How Cultivating Gratitude Improves Your Brain
Written by Sean Cashen, who is a former Nuclear Reactor Operator for the U.S. Navy and Current Managerial Economics student.
It’s no secret that expressing gratitude for the blessings you have makes you happier and eases stress. Even before science and psychology were widely studied, people had some idea of the positive benefits of being thankful. The practice of religious men and women expressing thanks and praise to their higher powers through prayer dates back thousands of years.
Today psychologists and researchers understand that gratitude has a profound influence on your overall mental health, and, more recently, have discovered that it may play an even larger role in a person’s physical health than previously thought. Expressing gratitude, in the short term, is an excellent way to destress and put yourself in a better mood. The benefits of being grateful can, however, be even more powerful, as several researchers have noted.
A 2015 study conducted at Indiana University tested 43 subjects who had been undergoing counseling for anxiety or depression. Half of the subjects were asked to write letters of thankfulness or gratitude as part of their therapy, and the other half continued treatment as normal. The subjects’ brains were periodically scanned to observe any changes in brain activity regions between the two groups. At the end of the 3-month study, subjects received various sums of money, to which they were then asked to donate a portion to charitable causes.
The findings were that, “subjects who participated in gratitude letter writing showed both behavioral increases in gratitude and significantly greater neural modulation by gratitude in the medial prefrontal cortex three months later” (Kini et al, 2015). Additionally, subjects from both groups who had donated larger portions of their gifts to charity reported noticeable changes in overall demeanor during the follow-up. Because of this one act of charity and compassion, they were, in many cases, significantly happier and had better overall life outlooks as much as 3 months later.
This study was able to successfully document the physical changes in brain activity that occur when consistently expressing gratitude, and joins a number of other studies in confirming the positive effects that being grateful can have on your life. The study noted increased positive brain activity in and around subjects’ hypothalamus, which you should recognize as the area of your brain that controls most of your body functions such as sleep, metabolism, and stress levels. A direct correlation between gratitude and increased dopamine production was also found.
Indeed, a remarkable correlation has been noted between increased levels of gratitude and better sleep (Ng et al, 2012). In a study on patients with chronic pain, researchers discovered that subjects who were made to perform gratitude journals had lower levels of depression and anxiety, and better overall sleep. To see if the mental health benefits were due to better sleep or practicing gratitude, they then tested subjects by limiting sleep. Overall, gratitude was found to have a huge effect on overall mental health, showing direct benefits for depression, and indirect benefits for anxiety by combatting insomnia. The better sleep also helped with the chronic pain in several cases.
If you are looking for a happier more joyful life, it might not be a horrible idea to look around and give thanks for what you already have. Tell your loved ones how much they mean to you. A little optimism can do wonders for your demeanor. Professionals also suggest keeping a daily gratitude diary, which often result in remarkably optimistic mannerism and behavior changes in a period of only a few weeks.
Kini, Prathik et al “The Effects of Gratitude Expression on Neural Activity.” NeuroImage. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2015. Web. 13 Jan. 2017. <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26746580>.
Ng et al “The Differential Effects of Gratitude and Sleep on Psychological Distress in Patients with Cheonic Pain.” Journal of Health Psychology. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2012. Web. 13 Jan. 2017. <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22412082>.