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Gratitude and Your Brain

“Gratitude bestows reverence...changing forever how we experience life and the world.” ~ John Milton.

You may think that the time for giving thanks is over till next Thanksgiving. But let’s rethink that attitude to gratitude. Gratitude is defined as a state of thankfulness for and recognition of good things in your life, and it is no rinky-dink, passing emotion to be relegated to a single November day. Consider that in psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. It helps people feel more positive, relish experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, build strong relationships and generally have a better life. Pretty impressive, right? Neuroscientists agree, and have carried out several studies to try and understand the neurocognitive processes associated with gratitude.

fMRI research connects gratitude with activity in two main regions of the brain - the anterior cingulate cortex (AC), and the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC). The ACC is thought to be important for the ability to feel, control and manage emotions. The mPFC is associated with social reward and interpersonal bonding and its activation with gratitude may promote more prosocial behaviors, i.e. those that move you to act for the greater good rather than just for yourself. Researchers have found that the stronger the feelings of gratitude, the stronger the blood flow and neuronal activation in these areas.

Scientists have also studied the neurochemistry of gratitude and it turns out that when we express gratitude, the brain releases several neurotransmitters. Dopamine is important in pleasure, reward, motivation and attention, and its release produces good feelings that may motivate you to repeat the behaviors that produce the feeling, such as expressing gratitude. Just expressing gratitude also enhances serotonin production in the ACC, leading to more relaxed mood, and countering depression. Levels of oxytocin, a hormone associated with social bonding and trust, increase when we express gratitude. Finally, gratitude promotes brain release of endorphins which are associated with feelings of satisfaction and well-being.

Clearly, gratitude is a powerful emotion, but you may wonder why does gratitude exist, anyway? Psychologists see gratitude as a pro-social emotion which orients us towards the welfare of others. It creates an enduring sense of trust and connection with another individual to whom you feel gratitude, and with whom you are prepared to cooperate. Gratitude makes you want to pay it forward and help others as you have been helped. That type of cooperation has been a key to survival and evolutionary success of our species.

Luckily, gratitude is not just an emotion, but can become a skill cultivated by the regular practice of focusing attention on and savoring the good things and people in your life. When you consistently express gratitude, you change the neurochemistry and neural pathways of your brain, and over time it becomes an effortless and powerful habit. Our personal life stories are made up of lived experiences, and our experiences are made up of whatever we direct our attention to in the moment. Gratitude offers a way to reframe your experiences and rewrite a more positive story for yourself. And, who doesn’t love a happy story?

So, explore some ways to practice gratitude (Google abounds with ideas), and thank you for taking the time to read this blog.

Post by: Nadia Fike

Read More: 1.David DeSteno. Emotional Success: The Power of Gratitude, Compassion, and Pride. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018. 2.Hongbo Yu,, Decomposing Gratitude: Representation and Integration of Cognitive Antecedents of Gratitude in the Brain. J Neurosci, 23 May 2018, 38 (21) 4886-4898;


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