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Small Acts of Generosity and the Neuroscience of Gratitude

Brain scans can map the neural mechanisms of gratitude activated by generosity.

Source: KonstantinChristian/Shutterstock

Gratitude is defined as, “the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.” Millennia ago, Cicero proclaimed that gratitude was the 'mother of all virtues.' Seneca spoke of gratitude as being a fundamental motivational drive that was critical for building interpersonal relationships.

Recent studies have shown that generosity and gratitude go hand in hand both at a psychological and neurobiological level. Generosity and gratitude are separate sides of the same coin. They are symbiotic. Fortunately, each of us has the free will to kickstart the neurobiological feedback loop—and upward spiral of well-being—that is triggered by small acts of generosity and gratitude each and every day of our lives. Why not practice a small act of generosity today?

Gratitude, Generosity, and "Survival of the Fittest"

In a previous Psychology Today blog post, “The Evolutionary Biology of Altruism,” I wrote about a variety of interdisciplinary studies that identified the roots of why compassion, cooperation, and being part of a community are central to our individual and collective survival. Ultimately, it appears that loving-kindness trumps machiavellianism and an "every man for himself" modus operandi, even when it comes to survival of the fittest.

In the new study, conducted at the University of Southern California (USC), researchers used fMRI brain imaging to map the neurobiological correlates of gratitude. The objective of the USC study was to examine a wide range of gratitude experiences in the context of gift-giving and to identify neural correlates of gratitude at the whole brain level.

The October 2015 study, “Neural Correlates of Gratitude,” was published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. Senior author Antonio Damasio is the director of the Brain and Creativity Institute (BCI) and Dornsife Neuroimaging Institute at USC, and professor of psychology and neurology. Damasio is world-renowned for his neuroscientific research on how emotions play a central role in our social cognition and decision-making.

The Brain Circuitry of Gratitude

James Steidl/Shutterstock
Source: James Steidl/Shutterstock

Gratitude is a fundamental thread that holds the tapestry of our social fabric together. Feelings of gratitude nurture our individual mental health and fortify our bonds with other people. The personal and interpersonal benefits of gratitude occur at both a psychological and neurobiological level.

For the latest study on gratitude, lead author Glenn R. Fox, PhD, of the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC, partnered with the Shoah foundation at USC. In 1994, Steven Spielberg founded the USC Shoah Foundation which is a nonprofit organization established to record testimonies in video format of survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust and other genocides for education purposes and subsequent action. Fox et al describe their recent study saying,

"We hypothesized that gratitude ratings would correlate with activity in brain regions associated with moral cognition, value judgment and theory of mind. The stimuli used to elicit gratitude were drawn from stories of survivors of the Holocaust, as many survivors report being sheltered by strangers or receiving lifesaving food and clothing, and having strong feelings of gratitude for such gifts. The participants were asked to place themselves in the context of the Holocaust and imagine what their own experience would feel like if they received such gifts. For each gift, they rated how grateful they felt.

The results revealed that ratings of gratitude correlated with brain activity in the anterior cingulate cortex and medial prefrontal cortex, in support of our hypotheses. The results provide a window into the brain circuitry for moral cognition and positive emotion that accompanies the experience of benefitting from the goodwill of others.”

Fox said, he and his colleagues found that "when the brain feels gratitude, it activates areas responsible for feelings of reward, moral cognition, subjective value judgments, fairness, economic decision-making and self-reference. These areas include the ventral- and dorsal- medial pre-frontal cortex, as well as the anterior cingulate cortex."

In addition to the scientific findings, the subjects reported another benefit of this gratitude study... Participants of the study gained a much better understanding about the Holocaust and greater empathy for the survivors. In a press release, USC Shoah Foundation Executive Director Stephen Smith said,

"When they gave testimony to USC Shoah Foundation many Holocaust survivors told us that they found reason to be grateful, whether it was because of a stranger offering a bit of food or a neighbor providing a place to hide. These small acts of generosity helped them hold on to their humanity. That Glenn has been able to use testimonies in his incredible research on gratitude shows why it is so important to preserve the voices of people who lived through these dark times."

Conclusion: Neurobiology Supports the Benefits of Living by the Golden Rule

In a press release, Damasio concluded, "Gratitude rewards generosity and maintains the cycle of healthy social behavior." As this research shows, generosity and gratitude work in tandem in ways that benefit both the giver and receiver. Hopefully, this research will inspire each of us to infuse small acts of generosity into our daily interactions with others and to reciprocate this goodwill with gratitude.

If you'd like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts,

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