As we enter this season of thankfulness, it’s good to reflect on how often we ask ourselves, “What am I grateful for today?” Not only does a daily gratitude practice like gratitude journaling make us more pleasant to be around, gratitude also improves our health.Asking yourself this simple question every day is powerful enough to change your brain’s chemistry! As a result, people who look for reasons to be grateful experience better mental health, emotional wellbeing and resiliency in the face of difficulties. Why does gratitude have such power?
When you experience gratitude, neural circuits are activated in your brain. Dopamine and serotonin production increases, and these neurotransmitters produce calming results. The more you stimulate these neural pathways, the stronger and more automatic they become, which is an example of Hebb’s Law that states, “neurons that fire together wire together.” The more you do it, the easier it becomes.
This means that if you’re looking for the negative, the neural pathways for negative thinking become stronger. But if you begin a daily gratitude practice, you will start noticing what’s going right in your life instead. This is great news! You can remake yourself into a positive person, even if you’ve tended toward being negative your whole life.
One interesting study on gratitude was conducted by the Department of Psychology, at the Brain and Creativity Institute at USC. They partnered with Steven Spielberg’s USC Shoah Foundation to see how “gratitude ratings would correlate with activity in brain regions associated with moral cognition, value judgment and theory of mind.” Dr. Glenn Fox describes their research and finding:
“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.
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.”
A lot of people conflate gratitude with the simple emotion of receiving a nice thing. What we found was something a little more interesting. The pattern of [brain] activity we see shows that gratitude is a complex social emotion that is really built around how others seek to benefit us.”
In other words, gratitude doesn’t just show up in the brain’s reward center. It involves being a morally and socially aware individual who is able to display empathy. (This may help explain why you feel unappreciated and unloved by your partner who has Aspergers. Their brain functions differently so they are socially awkward and lack the ability to deeply empathize with you.)
Why not begin a gratitude journal today? Write down five things you’re grateful for. As your list grows, you’ll look at life differently, plus you’ll have something encouraging to read when you’re feeling down. High on my gratitude list is that you’re part of my community.