How expressing gratitude rewires your brain for the better

The positive psychology movement might not be your cup of tea — especially if you view it as some kind of Pollyanna sugarcoating of hardships, that’s superficial at best, downright denial at worst. Looking on the bright side all the time may simply ring false. But there is one positive feeling that we would be wise to cultivate, if nothing else than for our personal well-being. That feeling is gratitude.

With simple practices like keeping a gratitude diary or writing letters of thanks, research has shown time and again that we can dramatically reduce depression and anxiety. We’ll also feel more socially connected with others. Other studies have found gratitude can increase willpower, keep you calm and even boost employee morale. It can literally transform our lives. And now, science has discovered that expressions of genuine gratitude can also physically change our brain — for the better.

Rewiring the Brain with Gratitude

“Fad diets aside, we all know the basic formula for greater physical health — eat less junk and exercise more. The same can be said for greater happiness. Sure, mental health is hugely complex, but the research on how to promote basic, day-to-day well-being couldn’t be clearer — just cultivate gratitude.” ~Jessica Stillman in “Gratitude Physically Changes Your Brain, New Study Says”

A brain-scanning study published in NeuroImage has brought us closer to understanding why gratitude practices trigger positive effects. Even months after a simple gratitude writing task, the researchers found the participant’s brains were still wired to feel extra thankful.

“The implication is that gratitude tasks work, at least in part, because they have a self-perpetuating nature: The more you practice gratitude, the more attuned you are to it and the more you can enjoy its psychological benefits,” writes Dr. Christian Jarrett in “How Expressing Gratitude Might Change Your Brain.”

The team of researchers from Indian University recruited 43 participants who were suffering from anxiety or depression. Half the group were given an exercise — writing letters of gratitude to people in their lives for twenty minutes, during the first three sessions of their weekly counseling — an hour total for the experiment. It was up to the participant whether or not they chose to send the letter. The rest of the group simply attended their counseling sessions without a gratitude task.

After the three months of counseling were over, all the test subjects underwent brain scans. During the scan, each were given an amount of money from a benefactor and were asked if they’d like to express their gratitude for the gift by donating some or all of funds to either a person (identified by photo and name) or a named charity. While the participants were aware this was all just an exercise, they were told one of the transactions would be chosen randomly and actually occur.

Those who gave away the money showed a distinct pattern of brain activity in the frontal, parietal and occipital regions. However, this wasn’t the most compelling discovery.

Writes Dr. Jarrett:

“The participants who’d completed the gratitude task months earlier not only reported feeling more gratefulness two weeks after the task than members of the control group, but also, months later, showed more gratitude-related brain activity in the scanner. The researchers described these ‘profound’ and ‘long-lasting’ neural effects as ‘particularly noteworthy.’”

He believes the findings suggest “that the more practice you give your brain at feeling and expressing gratitude, the more it adapts to this mindset — you could even think of your brain as having a sort of gratitude ‘muscle’ that can be exercised and strengthened… the more of an effort you make to feel gratitude one day, the more the feeling will come to you spontaneously in the future.”

Or, as Harvard researcher and author Shawn Achor told “Something as simple as writing down three things you’re grateful for every day for 21 days in a row significantly increases your level of optimism, and it holds for the next six months. The research is amazing.”

To sum it up, by practicing short, simple gratitude practices, we can cultivate not only a healthful mindset, but actually physically change our brain to encourage even more grateful orientation in the future. The more we recognize the good in life, the happier we’ll be — which leads to increased success overall.