Your Brain on Gratitude

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Your Brain on Gratitude

Why do so many books and articles implore us to strengthen our gratitude muscles? There’s more to it than the fact expressing thanks is considered to be a polite and kind thing to do—or that we have an entire national holiday dedicated to it. Like meditation, expressing gratitude has been shown to influence our mood, our behavior, and even our brains.

A 2016 study by researchers at Indiana University took a group of 43 people seeking counseling for anxiety or depression and divided them into two groups: both groups attended weekly counseling sessions for three months. One group was told to spend 20 minutes writing a letter of thanks to a person of their choice during the first three sessions (and then never again), the other had only standard counseling sessions with no thank-you notes required.

Those 60 minutes (total) of writing down their thoughts of gratitude had a significant impact on the feelings, behaviors, and even the brains of the first group, and the benefits were long-lasting. Months after the counseling sessions ended, members of the letter-writing group reported greater feelings of gratefulness than the other group—they also showed more activity in sections of the brain that are associated with being able to anticipate the effect one’s own actions have on others. These findings suggest it doesn’t take a lot of focus on gratitude to make long-lasting changes in how your brain works, and to make it more likely you’ll mentally find your way to gratitude more easily in the future.

Gratitude Can Make You a Better Person…

A 2006 study published in the journal Psychological Science also found that feeling gratitude makes it more likely that you will help someone else, and go to greater lengths to do so. And a 2011 University of Kentucky study found that gratitude also works to reduce negative behavior toward others—participants who reported higher feelings of gratitude in general were less likely to respond negatively when in the face of criticism and to feel more empathy to those who were giving the negative feedback.

…Who Is Also More Resilient

And these benefits aren’t just applicable when things are going swimmingly: gratitude has also been shown to provide important benefits to people who are recovering from traumatic situations. A 2006 study found that veterans who were more likely to feel gratitude for daily occurrences also reported having more good days, motivation, and self-esteem whether or not they had PTSD.

Making Gratitude a Daily Habit

I know what you’re thinking: How can I possibly make space for one more thing in my daily schedule? I’m already trying to do too many things.

The good news about gratitude is that you don’t have to dedicate 20 minutes a week to writing a formal letter of gratitude, like the participants in the University of Indiana study. The key is to tie your gratitude practice to something you’re already doing every day. List the things you’re grateful for in your journal or planner as you plan your workday each morning; share it at the dinner table or during bedtime with the kids; or repeat it to yourself as you lie in bed at night. By tying it to something that you’re accustomed to doing every day, you make it more likely that you’ll actually succeed—and you won’t have to struggle with any mental resistance to adding something else to your to-do list.

Gratitude on Steroids

And to take your gratitude benefits to another level, challenge yourself to give thanks for the things that didn’t seem to work out so well, too—the slip on black ice that resulted in a broken ankle (be thankful it wasn’t a worse injury), the leak that sprung in your roof just as you had finally gotten a little extra money in your savings account (be thankful you had the funds to cover it), the client who raised a ruckus after receiving bad customer service (be thankful you identified a glitch in the system).

Devoting even a little attention to the things you’re thankful for will train your brain to find more and more things to appreciate. And because it’s a universal truth (although not scientifically proven—yet) that what you put out you tend to get back, you’ll probably notice a little more gratitude coming right back your way, too.

Kate Hanley is the author of How to Be a Better Person and a personal development coach. She lives in Providence, RI with her husband, two kids, and a rescue dog named Cookie.

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