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This Is Your Brain On Gratitude

The neuroscience and psychology of gratitude show that cultivating gratitude, even in small doses, can do wonders for your mental health. Here's how gratitude works, and some simple tips for sprinkling more nourishing gratitude into your daily life.

By
Jade Wu, PhD
6-minute read
Episode #332
The Quick And Dirty

It can be hard to feel grateful during tough times, but research shows that the small act of gratitude can make your body more calm, your brain regions more in sync with one another, and your mental health stronger. You can intentionally cultivate gratitude by starting a gratitude journal (for all things big and small), writing thank-you notes, and giving others credit for helping you, even if they did so accidentally.

I realized the other day that I haven’t watched Jimmy Fallon’s Thank You Notes segment in a long time. In this Friday bit, he writes quick thank-you cards to random things like the Zoom cat lawyer, curbside pickup, Airpods, and open-back hospital gowns. It’s hilarious!

And you know what? Jimmy might be doing this as a joke, but there’s actually a lot of neuroscience and psychology research saying that you should do it, too.

I know these days it can be hard to find things to be grateful for. It seems that when crises and tragedies happen, they pile on in never-ending layers. When it rains, it pours. (Or when it snows, it incapacitates much of the southern U.S.) Between extreme winter storms, vaccine anxieties, COVID-parenting, employment uncertainties, not to mention ongoing, entrenched systematic racism showing its cards everywhere, many of us are feeling down and exhausted.

But today, I want to take a leaf from Jimmy Fallon’s book—it’s time to write some thank-you notes!

Let's put gratitude in writing

Yes, I do mean literally sitting down and putting some grateful statements in writing instead of waiting for a grateful feeling to arrive. That’s because, when your brain is busy putting out fires all day, gratitude doesn’t always get the attention it deserves. During stressful times, your mental space can look like a big dreary landscape even though there are good things under the surface just waiting to be recognized.

Gratitude is not just a feeling that happens to us; it’s an activity in the brain.

So, let’s do put some gratitude in writing together for just a moment. Fill in the blank: Thank you, [insert thing], for being wonderful.

You can fill that blank with anything, however big or small. You might be grateful for a loved one’s health, the roof over your head, the coffee brewing in the pot, your dog’s sweet puppy eyes, a never-ending supply of fascinating podcasts, or the coworker who complimented your DIY haircut during your Zoom meeting last week.

Now, take a slow breath, and then read the gratitude statement. Really let yourself feel the gratefulness.

Guess what? This little moment of gratitude might have just given your brain a bit of positive fuel. That’s because gratitude is not just a feeling that happens to us; it’s an activity in the brain.

How does gratitude help you?

Need more convincing that practicing gratitude is worth your time? Here’s what happens to your brain and mental state when you do it.

Gratitude makes you feel better

First of all, we simply feel better when we make a habit of practicing gratitude.

There have been a bunch of studies showing this, including one that involved college students who had just signed up for counseling. In this study, some were asked to just do regular psychotherapy, some to do regular psychotherapy plus journaling, and some to do regular psychotherapy plus gratitude writing.

Journaling about what they were thankful for protected mental healthcare workers from depressive symptoms.

It turns out that simply writing in a journal doesn't do the trick. But gratitude writing was associated with better mental health after a month, and also at 3-month follow-up. In mental healthcare workers, gratitude writing works too. These are professionals who are exposed to others’ depression, trauma, and psychiatric symptoms all the time, and burnout is common. But journaling about what they were thankful for, compared to journaling about hassles at work or not journaling at all, better protected these workers from depressive symptoms.

Gratitude makes you do better

And being grateful doesn’t just make us feel better. Gratitude also makes us more generous towards others.

Gratitude makes us more likely to do good in the world.

For example, when we receive a favor and then pay it forward, how much we do so depends on how grateful we feel toward the person who helped us. So, gratitude is a multiplier of goodness—it makes us feel good, and it makes us more likely to do good in the world.

This might be because gratitude activates brain areas that are involved in thinking about moral questions and making sense of emotions. In this fascinating 2015 brain imaging study, researchers watched participants’ brain activity in real time as they imagined feeling gratitude. Specifically, participants were told stories of Holocaust survivors who recounted receiving lifesaving help and gifts and feeling strong gratitude. They were told to put themselves in these Holocaust survivors’ shoes and imagine receiving help from strangers.

The brain regions that were most activated were the anterior cingulate cortex and the medial prefrontal cortex, two regions associated with complex higher-order thinking like making moral judgments, deciding what's important, and making sense of emotions. So we can see that gratitude is a powerful and complex experience in the brain!

Gratitude meditation calms your body and puts it more in tune with your brain

What’s even more fascinating is that gratitude has instantaneous effects on the body, too. In one study, people actually rated a heat stimulation on their arm as less painful when they felt grateful for a stranger’s help. And even if there isn’t any pain or stress involved, cultivating a moment of gratitude can calm the body’s autonomic system. A 2017 study in Nature’s Science Reports found that a gratitude meditation, compared to a resentment meditation, decreases heart rate. This generally indicates a calmer body that is not activating the fight-or-flight stress response.

A five-minute gratitude meditation calms our bodies and puts important brain areas more in sync with one another.

Participants not only had their heart rates decrease, but their heart rates' fluctuations also synchronized with fluctuations in the resting functional connectivity of some brain regions. In neuroimaging jargon, “resting functional connectivity” means the baseline level of different brain regions activating together. The researchers speculate that altogether, this means that the five-minute gratitude meditation is probably good for emotion regulation. It calms our bodies and puts important brain areas more in sync with one another.

A small gratitude exercise can have lasting effects

Amazingly, gratitude's effects aren’t just fleeting feelings.

writing a gratitude letter led to feelings of more gratitude three months later in totally unrelated circumstances.

One study showed that writing a gratitude letter led to feelings of more gratitude three months later in totally unrelated circumstances. The original writing exercise was associated with having stronger brain activation in those gratitude-related brain areas many weeks later. It certainly seems like a worthy investment!

How you interpret someone else’s generosity matters

One interesting twist to the story is that the way we think about events can determine how much of a gratitude effect we get in the brain.

In a truly creative experiment, participants were given mild pain from thermal stimulation (like being poked on the arm with something hot). Then a stranger in another room helped ease their pain, either accidentally or on purpose.

We play an active part in making sense of events and deciding whether to be grateful.

Meanwhile, researchers noted brain activity. Participants’ ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a decision-making part of the brain associated with feeling gratitude, was most activated when they received intentional help. It didn't light up as much when the help was accidental. Also, when the help was intentional, people perceived the pain as less painful.

This shows that we don’t just reflexively feel grateful based on what good things happen to us. Instead, we play an active part in making sense of events and deciding whether to be grateful. And if we do feel that gratitude, it has benefits for our bodies, moods, and even our behavior.

How to be more grateful

So, given what we know about gratitude's positive effects on the brain and body, why not invest in some home-grown gratitude? Adding some to your daily life is easy.

The brain is designed to chase thoughts down anxiety- or anger-inducing rabbit holes. But when you catch yourself, it’s not too late to reverse course.

1. Keep a gratitude journal

Don’t feel intimidated by the idea of keeping a journal. You don’t have to write anything polished or poetic. It’s not the words that end up on the page that matter. It’s simply taking a few minutes to help yourself focus on something that makes you grateful. Even a few sentences will do.

2. Write thank-you notes to people

Whether it’s a sticky note for your roommate for an email to your co-worker, just do an out-of-the-blue “thank you” for something nice they did or some positive vibe they provided. Give people the most generous interpretation possible! Even if someone might have made your day easier without meaning to, give them credit and say “thanks.”

3. If you find yourself spiralling with resentment, reset and name one thing you are grateful for

It’s not your fault that you spiral sometimes. The brain is designed to chase thoughts down anxiety-inducing or anger-inducing rabbit holes. But when you catch yourself, it’s not too late to reverse course. Splash some cold water on your face, make a cup of tea, and force yourself to name one thing you’re grateful for. Then think hard about that thing for a few minutes, bringing your mind back to it over and over if it tries to wander back to resentment.

And that’s it! That’s gratitude, your pocket-sized brain booster, and it’s available any time, anywhere. Now, if you’ll excuse me, Jimmy Fallon and I are going to go write some more thank-you notes. Starting with ... “Thank you, Questlove and the Roots, for providing the perfect background music!”

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All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Jade Wu, PhD

Dr. Jade Wu is a licensed clinical psychologist. She received her Ph.D. from Boston University and completed a clinical residency and fellowship at Duke University School of Medicine. Do you have a psychology question? Call the Savvy Psychologist listener line at 919-533-9122. Your question could be featured on the show.