Why is Gratitude Good for You?
Gratitude is associated with all sorts of positive emotions and we generally regard it as a good thing, but do you actually know how a “thank you” creates neurological change? Maybe you’ve already tried to cultivate daily habits of gratitude because you heard it was a healthy habit. Only, it didn’t stick. Or, you just want to know more to better practice it. Either way, once you understand how the effects work, it may give you a better chance in making that permanent transformation you’ve been needing. There is a lot of science on gratitude and its promotion for better mental well-being. Below, I will explain the shifts created through neurological changes when we give thanks to others.
The Neuroscience that Cultivates Positivity
How does gratitude work with our mental and physical wellness? In 2015, Indiana University conducted a study on how gratitude alters neural activity in the brain for people with anxiety and depression. Results showed that gratitude exercises activated neural pathways of the brain correlated to empathy and had a significant impact on the neuromodulation of the medial prefrontal cortex area. ‘Neuromodulation’ is the alteration of cellular and synaptic properties of neurons that allow change in neurotransmissions. Unlike individual neurons, neuromodulators have the power to affect entire brain regions.
Giving thanks is considered a non-medical “anti-depressant” to some because it naturally affects our mood. The following parts of the brain have measurable changes when we switch into gratitude mode:
An Increase in Dopamine & Serotonin
Dopamine is the feel-good neurochemical in our brain that makes us feel pleasure. It’s responsible for our feeling of happiness, optimism, motivation, focus, and alertness. On the other hand, serotonin is considered the harmonizing ‘mood stabilizer’ in our brain that regulates our anxiety and mood. People with depression tend to lack in serotonin. An increase in both dopamine and serotonin, which are known as our ‘happy chemicals’, leads to happiness, better memory, and better sleep.
Activation of the Prefrontal Cortex
Scientists have found that the medial prefrontal cortex is vital in feeling empathy towards others. This region of the brain is a processing hub that evaluates risk and rewards. It connects to the deeper parts of our brain that produce kicks of pleasurable neurochemicals under the right circumstances. The ventral and medial regions of the prefrontal cortex abstractly represent the brain area that helps with social processing, complex reasoning, and how we represent ourselves. Several MRI studies show that continual practice in acts of gratitude activates this ventromedial prefrontal cortex. This part is known to function when we relieve pain, nurture empathy, show prosocial behaviors, and feel satisfaction in life.
Activation of the Hypothalamus
In studies, subjects who showed more gratitude overall had high activity in the hypothalamus. While the hypothalamus is a very small part of the brain in size, it controls essential bodily functions. This includes control in appetite, body temperature regulation, sleep cycles, hormones, and emotional response. It also influences our metabolism and stress levels. Appreciative thoughts can trigger ‘good’ hormones and positively affect the immune system. High activity in the hypothalamus leads to many improvements in the physical benefits of gratitude, such as better heart rate, blood pressure, and sleep.
Resilience to Stress & Pain
Gratitude can enhance the good in our lives, but what about the bad? Remarkably, gratitude makes us more resilient to stress and pain, helping us cope with difficulties in our life. This seems to be accompanied by the aforementioned neurological shift that occurs when our minds enter a positive state.
Multiple studies indicate that gratitude helps with mental health. This includes; decrease in suicidal thoughts, resilience to traumatic events, stronger coping strategies towards stress, protection from burnouts, and an increase in self-esteem. Conscious practice in gratitude can build a strong and healthy psychological mentality that can soften the hardship when it hits. In fact, life crises can also in-turn make us a more grateful person too. Remembering the bad times, how you endured and survived a situation, and comparing it to where you are in life now, can aid as a means to enhance your sense of gratitude and happiness. Looking at past negative memories from the perspective of growth and gratitude can help us through our next upcoming challenges in life.
Stronger Bonds & Community
As mentioned above, when our ventromedial prefrontal cortex is activated through gratitude, altruism (the selfless concern for other people’s well-being over yourself), and empathy grow. Simply feeling grateful, empathetically understanding other perspectives, recognizing the beauty in social interactions, and giving more to people can naturally create better relationships. Data also suggest that expressing gratitude lights up our “mu-opioid” (a receptor that triggers our brain’s reward system), which is the same part that activates during close interpersonal touch and relief from pain. In other words, feeling grateful towards others creates a more relaxed, stress-free environment for us and the capacity to bond with others.
Research indicates giving thanks can create positive influences on relationships too. Some studies show that one’s grateful attitude towards a person directly correlates with the strength of the relationship and feeling of integration. The attitude of giving and focusing on others makes a person more desirable to spend time with and promotes socially inclusive behaviors. For the same reason, long-term relationships, both in friendship and partnership, expressed feeling more connected and satisfied with each other when an attitude of gratitude was present.
It Takes Time but has Lasting Effects
Yes, a simple act of giving thanks can make a significant impact on our happiness, health, resilience, and relationships. We can make this change a lasting one too! A repeated focus on gratitude can alter how we experience the world and create a shift towards a more positive trajectory. The more you activate the feeling of gratitude, the stronger the neural pathways become.
Prevailing brain change requires the continual exercise of gratitude too, just like muscle activities take time to create a physical change. In a 2016 study, a group of scientists asked participants to write a thank you letter each week for three weeks. In the beginning, the results did not emerge immediately. However, over time participants started to report significantly better mental health. According to their MRI scans, the feeling lasted for up to 3 months after their writing exercise ended. Scientists mention this find was significant because most other positive activities have not had such lasting effects on mental health.
Practicing gratitude can help train our brain to be more sensitive to the experience of gratitude and eventually improve our overall mental well-being over time.
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