The Biology of Gratitude

The Biology of Gratitude

As the Thanksgiving holiday approaches, I thought it appropriate to focus this month’s article on the power of Gratitude – what it is, how it affects our health and how to foster more of it. I chose this topic because I have personally experienced the incredible health and mental benefits of gratitude.

You may be sitting there thinking, “Gratitude is about giving thanks”, but really, there’s more to it. According to Psychology Today, “Gratitude is the expression of appreciation for what one has. It is a recognition of value independent of monetary worth.” Notice the key phrase, “appreciation for what one has”? That’s because true gratitude is about what already is. It helps us center on the here and now.

The Biology of Gratitude

Studies show that the experience and expression of gratitude directly affect our brain. At a neurobiological level, when we express gratitude and receive the same, our brain releases dopamine and serotonin, the two crucial neurotransmitters responsible for our “feel good” emotions.1 Brain scans of people assigned a task that stimulates expression of gratitude show lasting changes in the prefrontal cortex that heighten sensitivity to future experiences of gratitude.2 Our brains cannot focus on positive and negative information at the same time, which may explain how practicing gratitude helps to curb negative thoughts and emotions.

While the effects of practicing gratitude are not always immediate, we can work to train our brains to attend to positive emotions to help reduce anxiety and fear.

How can you foster more gratitude?

  • Start by appreciating yourself. This can be hard to do especially when you’re feeling low, so sometimes it’s good to just acknowledge that you’re doing the best you can given your circumstances. I recently saw a Facebook post that read, “I am so proud of my past self. She kept going. She believed in me. She did her best to get me here,”3 and it instantly helped to snap me out of the negative mindset I was in.
  • Take time out to focus on the good by keeping a gratitude journal. This one usually makes people’s eyes roll, but I’m not asking you to write a novel or long diary passage. Just take a few minutes to note some of the big and little joys experienced that day. Even small things matter. Not feeling so joyous? Take a few minutes to read through previous entries and recollect the good things that happened to you in the past.
  • Did your parents make you write thank-you notes? Mine did (and I still do.) Turns out, writing thank-you notes to others is a great way to experience and express gratitude. Not a writer? Take some time to think about people who have inspired you. What is it about them that you find inspirational?
  • Engage in “mental subtraction” by taking the time to imagine what your life would be like if a particular positive event hadn’t occurred.
  • Find a gratitude buddy. Joy is multiplied when shared with others. And for those days when you’re having a hard time finding the positive, surround yourself with others who inherently focus on the good to help you reframe your brain.

References:

  1. https://positivepsychology.com/neuroscience-of-gratitude/
  2. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/gratitude
  3. @bossbabecorner

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