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:
- 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
- Higher levels of positive emotions
- More alert, alive, and awake
- More joy and pleasure
- More optimism and happiness
- 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 tiny ways to cultivate gratitude on a regular basis.
- Write a thank you note (or even a quick thank-you text)
- Thank someone mentally – (you could do this right now)
- Keep a gratitude journal – even if you only do it for a few days or write a few words each day
- Count your blessings – consider finding a way to put it in your daily routine
“Gratitude is when memory is stored in the heart and not in the mind.” – Lionel Hampton
3 steps to becoming more grateful
When life is difficult and stress levels are through the roof, it might seem hard to feel gratitude. But if you think about it, we all have something to be grateful for. When you have a moment to reflect, try to think about what is most positive in your life and give thanks. Here are three easy ways to put yourself in the mindfulness of gratitude.
- Keep a journal of things you are grateful for – list at least three. The best times for writing in your journal are as your day begins or before sleep.
- Make it a point to tell people in your life what you appreciate about them.
- When you look in the mirror, give yourself a moment to think about a quality you like about yourself or something you have recently accomplished.
Through the practice of gratitude, you can teach your brain to be more optimistic and compassionate. The more you look, the more you can find to be grateful for. This positivity can extend to those around you, creating a delightfully positive cycle.
Source: Neuro Health Associates
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