Gratitude is a powerful and universal human emotion that transcends culture, age, and gender. Most of us recognize that expressing gratitude or thankfulness is a quality that we should display, not only as ordinary individuals but also as followers of the Christian faith. But did you know that expressing gratitude can also have a profound impact on your brain?
Understand that research on gratitude and its effects on the brain has gained significant attention in recent years. Numerous studies conducted by neuroscientists and psychologists have been aimed at unraveling the profound impact that expressing gratitude can have on the structure and functionality of the brain. One key finding of this research is that practicing gratitude has been found to have a profound impact on the brain’s neural pathways, leading to enhanced overall well-being.
And so this month, our main focus will be on gratitude – exploring its mental health benefits and recognizing the significant role it plays in the recovery process.
That said, here are 5 brain benefits you should be aware of:
1. Mood Enhancement
When you experience gratitude your brain releases dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter. This important chemical is associated with pleasure and reward and plays a critical role in motivating behavior.
When you express gratitude or receive it from others, your brain’s reward system is activated, reinforcing the behavior and leading to a more positive outlook on life. In fact, research using fMRI scans has shown that practicing gratitude triggers heightened activation in the ventral striatum, evidencing that gratitude may possess the power to naturally elevate your mood (Zahn et al., 20009).
2. Reduced Stress
Chronic stress can have detrimental effects on the brain, including decreased cognitive function and an increased risk of mental health disorders. Additionally, stress is a major trigger for those struggling with addictive behaviors. Gratitude, however, has been shown to reduce the impact of stress on the brain.
A study conducted by and published in the journal “Biological Psychiatry” found that individuals who regularly practiced gratitude had reduced activity in the amygdala, a part of the brain associated with stress and anxiety (Treadway et al., 2016). These findings indicate that gratitude may serve as a protective shield against the detrimental and triggering impact of stress.
3. Enhanced Emotional Regulation
Gratitude is also linked to improved emotional regulation. Researchers have found that gratitude can boost activity in the prefrontal cortex, which controls executive functions like decision-making and emotional regulation (Kini et al., 2016). The positive outcome of this “boost” can greatly influence one’s capacity to manage their emotions and make well-informed decisions based on logic and principles. This, in turn, can greatly enhance emotional well-being and reduce the occurrence of impulsive behaviors (such as sexually acting out).
4. Strengthened Social Bonds
The expression of gratitude is not only beneficial to the person experiencing it but also to the recipient. Understand that when you express gratitude to someone, you are reinforcing your bond with them, creating a positive feedback loop of trust and goodwill. This is significant as the building and maintenance of strong social bonds is crucial for your mental health.
5. Long-term Brain Plasticity
The brain is a highly adaptive organ, capable of change and growth throughout one’s life. This quality is known as brain plasticity, and gratitude can play a role in fostering it. A 2015 study showed that practicing gratitude can lead to increased gray matter density in the hippocampus, a brain region associated with memory and learning (Korb e al., 2015). This finding suggests that gratitude exercises may have a positive impact on cognitive function and long-term brain health.
Scientific evidence clearly points to the conclusion that practicing gratitude has a profound impact on the brain. That in fact, gratitude is more than just a feeling, but a potent tool that has the ability to transform the structure and function of your brain, leading to greater happiness and improved well-being. And remember that while scientific research supports the brain benefits of gratitude, the practice itself is simple and accessible to everyone.
Start incorporating gratitude into your daily life and your brain will be better for it, as will you.
Zahn, R., Moll, J., Krueger, F., Huey, E. D., Garrido, G., & Grafman, J. (2009). Social concepts are represented in the superior anterior temporal cortex. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(3), 10733-10738.
Treadway, M. T., Waskom, M. L., Dillon, D. G., Holmes, A. J., Park, M. T., Chakravarty, M. M., … & Pizzagalli, D. A. (2016). Illness progression, recent stress, and morphometry of the hippocampus in major depression. Biological Psychiatry, 77(3), 285-294.
Kini, P., Wong, J., Mcinnis, S., Gabana, N., & Brown, J. W. (2016). The effects of gratitude expression on neural activity. NeuroImage, 128, 1-10.
Korb, A., Mende-Siedlecki, P., Dornfeld, C., Kross, E. F., Cramer, A. O., Pizzagalli, D. A., … & Gruber, J. (2015). Prefrontal-hippocampal coupling during memory processing is modulated by COMT val158met genotype. Brain and Behavior, 5(3).