The science of gratitude

The tangible and intangible health benefits of thankfulness

Gratitude is more than just feeling appreciative or saying thanks. Neuroscientists have found that feeling genuinely thankful can help you be happier and healthier. According to Neuro Health Associates, “The practice of expressing gratitude is not a New Age fad. It’s a facet of the human condition that reaps true benefits to those who mean it.”

Researchers have used MRI to study how the brain responds to gratitude. In situations designed to create feelings of gratitude, they noted increased brain activity in the areas associated with social perception, morals, and fairness. The regions linked with reward, empathy, and value judgment were also more active. They speculate that practicing gratitude activates the brain in ways that are also associated with lower stress, lower levels of pain, and greater empathy for others.

Psychologist Robert Emmons, a gratitude researcher, says practicing thankfulness – even for a short time – can reduce negative emotions ranging from envy and resentment to frustration and regret.

Emmons has conducted studies on the link between gratitude and well-being. Research continues to evolve to uncover the links between gratitude and its ability to increase happiness and even its potential for lowering depression. “We’ve studied more than 1,000 people, ages eight to 80. People who practice gratitude consistently report a host of benefits,” writes Emmons in Greater Good Magazine. Those include:

Physical benefits:

  • Stronger immune systems
  • Less bothered by aches and pains
  • Lower blood pressure
  • More frequent exercise and improved health
  • Better sleep, and feeling more refreshed upon waking

Psychological benefits:

  • Higher levels of positive emotions
  • More alert, alive, and awake
  • More joy and pleasure
  • More optimism and happiness

Social benefits:

  • More helpful, generous, and compassionate
  • More forgiving
  • More outgoing
  • Fewer feelings of loneliness and isolation

“The social benefits are especially significant,” says Emmons. “After all, gratitude is a social emotion.” Gratitude can strengthen our relationships, too. It allows us to see how we support and affirm one another.

Gratitude helps us refocus on the positive and keep a more balanced perspective. “We affirm that there are good things in the world … gifts and benefits we’ve received,” says Emmons. This doesn’t negate life’s trials and challenges. “But when we look at life as a whole, gratitude encourages us to identify some amount of goodness in our life.”

Gratitude also helps us think about others and acknowledge where goodness comes from. “We can appreciate positive traits in ourselves. But true gratitude involves a humble dependence on others,” says Emmons. “Other people – or even higher powers, if you’re of a spiritual mindset – give us many gifts.” Large or small, these gifts help us achieve goodness in our lives.

Emmons, author of “The Little Gratitude Book,” says gratitude begins with affirming the good and recognizing its sources. “It is the understanding that life owes me nothing and all the good I have is a gift.” We become even more thankful when we take nothing for granted.

Feeling grateful is a positive emotion that can be developed with practice. Even if saying what you’re thankful for feels a little awkward at first, research shows that gratitude is a mental state that strengthens with use and practice. From Harvard Health and adapted by our behavior team, here are four