The Neurobiology of Expressing Gratitude

Scientific evidence that expressing gratitude benefits everyone.

Posted Nov 20, 2019

 Simon Maage/Unsplash
Source: Simon Maage/Unsplash

Expressing gratitude has been found to promote engagement, retention, and higher productivity in the workplace. But why does expressing gratitude have such a powerful impact? 

As it turns out, expressing gratitude has a measurable impact on both our physical and neurochemical states. In other words, expressing gratitude isn’t just a nice-to-do or nice-to-have. It does something on a neurobiological level, and the effects carry stacking benefits. 

What Is Gratitude?

A recent post on the Harvard Medical School website offers the following succinct definition of gratitude: “Gratitude is a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible.” I would add that gratitude is an emotion that has the power to strengthen relationships because it requires us to see how we are supported and affirmed by others. 

The impact of gratitude on individuals and organizations is undeniable. A 2017 study published in Frontiers of Psychology reported a correlation between gratitude and “employees’ efficiency, success, and productivity.” The same study found that gratitude plays a role in “improving organizational citizenship behaviors, prosocial organizational behavior, and the organizational climate.” 

Still, how and why does expressing gratitude carry out such phenomenal work? What happens when we say those two simple words—"thank you"—or do something that expresses the same sentiment?

Evidence of Gratitude’s Effects on the Mind and Body 

In 2017, a group of researchers at the University of Southern California (USC) carried out a study to find evidence of gratitude’s impact. Hypothesizing that gratitude would impact those regions of the brain associated with moral cognition, value judgment, and theory of mind, the researchers recruited 23 participants. The stimuli used to elicit gratitude were derived from two-minute video testimonies of Holocaust survivors describing gifts (e.g., gifts of food, clothing, etc.) received from strangers at some point in their struggle to survive.

The participants were asked to put themselves into the shoes of the survivors and rate their level of gratitude for these gifts. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, the researchers found that ratings of gratitude directly correlated with brain activity in two parts of the brain: the anterior cingulate cortex and medial prefrontal cortex. The anterior cingulate cortex is associated with empathy, impulse control, and emotion, and the medial prefrontal cortex is associated with decision-making

In another 2017 study, a team of Korean researchers also set out to find scientific evidence of gratitude’s impact. In this case, they compared functional magnetic resonance imaging and heart rate data before, during, and after “gratitude and resentment interventions.” Again, they found evidence of the neurobiological consequences of gratitude. When gratitude was expressed, the average heart rate was lower than during moments of resentment. Moreover, during gratitude interventions, the parts of the brain that regulate anxiety and depression were positively impacted. In other words, like the USC study, the researchers found that expressions of gratitude trigger activity in parts of the brain associated with emotional regulation. 

In addition to having a profound impact on individuals and their emotional regulation, there is evidence that expressing gratitude impacts group dynamics. A 2014 study published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience found that when adults in romantic relationships express gratitude, oxytocin, which is associated with the formation of adult human bonds, increases.

While the study in question focused on romantic relationships, its implications are much broader. The study at least suggests the possibility that regularly expressing gratitude in other settings, including workplaces, might serve as a powerful way to promote stronger social bonds on work teams. In this respect, expressions of gratitude might be adopted to prime teams for collaborative engagements on a neurobiological level.

The Stacking Effects of Expressing Gratitude 

Beyond the growing body of research that suggests expressions of gratitude have a measurable neurobiological impact, there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that when we express gratitude, it has stacking benefits. 

To quantify the effects of gratitude, in 2011, Adam Grant and Francesca Gino, set up a series of experiments on gratitude. The results of their experiments were published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. As reported, all four experiments found that participants who were thanked were more willing to go the extra mile in the future. Indeed, in all the experiments, simply thanking the participants doubled the likelihood that they offer assistance again. The study also found that when it comes to prosocial behavior, feeling valued is even more important than feeling competent. 

Not surprisingly, other studies have found that in the absence of gratitude, negative effects also stack up. For example, one 2012 study of 1,700 employees carried out by the American Psychological Association found that more than half of all employees intended to search for a new job for a simple reason: They felt under-appreciated in the workplace.

Expressing gratitude during the Thanksgiving season is a start. Expressing gratitude year-round holds the potential to have a powerful impact on your relationships and your organization’s culture, engagement, and productivity.

References

Algoe, S. B., & Way, B. M. (2014). Evidence for a role of the oxytocin system, indexed by genetic variation in CD38, in the social bonding effects of expressed gratitude. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 9(12), 1855–1861. doi:10.1093/scan/nst182

Di Fabio A, Palazzeschi L and Bucci O (2017) Gratitude in Organizations: A Contribution for Healthy Organizational Contexts. Front. Psychol. 8:2025. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.02025

Fox GR, Kaplan J, Damasio H and Damasio A (2015) Neural correlates of gratitude. Front. Psychol. 6:1491. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01491

Giving Thanks Can Make You Happier, Harvard Medical School, https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/giving-thanks-can-make-you-happier

Grant, M. Adam and Gino Francesca. “A Little Thanks Goes a Long Way: Explaining Why Gratitude Expressions Motivate Prosocial Behavior,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 98(6), (2010), doi: 10.1037/a0017935

Kyeong, S., Kim, J., Kim, D. et al. Effects of gratitude meditation on neural network functional connectivity and brain-heart coupling. Sci Rep 7, 5058 (2017) doi:10.1038/s41598-017-05520-9