Hope and Patience The Neuroscience of Gratitude The Fall Issue
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The Neuroscience of Gratitude

It's a real thing.

We've heard that practicing gratitude can improve your mood and mindset. Still, many are more motivated to implement new practices and stick to them after learning the science, or more specifically, the neuroscience, behind gratitude. So, let's dive into what occurs in your brain while practicing gratitude and how shifting your mind to a state of gratitude can benefit your body.

Let's begin with what gratitude is. Gratitude is defined as a strong feeling of appreciation towards someone or something; thankfulness. 

Gratitude and Your Brain

Studies have shown feelings of gratitude are primarily evoked in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex. These are deep regions in the brain's frontal lobes that play a role in emotional responses, empathy, decision-making, and self-control. Brain chemicals or neurotransmitters influence our mood. When we enter into a grateful state of mind, our brain releases dopamine and serotonin, the two crucial happiness neurotransmitters.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter often referred to as the "motivation molecule" because it contributes to feelings of motivation, happiness, and focus. Dopamine also plays a role in our blood vessel function, movements, and heart rate.

woman smiling

Unsplash/Design by Cristina Cianci

Serotonin is another neurotransmitter that is often referred to as the "happiness chemical" due to its critical role in feelings of well-being and happiness. Serotonin also plays a role in our sleep, digestion, and sexual function. Serotonin is primarily housed in our gut, but passes through the blood-brain barrier, impacting the brain in the process. 

Due to the release of these neurotransmitters, studies have shown a consistent gratitude practice can decrease your risk of depression and anxiety and improve your mood in both an immediate and lasting way.

People who express gratitude have been shown to have a higher volume of grey matter in their right inferior temporal gyrus. Grey matter in the brain serves many functions, but is primarily responsible for processing information and is composed mainly of neuronal cell bodies and unmyelinated axons.  

Those who have practiced gratitude consistently have shown greater neural sensitivity in the medial prefrontal cortex, a brain area associated with learning and decision-making. 

Gratitude can also release difficult emotions. The limbic system is the part of the brain that is responsible for all emotional experiences. It consists of the thalamus, hypothalamus, amygdala, hippocampus, and cingulate gyrus. Studies have shown the hippocampus and amygdala, the two main sites regulating emotions, memory, and bodily functioning, are unregulated with gratitude.

Gratitude and Your Nervous System

man sitting on beach and smiling

Unsplash/Design by Cristina Cianci

Gratitude may have profound effects on the body's nervous system. When you are relaxed and feeling positive emotions, your body shifts into a parasympathetic state. This allows your nervous system to rest. On a day-to-day basis, many of us are stuck in a sympathetic state or a state of stress, also known as "fight or flight." Therefore, we need to put our bodies into a more restful and relaxed state daily. A gratitude practice can be a catalyst into this parasympathetic state.

Gratitude can also activate the hypothalamus, which is a structure at the base of the brain. This activation can promote deeper sleep, improved metabolic function, and can upregulate the immune system by lowering cortisol and boosting IgA, an antibody blood protein. Lower cortisol levels and proper sleep can often lead to lower inflammation levels in the body, which is beneficial to both the body and the brain.

How to Implement Gratitude Into Your Life

Now let's talk about a few practical ways to implement a gratitude practice into your life. Feelings of gratitude can be achieved by both internal and external means. An internal gratitude practice can consist of daily gratitude journaling. I like to start my mornings off with five to 10 minutes of journaling to reflect on what I am thankful for and set the tone for my day. When I start my mornings with gratitude, I often carry those emotions throughout the day. I tend to experience all of my interactions in a more positive way. Feelings of gratitude can also be evoked through acts of kindness for others. Simply giving a compliment, opening a door, making a donation to your favorite charity, or spending time being of service to others has also been shown to impact your neural networks positively.

The exciting news is that over time, the effects of gratitude can last even longer. This is because neurons that fire together wire together. Essentially, when we actively train our brains to be grateful, they will begin to strengthen our neural pathways that evoke a sense of gratitude, and we can develop a more positive and happier outlook overall.  These lasting neural changes are contributed to neuroplasticity or the brain's ability to adapt.

Implementing a daily gratitude practice is a simple and free way to begin rewiring your brain for a more joyful life.

Article Sources
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  2. Drozak J, Bryła J. [Dopamine: not just a neurotransmitter]. Postepy Hig Med Dosw (Online). 2005;59:405-420.

  3. Wong YJ, Owen J, Gabana NT, et al. Does gratitude writing improve the mental health of psychotherapy clients? Evidence from a randomized controlled trial. Psychother Res. 2018;28(2):192-202.

  4. Zahn R, Moll J, Paiva M, et al. The neural basis of human social values: evidence from functional mri. Cereb Cortex. 2009;19(2):276-283.

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