The Neuroscience of Gratitude

By Hannah Rogawski, LMSW

Many of us often hear about the power of gratitude and its capacity to improve our mental health. Many studies over the past couple of years have confirmed that people who consciously work on and express gratitude tend to be less depressed, less anxious, and happier overall. Studies have even found that gratitude can improve your sleep, boost your immune system, and enhance your relationships. What is going on in our bodies to cause such powerful effects? 

The answer lies in neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to change, grow, and reorganize itself over time in response to learning and its environment. According to UCLA’s Mindfulness Awareness Research Center, making a regular practice of expressing gratitude causes neuroplasticity to occur, changing the molecular structure of the brain in ways that make us both healthier and happier. The regions in the brain associated with gratitude are part of the same neural network that lights up when we socialize and experience pleasure. These same regions are also connected to the areas of the brain that control emotion regulation and stress relief. Thus, because gratitude depends on the same brain networks involved in happiness, social bonding, and stress relief, activating grateful feelings can lead to the overall health benefits discussed previously (less depression and anxiety, increased happiness, stronger immune system, enhanced relationships), over time. 

Now that we understand how gratitude interacts with the brain to improve our mental health and increase happiness, the question is: how do we practically incorporate gratitude into our every day lives?

6 Simple Ideas for Increasing Gratitude Into Your Everyday Routine 

  1. Keep a daily gratitude journal of three things you are thankful for. You can choose a specific time in your routine to do this each day, such as right before you go to sleep at night or as you’re drinking your coffee in the morning. 

  2. Make an effort to tell someone in your life - a friend, a parent, a partner, a colleague- something you appreciate about them and are thankful for every day.

  3. Look in the mirror as you brush your teeth or do your hair and tell yourself (maybe even out loud!) something you like about yourself or compliment yourself on a recent task done well. 

  4. Commit to one day a week where you decide not to complain about anything. 

  5. Cut out pictures of people and things you are grateful for and make a gratitude collage. 

  6. Volunteer a couple of times a month to give back to people in your community. You could sign up for a shift at a soup kitchen, visit people in the hospital, or spend time with residents in an old age home.

References:

Elizabeth Cobb