It feels good to be on the receiving end of small gestures of gratitude. Research is clear that there are at least five ways that gratitude positively affects our brain.
What is gratitude?
The Oxford Dictionary defines gratitude as –
“The quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.”
The origins of gratitude come from the Latin word ‘gratus‘, meaning pleasing or thankful. Many studies have been undertaken to understand the benefits of gratitude and its impacts, and they all conclude that gratitude is vital for human connections.
Psychologists have several different ways to define gratitude, but all agree that gratitude is a positive human emotion that is extremely powerful and often underestimated. The feeling of gratitude creates and maintains social connections and a sense of belonging a fundamental human need.
In the 2004 book by Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough, The Psychology of Gratitude, the authors advise 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”
Robert Emmons, a leading expert on the science of gratitude, a Professor of Psychology at the University of California, and the author of six books and many publications on gratitude, says that –
The five ways that gratitude changes our brain
Despite the feel-good factor and positive mindset associated with gratitude, much research has been undertaken to understand how gratitude positively, practically, and scientifically affects our brains. The Mindfulness Awareness Research Center confirms that gratitude does change the neural structures in the brain and makes us feel happier and more content.
This is good news. Here are just five reasons why we need to practice gratitude for the sake of our brains –
1. Reduces anxiety and depression
Whether you are the giver or receiver, the act of gratitude will reduce anxiety and depression, the individuals who give gratitude show more significant activity in their prefrontal cortex during scans. Many studies have found that writing letters of gratitude (even when they were not posted) can improve our mental health and outlook on life.
2. Regulates our emotions and memory
Gratitude is known to help us undo the effects of negative emotions by lessening the attention that we spend on negative feelings and emotions. According to findings from several studies, the hippocampus and amygdala are stimulated during the act of gratitude. This stimulation helps regulate our emotions and improves our memory, particularly our memory of positive feelings and emotions.
3. Improves sleep
Many studies have investigated the correlation between gratitude and keeping gratitude journals. In all cases, even in studies where participants had impaired life or life-threatening conditions, those who intentionally practiced gratitude and maintained a gratitude journal were found to have better sleep quality and less fatigue. According to the UC Davies Health Medical Centre, gratitude is related to a 10% improvement in sleep quality in patients with chronic pain, 76% of whom had insomnia and 19% lower depression levels.
4. Reduces pain
Following on from the studies carried out on people with life-threatening conditions, due to the practice of gratitude and the positivity that this contributes to one’s life, there is much evidence that these people also experience less pain. This is because gratitude regulates the feel-good hormone dopamine levels and reduces feelings of pain.
5. Increased wellbeing
There is lots of evidence and research on the practice of gratitude. In 2017, Dickens analyzed 38 gratitude studies which concluded that those who practice proactive intentional gratitude interventions have positive benefits regarding their wellbeing.
This positive disposition not only helps with happiness and life satisfaction. It contributes to our self-awareness, increases self-esteem, and reduces self-doubt as we learn how to appreciate and compliment ourselves and remind ourselves to be grateful.
In summary, there is an enormous amount of research on gratitude, and it is evident that intentional gratitude increases our psychological wellbeing and directly benefits our brain health. In the words of Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough –