Gratitude has lasting effects on the brain: The neuropsychology of giving thanks

Recent evidence suggests that a promising approach is to complement psychological counseling and treatment with additional activities that are not too taxing for clients, but yield high results. Research has zeroed in on one such activity: the practice of gratitude. Indeed, many studies over the past decade have found that people who consciously count their blessings on a regular basis tend to be happier and less depressed. I often have my patients write a daily list of three things that they are grateful for. It increases mindfulness, and the emerging research indicates that it’s an adjunct treatment for depression.

A conundrum is that most research studies on gratitude have been conducted with well-functioning people, not those who have clinical levels of distress. A landmark study from the University of California at Berkeley studied individuals with a high degree of distress to see if active practice of gratitude would make a difference in their mental health. After three months of mental health treatment, during which patients wrote gratitude letters or journals, participants were compared with those who didn’t do any writing. The researchers wanted to know if grateful brains were processing information differently.

An MRI was used to measure brain activity people from each group. Those with a gratitude practice showed significantly elevated activity in the ‘pleasure centers’ of the brain, which are affected by the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine.

This is the summary of my research on gratitude:

Gratitude improves health
Gratitude impacts on mental and physical well-being. Positive psychology and mental health researchers in the past few decades have established a significant connection between gratitude and good health. Keeping a gratitude journal reduces stress, improves the quality of sleep, and builds emotional awareness (a great study to read on this is Seligman, Steen, Park and Peterson, 2005).

Gratitude builds professional commitment
Grateful workers are more efficient, more productive and more responsible. Expressing gratitude in the workplace is a proactive action toward building interpersonal bonds and trigger feelings of closeness and bonding (see Algoe, 2012). Gratitude is positively correlated to more vitality, energy, and enthusiasm to work harder.

Employees who practice expressing gratitude at work are more likely to volunteer for more tasks, willing to take an extra step to accomplish their tasks, and happily work as a part of the team. Also, managers and supervisors who feel grateful and remember to convey the same, have a stronger group cohesiveness and better productivity. They recognize good work, gives everyone their due importance in the group and actively communicates with the team members.

The Neuroscientific Research Into Gratitude
Gratitude was significant in ancient philosophies and cultures, for example, in ancient Roman writings, where Cicero mentioned gratitude as the ‘mother’ of all human feelings. As an area of neuropsychological research, however, it was a rare subject of concern until the last two decades.

Gratitude And The Brain
Neural mechanisms that are responsible for feelings of gratitude have grabbed attention. Studies have demonstrated that at the brain level, personal judgments involving feelings of gratefulness are evoked in the right anterior temporal cortex (see Zahn et al. 2008, 2014). In the same study, it was revealed that the reason why some of us are naturally more grateful than others, is the neurochemical differences at the Central Nervous System (CNS). In other words, there is an increase in availability of both dopamine and serotonin, which are pleasure neurotransmitters, when we experience gratitude. People who express and feel gratitude have also a higher volume of grey matter in the right inferior temporal gyrus. Gratitude makes us sharper, and possibly brighter.

While the research shows a clear benefit of gratitude, it also makes a clear distinction. Realizing that other people are worse off than you is NOT gratitude. Gratitude requires an appreciation of the positive aspects of your own situation. It is not a comparison. You actually have to show appreciation for what you have, for it to have an effect.

Gratitude improves mental health. That is a daily Thanksgiving.

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