How Gratitude Changes Our Brains

Two women sit at a kitchen table and smile at each other

If you've delved into the self-improvement space or law of attraction...

You've probably heard successful people and life coaches swearing by how gratitude has changed their lives and allowed them to attract the things they want to manifest.

It turns out it isn’t just a woo-woo thing. There’s a science behind it. Learn more about gratitude and its effects on the brain.

The science behind gratitude

The benefits of gratitude in the brain aren't based solely on claims. They have scientific evidence. You'll be surprised to know how a simple expression of appreciation for someone who opened the door for you at a cafe can activate areas of your brain and make you feel happier.

One study examined the association between gratitude and the medial prefrontal cortex's regional gray and white matter volume. The medial prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain responsible for executive functions, such as cognition, working memory and learning. It's also linked with sociability or social thinking, which is a significant factor in emotional processing. 

The amygdala is widely known as the emotional hub, as it is in charge of processing feelings. However, the medial prefrontal cortex encodes the importance of situations affecting how you regulate your emotional responses. For instance, it rates being late to work a 3 since it’s a minor problem and a family emergency 10, which is a crisis.

Brain imaging techniques showed that gratitude was associated with smaller regional gray and white matter volume in the medial prefrontal cortex. These changes were linked to how satisfied people are in their lives. 

How gratitude changes our brains

Gratitude trains your brain to perceive things through a more hopeful lens. Here are ways it can change people.

Gratitude makes people more optimistic

Study participants were asked to write a few sentences weekly, depending on the topic given. Researchers requested the first group to write about what they're thankful for every week. The second group was told to write about things they found irritating or displeasing, while the last group wrote about events that affected them neither positively nor negatively.

After 10 weeks, the first group who wrote about what they're grateful for were more optimistic about their lives. They were also more active and had fewer physician visits than those focused on irritations.

Gratitude reduces stress and negative emotions

Another study on gratitude and its effects on the brain touched on its impact on stress and negative emotions during the pandemic. Researchers divided the participants into three groups — the gratitude writing, expressive writing and control group. 

Here are the findings of the study after the one-month intervention:

  • The gratitude writing group sustained levels of gratitude and reduced stress and negative emotions. 
  • The expressive writing group or those who wrote about what they feel — not particularly related to gratitude — showed decreased gratitude and no changes in stress or negative emotional state.
  • The control group had decreased gratitude and negative affect but no changes in stress. 

Researchers concluded gratitude can buffer the adverse psychological outcomes associated with a stressful situation.

Gratitude increases resilience

Another study demonstrating how gratitude changes our brains evaluated adaptive responses during a crisis. Researchers found people who practiced gratitude were more likely to follow virus-prevention measures to protect themselves, even if these could disrupt their daily lives. Those who were grateful also tended to see meaningful benefits in the crisis. 

It also strongly predicted how well people adapted to the pandemic. Findings conclude gratitude promotes positive feelings that impact resilience in coping with adversities.

Impact of gratitude on daily life

There's a reason why "thank you" is a magic word. Saying it makes the other person happy, and you'll also share positive feelings with them. Here is why you should express it more.

  • Increases your happiness: Saying you’re grateful for having a roof over your head or food to eat fires up the two happy hormones in your brain — dopamine and serotonin. They make you feel lighter, happier and less stressed

  • Eliminates toxic emotions: No two emotions can exist at the same time. You can’t be happy and sad simultaneously. When you feel grateful, you deprive negative emotions like stress and anxiety from occupying a space in your life. 

  • Improves productivity and performance: Surprisingly, gratitude can also make you more productive. It's a trait associated with kindness that helps foster a positive organizational culture. When people in the workplace treat each other kindly and respectfully, it boosts teamwork and productivity.

  • Promotes a better quality of life: It's linked to higher life satisfaction. Being appreciative will make an ordinary day extra special and more meaningful. This change in perspective can increase your quality of life. 

Cultivating a gratitude practice

How do you effectively inject gratitude into your life? Here are several ways to foster it habitually and increase happiness in your life.

1. Eat healthy foods

You might have never expected this — but foods can influence your emotional state and overall health. A recent study found eating fried foods is strongly associated with an increased risk of anxiety and depression in men and younger people. Eating them can cause brain inflammation and metabolism disturbance. 

It's impossible to feel grateful when you're in a depressive mood, so eat wholesome foods. Fresh fruits and greens will give you energy and improve your mood. Consuming seafood rich in omega-3 fatty acids at least twice a week is good for your brain and heart and lowers the incidence of depression.

2. Keep a gratitude journal

You'll hear self-help experts suggesting others write about what they're grateful for as soon as they wake up. They do this to set their focus for the day. As they say, "what you focus on expands." When you deliberately pay attention to the good things instead of problems, you reinforce positive emotions and attitudes, inviting joy into your life.

Spend a few minutes daily to think and write down the favorable things that happened to you. Perhaps you got promoted or a kind neighbor gave you lunch. By creating physical evidence of these blessings through ink and paper, you can slowly establish the habit of gratitude.

3. Do self-inquiry meditation

Sitting in silence with nothing but your thoughts in company will force you to introspect. Ask yourself this question, "How am I feeling today?" If great, think of the circumstances in your life that contribute to this motivating feeling. Otherwise, enumerate the reasons and brainstorm ways to shift your focus to optimism. It may be hard to do this at first, but you'll get better with practice. After all, cultivating gratitude is an ability anyone can learn and develop. 

4. Watch your language

Grateful people use positive language all the time. Instead of "I can't do it," saying "I'll do my best" gives a more optimistic undertone to the response. 

Rather than pointing out how careless someone is when they overlook something in their projects, use a "compliment sandwich" where you say something nice first, give the criticism and then close with another compliment. 

You can say, "I'm always impressed with your dedication and growth since you joined the team. By the way, I was reviewing the report and this part doesn't connect well with the behavioral trend in the introduction. Can we revise this section and implement changes A, B and C? I appreciate your effort in working with this client. Keep up the good work."

Choosing positive language improves your perception of yourself, others and your environment. You become a role model to your kids and the younger people around you. You influence the culture in your workplace and inspire others to think, do and adopt positive qualities in their lives.

Gratitude can improve your quality of life

Gratitude and its effects on the brain are profound. It’s also a contagious trait. By fostering appreciation, you can attract more positive people, inspire others to do the same and improve your quality of life. 

Implement a gratitude practice for self-improvement by keeping a journal, using positive language, delving into meditation and eating nutritious foods. Remember to say the magic word often and watch your life change for the better.


Today's post is a guest post from Beth Rush. 

Beth Rush is the Managing Editor at Body+Mind. She is a well-respected writer in the personal wellness space and shares knowledge on various topics related to mental health, self-improvement, and holistic health. In her spare time, Beth enjoys cooking and trying out new fitness trends. Connect with her on Twitter @bodymindmag.

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