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How Gratitude Changes Your Brain

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Your Brain On Gratitude

How Gratitude Changes Your Brain

According to UCLAs Mindfulness Awareness Research Center, regularly expressing gratitude literally changes the molecular structure of the brain, keeps the gray matter functioning, and makes us healthier and happier. In 2008, scientists first used fMRI to study gratitude. In the study the researchers measured brain activity of participants experiencing different emotions, and found that gratitude causes synchronized activation in multiple brain regions, and lights up parts of the brains reward pathways and the hypothalamus. In short, just like Prozac, gratitude can boost neurotransmitter serotonin and activate the brain stem to produce dopamine.

How Gratitude Changes Your Brain Physically

When feeling gratitude, the portion of your brain associated with social interactions lights up. It influences your ability to empathize with and relate to others. This part of the brain is also connected to your bodys regulation of emotions and stress.

It also affects the brain regions linked to reward and moral cognitive processes, like removing a stressor. Studies show that gratitude uses the same portions of the brain that activate in cases involving morality. This research shows a conclusive link between decision-making and gratitude, along with morality and interpersonal relationships.

Your brain also uses gratitude as an incentive for decision processes because feelings of gratefulness are tied to social cognition and value evaluation.

It Improves Activity In The Dopamine Circuits

Feeling grateful increases your brains production of dopamine. Dopamine is a feel-good neurotransmitter thats part of the brains reward and pleasure-seeking circuit. People with abnormally low dopamine levels may have impaired thinking and memory and slowed reaction times. A lack of dopamine causes the motor symptoms of Parkinsons disease. Dopamine is also linked to depression, anhedonia, the inability to feel pleasure, and lack of motivation.

In the Upward Spiral, Alex Korb explains:

The benefits of gratitude start with the dopamine system, because feeling grateful activates the brain stem region that produces dopamine. Additionally, gratitude toward others increases activity in social dopamine circuits, which makes social interactions more enjoyable.

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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.

Gratitude Unshackles Us From Toxic Emotions

How Gratitude Changes You and Your Brain

First, by analyzing the words used by participants in each of the two writing groups, we were able to understand the mechanisms behind the mental health benefits of gratitude letter writing. We compared the percentage of positive emotion words, negative emotion words, and we words that participants used in their writing. Not surprisingly, those in the gratitude writing group used a higher percentage of positive emotion words and we words, and a lower proportion of negative emotion words, than those in the other writing group.

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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. Lets start by naming a few simple gratitude exercises you can practise gratitude during your daily life:

  • Count your thank yous

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
  • Balance the good and the bad
  • Ask yourself questions
  • Show gratefulness for yourself

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

From The Authors Of The Study:

We wanted to distinguish donations motivated by gratitude from donations driven by other motivations, like feelings of guilt or obligation. So we asked the participants to rate how grateful they felt toward the benefactor, and how much they wanted to help each charitable cause, as well as how guilty they would feel if they didnt help. We also gave them questionnaires to measure how grateful they are in their lives in general.

We found that across the participants when people felt more grateful, their brain activity was distinct from brain activity related to guilt and the desire to help a cause. More specifically, we found that when people who are generally more grateful gave more money to a cause, they showed greater neural sensitivity in the medial prefrontal cortex, a brain area associated with learning and decision making. This suggests that people who are more grateful are also more attentive to how they express gratitude.

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New Research Is Starting To Explore How Gratitude Works To Improve Our Mental Health

With the rise of managed health care, which emphasizes cost-efficiency and brevity, mental health professionals have had to confront this burning question: How can they help clients derive the greatest possible benefit from treatment in the shortest amount of time?

Recent evidence suggests that a promising approach is to complement psychological counseling with additional activities that are not too taxing for clients but yield high results. In our own research, we have zeroed in on one such activity: the practice of gratitude. Indeed, many studies over the past decade have found that people who consciously count their blessings tend to be happier and less depressed.

The problem is that most research studies on gratitude have been conducted with well-functioning people. Is gratitude beneficial for people who struggle with mental health concerns? And, if so, how?

We set out to address these questions in a recent research study involving nearly 300 adults, mostly college students who were seeking mental health counseling at a university. We recruited these participants just before they began their first session of counseling, and, on average, they reported clinically low levels of mental health at the time. The majority of people seeking counseling services at this university in general struggled with issues related to depression and anxiety.

How Gratitude Strengthens The Mind

The Healing Power of Gratitude: Change Your Brain

Given the clear relationship between mental and physical health, I thought that understanding what happens in the brain when we feel gratitude could tell us more about the mind-body connectionnamely, how feeling positive emotion can improve bodily functions. I also thought these results could help scientists design programs aimed at generating gratitude by helping them zero in on the precise activities and experiences most essential to reaping gratitudes benefits.

It must be said that actually capturing people in the moment of feeling gratitude poses some challenges. After all, some people may not feel gratitude when we expect them to, and others may even feel grateful in unexpected situations. I thought my best bet would be to try to induce gratitude through powerful stories of aid and sacrifice.

To achieve this, I turned to the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History, which houses the worlds largest repository of videotaped Holocaust survivor testimoniesmany of which, perhaps surprisingly, are filled with breathtaking acts of selflessness and generosity. Along with a team of amazing undergraduates, I began by watching hundreds of hours of survivor testimony to find stories in which the survivor received help of some kind from another person.

The regions associated with gratitude are part of the neural networks that light up when we socialize and experience pleasure.

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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 .

The Power Of Thank You: The Surprising Effects Of Gratitude On The Brain

God gave you a gift of 86,400 seconds today. Have you used one to say thank you?

William A. Ward, Writer & poet

It can be really hard to invoke genuine feelings of gratitude when youre feeling overwhelmed, stressed, or feeling low.

And yet, almost paradoxically, gratitude is a powerful antidote to help you rise above a frazzled mental state, high-stress levels, and negative experiences.

When you feel and express gratitude in daily life you rewire your brain in ways that boost mental health, bodily functions, and overall well-being.

Gratitude increases self-esteem, and according to positive psychology research, grateful people tend to be happier, more fulfilled, and inspired people.

Gratitude is a habit to be cultivated and a muscle to be developed.

Cultivating a lasting habit, and toning a weak muscle takes time, practice, and persistence.

Because thankfulness and appreciation are such effective tools for mental and emotional well-being, its important to instill the attitude of gratitude early on in our kids.

That means that as moms and stewards of these little beings we have a duty and responsibility to model this empowering mindset and lead by example.

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It Strengthens Your Relationships

Appreciating your partner can be the difference between bae or break. Couples who say thank you to one another are happier in their relationships and more willing to communicate about potential issues, according to this study.

Researcher Allen Barton said that a grateful couple are more protected against lifes everyday stressors. Gratitude can really help create an environment where negative events such as a financial hiccup or a work stress simply bounce off and dont have the same negative effect, he said.

Think of Coach and Tami Taylor from Friday Night Lights. They were constantly saying, I appreciate that, thanking one another for their respective chores, communicating at length about how theyre feeling and theyre the happiest and most perfect fictional couple in the world!

Gratitude And Your Brain

How Gratitude Changes Your Brain

The reasons why gratitude is so impactful to health and well-being begin in the brain. In a neurological experiment conducted by researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles, brain activity was measured using magnetic resonance imaging as subjects were induced to feel gratitude by receiving gifts. The areas of the brain showing increased activity were the anterior cingulate cortex and medial prefrontal cortexthose associated with moral and social cognition, reward, empathy, and value judgment. This led to the conclusion that the emotion of gratitude supports a positive and supportive attitude toward others and a feeling of relief from stressors.

Gratitude activates the hypothalamus as well, with downstream effects on metabolism, stress, and various behaviors. The hypothalamus is located at the base of the brain and regulates hormones responsible for many critical functions, such as body temperature, emotional responses, and survival functions like appetite and sleep. One of the neurochemicals associated with the parts of the brain affected by gratitude is dopamine, a pleasure hormone.

The positive influence of gratitude on mental health continues past an isolated event if the emotion is relived:

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Ways You Can Practice Gratitude

Its true that lot of research still needs to be done in order for us to truly understand the impact of practicing gratitude. Luckily, doing it is much simpler. Here are some effective ways you can start, according to science:

Keeping a daily gratitude journal: Write down things you are grateful for. Weekly is great, but daily is even better!

Write a thank you note/letter of gratitude: Show someone that you appreciate them. Remember, its helpful even if you dont send it.

Meditate: Mindfulness can help you stay in the moment, helping you focus on and appreciate your present.

Focus on the good: Savor the positive in your life and appreciate good intentions behind kind gestures, like when someone goes out of their way to help you.

The best part is, you can start doing any of them today. Dont wait for a holiday to be thankful for the goodness in your life. As the research shows, a simple daily practice can have long-term benefits and spark positive changes.

While research gives scientific benefits for practicing gratitude, the best reason is always our own well-being. One of the most effective tools for mental health is already within yourself, use it!

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 didnt express it. The benefit to the prefrontal cortex doesnt 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.

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How Gratitude Changes You And Your Brain

New research is starting to explore how gratitude works to improve our mental health.

With the rise of managed health care, which emphasizes cost-efficiency and brevity, mental health professionals have had to confront this burning question: How can they help clients derive the greatest possible benefit from treatment in the shortest amount of time?

Recent evidence suggests that a promising approach is to complement psychological counseling with additional activities that are not too taxing for clients but yield high results. In our own research, we have zeroed in on one such activity: the practice of gratitude. Indeed, many studies over the past decade have found that people who consciously count their blessings tend to be happier and less depressed.

We set out to address these questions in a recent research study involving nearly 300 adults, mostly college students, who were seeking mental health counseling at a university. We recruited these participants just before they began their first session of counseling, and, on average, they reported clinically low levels of mental health at the time. The majority of people seeking counseling services at this university in general struggled with issues related to depression and anxiety. The problem is that most research studies on gratitude have been conducted with college students or other well-functioning people. Is gratitude beneficial for people who struggle with mental health concerns? And, if so, how?

Expressing Gratitude Improves Mental And Physical Health

How Gratitude Changes the Brain

Many gratitude studies use writing as a way for people to express their gratitude. Among 293 people seeking psychotherapy services, those that wrote letters of gratitude reported significantly better mental health than control subjects both four weeks and 12 weeks after writing the letters. And a study of 192 people found that those who expressed gratitude through writing had a more positive outlook on life, experienced fewer symptoms of physical illness, and exercised nearly 1.5 hours more per week than control subjects.

Gratitude seems to be directly protective against stress and depression. A longitudinal study of college students found that those who felt more grateful experienced lower levels of stress and depression. The authors of the study suggest, as do other researchers, that this evidence has implications for clinical interventions in psychotherapy since simple gratitude exercises often result in significant mental health improvements.

Feeling grateful may be a key factor in recovering from traumatic events. Research shows that among people with PTSD, those who express gratitude have higher self-esteem and improved daily functioning. And in studies of Vietnam War veterans and survivors of the September 11th attacks, those who felt that they had a greater appreciation for their life, family, and friends, and were now living life to the full, were better able to recover from the trauma.

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Thanks For More Happiness

Through the act of being grateful, youre able to process and reduce toxic emotions like envy, resentment, frustration, and regret. In doing this, according to gratitude researcher, Robert Emmons youre able to make room for feelings of joy, love, and optimism. He actually found that 10 weeks of writing in a gratitude journal can boost happiness by up to 25%.

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