, AR, Mohr, CD, Cadiz, DM, & Sinclair, RR. (2019)Gratitude reception and physical health: Examining the mediating role of satisfaction with patient care in a sample of acute care nurses. The Journal of Positive Psychology. 14:6,779-788 doi: 10.1080/17439760.2019.1579353

Stevens FL, Hurley RA, Taber KH. Anterior cingulate cortex: unique role in cognition and emotion. (2011) J Neuropsychiatry Clin Neurosci. 23(2):121-5. doi: 10.1176/appi.neuropsych.23.2.121.

Wood AM, Froh JJ, Geraghty AW. (2010) Gratitude and well-being: a review and theoretical integration. Clin Psychol Rev. 30(7):890-905. doi: 10.1016/j.cpr.2010.03.005.


Dr. Fuschia Sirois Ph.D., researcher in the Department of Psychology at the University of Sheffield

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