Changing Your Brain with Gratitude

2016-0112 Gratitude

Excerpt of an article by Christian Jarrett

Positive psychologists have published some interesting findings, and one of the more robust ones is that feeling grateful is very good for you. Time and again, studies have shown performing simple gratitude exercises, like keeping a gratitude diary or writing letters of thanks, can bring a range of benefits, such as feelings of increased well-being and reduced depression, that often linger well after the exercises are finished.

Indiana University researchers, led by Prathik Kini, recruited 43 people who were undertaking counseling sessions as a treatment for their anxiety or depression. Twenty-two of them were assigned to a gratitude intervention; for the first three sessions of their weekly counseling, this group spent 20 minutes writing a letter in which they expressed their gratitude to the recipient, an hour in total (whether they chose to send these letters was up to them). The other participants acted as a control group, so they simply attended their counseling as usual without performing the gratitude task.

Three months after their counseling was over, all of the participants completed a “Pay It Forward” gratitude task in a brain scanner. Each was “given” various amounts of money by imaginary benefactors whose names and photos appeared onscreen to add to the realism of the task. Researchers told participants that each benefactor said that if the participant wanted to express their gratitude for the monetary gift, they’d appreciate it if the participant gave some or all of the donation to a named third party (again, identified by photo and name), or a named charity. The participants knew this was all an exercise, but were all told that one of the transactions, chosen later at random, would actually occur — that is, they’d actually receive the cash amount offered to them by one of the benefactors minus the amount they chose to pass on (and the money they opted to pass on really would go to charity).

Researchers found, on average, the more money a participant gave away, and the stronger the feelings of gratitude they reported feeling, the more activity they exhibited in a range of brain areas in the frontal, parietal, and occipital regions. Interestingly, these neural-activity patterns appeared somewhat distinct from those that usually appear when brain-scan subjects complete tasks associated with emotions like empathy or thinking about other people’s points of view, which is consistent with the idea that gratitude is a unique emotion.

Most exciting, though, is the finding that the participants who’d completed the gratitude task months earlier not only reported feeling more gratefulness two weeks after the task than members of the control group, but also, months later, showed more gratitude-related brain activity in the scanner. The researchers described these “profound” and “long-lasting” neural effects as “particularly noteworthy.”

This result suggests that the more practice you give your brain at feeling and expressing gratitude, the more it adapts to this mind-set — you could even think of your brain as having a sort of gratitude “muscle” that can be exercised and strengthened (not so different from various other qualities that can be cultivated through practice, of course). If this is right, the more of an effort you make to feel gratitude one day, the more the feeling will come to you spontaneously in the future. The more thankful we feel, the more likely we are to act pro-socially toward others, causing them to feel grateful.

To read the complete article by Dr. Christian Jarrett, click here.

Credits

Click here to read another Beyond Adversity post.

Thanks to Wendy for sharing the article; Dr. Christian Jarrett for writing the article; Science of Us for committing its resources to the article; and all the people who, directly or indirectly, made it possible for me to share the picture and text in this post.

2 Comments

  1. It is satisfying to acknowledge, recognise, and pay tribute to all one has to be grateful for. Thank You

    1. Just as people have a variety of learning style, people have a a variety of ways in which they express gratitude. Some use words, but others express gratitude with expressions, gestures, poems, songs etc. Yes, everybody has one or more things to be thankful for, but there are many people never say or express their gratitude.

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