Science Proves That Gratitude Is Key to Well-Being

Acting happy, coaxes one’s brain toward positive emotions

Posted Jul 30, 2018

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“Building the best life does not require fealty to feelings in the name of authenticity, but rather rebelling against negative impulses and acting right even when we don’t feel like it,” says Arthur C. Brooks, author of Gross National Happiness, in a column in the New York Times. In the article, from 2015, he argues that “acting grateful can actually make you grateful” and uses science to prove it.

A 2003 study compared the well-being of participants who kept a weekly list of things they were grateful for to participants who kept a list of things that irritated them or neutral things. The researchers showed that the gratitude-focused participants exhibited increased well-being and they concluded that “a conscious focus on blessings may have emotional and interpersonal benefits.”

The participants didn’t begin the study any more grateful or ungrateful than anyone else, and they didn’t change their lives during the study so that they’d have more to be thankful for. They just turned their outlook to one of gratitude, and they were happier for it.

How does gratitude do this? One way is by stimulating two important regions in our brains: the hypothalamus, which regulates stress, and the ventral tegmental area, which plays a significant role in the brain’s reward system that produces feelings of pleasure.

One 1993 study revealed another way to boost happiness even when you’re not feeling happy. Researchers found that both voluntary and involuntary smiling had the same effect on brain activity. You can convince your brain and body that you’re happy even when you’re not just by forcing yourself to smile. “Acting happy, regardless of feelings, coaxes one’s brain into processing positive emotions,” explains Brooks. In other words, “fake it ‘til you make it” works.

In his column, Brooks suggests adopting three strategies to harness the positive health effects of gratitude. One, practice “interior gratitude.” Keep a daily or weekly list of the things you are grateful for. For example, I might write: I am grateful that I have a job that I love and that through my job as a therapist in Santa Monica I get to help people. Two, practice “exterior gratitude.” Write thank-you notes and put your gratitude to others on paper. For example, you could write a thank-you email to your best friend for supporting you through a bad breakup. And three, “be grateful for useless things.” In other words, express thanks for the everyday stuff you usually overlook such as fresh fruit and air-conditioning.

Are you worried that writing a spontaneous thank-you note to a friend will make them feel awkward? Or that it won’t mean much to them?

Science says you’re wrong.

A study published in Psychological Science in June 2018 reveals that people often miscalculate how a heartfelt thank-you note will be received. Researchers asked a group of 100 participants to write letters of gratitude to someone whom they were thankful for, like a friend or teacher. While these weren’t just quick “thanks for my Christmas present” notes, researcher Dr. Amit Kumar observed that the gratitude letters took less than five minutes to write.

Participants were then asked to rate how surprised, happy, and awkward they predicted the participant would feel. And finally, the recipients were asked to assess how the letter actually made them feel. It turns out the note writers greatly overestimated how awkward recipients would feel and how insincere the notes would seem, and they greatly underestimated the positive effects they would have. New York Times science reporter Heather Murphy writes, “After receiving thank-you notes and filling out questionnaires about how it felt to get them, many said they were ‘ecstatic,’ scoring the happiness rating at 4 of 5. The senders typically guessed they’d evoke a 3.”

If expressing gratitude even when nothing especially gratefulness-triggering is going on can increase your well-being and help regulate stress, and even a small amount of effort to express gratitude can have a meaningful effect on the recipient of your thanks, why not make gratitude a part of your daily life? Do as the father of positive psychology Martin Seligman recommends in his book Authentic Happiness and write daily letters of gratitude. Spend five minutes every morning or evening writing a gratitude email to a loved one. Science says you’ll feel awkward, and science says to do it anyway.