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The Grateful Brain

The neuroscience of giving thanks.

Please take a moment to be grateful for this article you are about to read. I’ll wait…

Seriously though, it can have a profound impact on your life (the whole being grateful thing, that is … the effect of the article is less certain).

With the holidays coming up, I wanted to focus on the one Turkey Day tradition that has the power to reshape your neural pathways. Sounds like an impressive feat, but it’s true. No, it’s not the turkey increasing your serotonin (myth busted!), nor the apple pie giving you a burst of dopamine.

As my intro suggests, it’s right there in the name. Thanksgiving. Giving of thanks, also known as gratitude. Gratitude, particularly if practiced regularly, can keep you healthier and happier. In this article, I’ll share the results of four studies that show how gratitude can, among other things, help you exercise more, sleep better and be happier.

One study by a couple of American researchers assigned young adults to keep a daily journal of things they were grateful for (Emmons and McCullough, 2003). They assigned other groups to journal about things that annoyed them or reasons why they were better off than others. The young adults assigned to keep gratitude journals showed greater increases in determination, attention, enthusiasm, and energy compared to the other groups.

While that shows a clear benefit of gratitude, it also makes a clear distinction. Realizing that other people are worse off than you is not gratitude. Gratitude requires an appreciation of the positive aspects of your situation. It is not a comparison. Sometimes noticing what other people don’t have may help you see what you can be grateful for, but you have to take that next step. You actually have to show appreciation for what you have, for it to have an effect.

The effect of gratitude is not just limited to young adults who haven’t yet been beaten down by the sad realities of life. In addition, even less frequent moments of gratitude can have an effect. The same researchers conducted a separate study on adults, which showed that even a weekly gratitude journal was beneficial.

Subjects assigned to journal weekly on gratitude showed greater improvements in optimism. That makes sense. But that’s not all; it also influenced their behaviors. Keeping a gratitude journal also caused greater improvements in exercise patterns. Lastly, it also caused a reduction in physical ailments, so these subjects had fewer aches and pains (tired of your carpal tunnel syndrome? Be grateful you don’t have a headache).

A third study from earlier this year did not require a gratitude journal, but simply looked at the amount of gratitude people tended to show in their daily lives (Ng et al, 2012). In this study, a group of Chinese researchers looked at the combined effects of gratitude and sleep quality on symptoms of anxiety and depression. They found that higher levels of gratitude were associated with better sleep, and with lower anxiety and depression.

This begged the question, is the level of gratitude improving these symptoms or is it the fact that the patients are getting better sleep? These researchers ran some analyses controlling for the amount of sleep and revealed some interesting links.

They found that after controlling for the amount of sleep people got, gratitude still had an effect on lower depression scores. This means that regardless of their levels of insomnia, people who showed more gratitude were less depressed. With anxiety, they found a different result. After controlling for sleep, gratitude showed no effect on anxiety.

So while higher gratitude led to less anxiety originally, this is simply because it helped people sleep better, and sleeping better improved their anxiety. So gratitude had a direct effect on depression symptoms (the more gratitude, the less depression) and an indirect effect on anxiety (increased gratitude led to improved sleep, which led to lower anxiety). Either way, with gratitude you’re better off, and you get a good night’s sleep.

The wide variety of effects that gratitude can have may seem surprising, but a direct look at the brain activity during gratitude yields some insight. The final study I’m going to share comes from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). NIH researchers examined blood flow in various brain regions while subjects summoned up feelings of gratitude (Zahn et al, 2009). They found that subjects who showed more gratitude overall had higher levels of activity in the hypothalamus.

This is important because the hypothalamus controls a huge array of essential bodily functions, including eating, drinking and sleeping. It also has a huge influence on your metabolism and stress levels. From this evidence on brain activity, it starts to become clear how improvements in gratitude could have such wide-ranging effects from increased exercise and improved sleep to decreased depression and fewer aches and pains.

Furthermore, feelings of gratitude directly activated brain regions associated with the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine feels good to get, which is why it’s generally considered the “reward” neurotransmitter. But dopamine is also almost important in initiating action. That means increases in dopamine make you more likely to do the thing you just did. It’s the brain saying, “Oh, do that again.”

Gratitude can have such a powerful impact on your life because it engages your brain in a virtuous cycle. Your brain only has so much power to focus its attention. It cannot easily focus on both positive and negative stimuli. It is like a small child: easily distracted. Oh your tummy hurts? Here’s a lollipop. So you lost your job? Isn’t it wonderful we’re having KFC for dinner? On top of that your brain loves to fall for the confirmation bias, that is it looks for things that prove what it already believes to be true. And the dopamine reinforces that as well. So once you start seeing things to be grateful for, your brain starts looking for more things to be grateful for. That’s how the virtuous cycle gets created.

It’s not always easy to remember to be grateful, particularly since the human brain is so adaptable. We easily get used to whatever comforts are around us. When was the last time you turned the key in your car’s ignition and praised the miracles of the internal combustion engine? In disasters, like Hurricane Sandy for example, we can come to see that we shouldn’t take things like running water and electricity for granted. But how long does that feeling last for? Within a few days, you’re back to cursing when the elevator takes 30 seconds to get to your floor.

Gratitude takes practice like any other skill. Thanksgiving Day is a good time to start, but if you want to reap all the benefits, keep practicing after that. Try thinking of one thing every day that you’re grateful for. I’m practicing it too. While my wrists hurt and my eyes are strained from sitting at my computer too long, I am grateful for all the researchers who made this article possible. I am grateful for my Macbook Air for not weighing me down. And I am grateful to you for reading all the way to the end.

If you liked this article, then check out my new book, ˆThe Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time.

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