Gratitude can often feel like a magical force, imbuing life with mystical properties that make you happier, healthier and more carefree. While there have been many scientific studies on the benefits of gratitude, until lately, hardly any of them examine the effects of gratitude on the brain. But recently, in two separate studies, neuroscientists have uncovered how gratitude modifies brain activity, shedding light on why being grateful can lead to happiness and wellbeing.
According to the two studies, feeling grateful activates the brain stem region that boosts the feel-good hormones dopamine and serotonin, much like antidepressant drugs do. Additionally, gratitude toward others increases activity in certain circuits of the brain, which makes social interactions more enjoyable.
Gratitude and Social Interaction
Even when you feel like there’s nothing to be grateful for, just remembering to be grateful has scientifically proven to be a form of emotional intelligence. One study, conducted at the Brain and Creativity Institute and the Dornsife Cognitive Neuroimaging Center at USC, used real-life stories taken from the vast archives of the USC Shoah Foundation from Holocaust survivors who expressed gratitude for the gifts of help they received during their time in captivity (e.g., being provided with a place to hide or a fellow prisoner sharing a piece of bread) to assess gratitude’s influence on the brain.
Participants were asked to imagine themselves in similar scenarios within the context of the Holocaust and rate their feelings of gratitude while undergoing a functional MRI scan to reveal their brain activity. Reflecting on these situations caused increased activity in several key brain regions that are responsible for stress-relief, subjective value judgments, fairness and economic decision-making. The researchers also found that gratitude overlapped with morality, social reward and interpersonal bonding.
These brain changes also show why gratitude helps us feel more connected to, and supported by, others. Since humans are social animals, if we’re feeling disconnected or isolated, the effects can be devastating. Fortunately, gratitude can actually alter the brain circuits responsible for social interactions and help us feel more connected. So the next time you feel like there aren’t enough people who care about you, take a moment to reflect on the small things people have done for you throughout the day or week, even if it was just a smile or holding open a door for you. Even tiny bits of gratitude can help you feel closer and more connected to the people around you.
Expressing Gratitude Can Also Change Your Brain
You don’t have to actually feel grateful in order to receive gratitude’s benefits; the simple act of expressing gratitude can have many positive effects on your brain—and your life. While the USC study mentioned above focused on the feelings of gratitude, a different study, titled “The Effects of Gratitude Expression on Neural Activity,” conducted at Indiana University, focused on its expressions.
This study took people with anxiety and depression and put them through three months of psychotherapy. Half of the subjects were asked to write letters expressing gratitude. They weren’t required to send the letters; they just had to write them for 20 minutes on three separate occasions. The other half just went through psychotherapy as usual.
After three months of therapy, participants underwent brain scans during which they received money to “pay it forward” to good causes. The letter-writers were more generous and had significant increases in their feelings of gratitude. This suggests that gratitude isn’t just helpful to your mental health, but it’s also a feedback loop: the more you express gratitude, the easier it is to feel grateful.
Gratitude’s Ripple Effect
These two studies show that gratitude causes measurable changes in key regions in the brain that are responsible for connecting with others, optimism, stress-relief and fairness. These effects can be both immediate and long-lasting.
Everything is interconnected. Gratitude improves sleep, which reduces pain, which improves your mood. Improved mood reduces anxiety, which improves focus and planning, which helps with decision making, which further reduces anxiety and improves enjoyment. Enjoyment gives you more to be grateful for, which keeps that loop of the upward spiral going and makes it more likely you’ll exercise and be social, which, in turn, will make you happier.
Different regions of the brain are like different muscles, so the more you use them, the stronger they get. The next time you’re feeling down, anxious or out of sorts, take a few minutes to write a thank-you letter to someone you appreciate. To gain greater access to happiness, take a moment each day to reflect on what you’re grateful for. Or just do something nice for someone to pay it forward. Use gratitude to strengthen your brain, and you’ll soon have even more to be grateful for.