Do you want to know how powerful saying “thank you” is? It’s so powerful that it can change the shape of your brain! No, really! The neuroscience of gratitude is so fascinating, you may find yourself picking up a gratitude practice and seeing significant, positive results.
This page describes what happens in the brain when you practice gratitude once or practice it regularly. Spoiler alert: the more you look around and feel thankful for your life, the more you will enjoy it! This page also contains links to gratitude exercises.
What Is Gratitude?
Gratitude is simply the state of feeling grateful! There is an infinite number of things to be grateful for, and the amount of gratitude you feel is entirely personal. How you see the world around you is up to you!
What one person sees as “the simple things” in life may be a miracle to someone else. Take the ability to breathe. We inhale and exhale every day without even noticing that it’s happening. For someone who experienced lung cancer or other illnesses that affected their ability to breathe, that inhale and exhale may be a miraculous event.
Gratitude is a choice. It’s your choice whether you see breathing, waking up, or moving your arms and legs as “simple things” or not. It’s your choice to be grateful or not, too! Take a moment and reflect. Are you grateful for the roof over your head? For the health of your family members? For the money coming into your bank account, even if it’s not much? You have the choice to be grateful for these things, or see them as “not enough.”
And if you make the choice to be grateful, you may find that your brain responds in quite an amazing way.
Neuroscience of Gratitude
What exactly happens in our brains when we practice gratitude? Well, we have to first recall positive things that may have happened in our life. We may bring up happy memories of our family or recall memories of us waking up in the morning and adding a positive assessment to that memory. Stamping these memories with a feeling of positivity not only encourages our brain to send out positive messages at the moment but also has long-lasting impacts on the brain and how we recall memories in the future.
Gratitude has positive short-term and long-term effects on your brain!
Neurotransmitters in the Brain
When we recall memories or recognize positivity, the brain sends out chemical messengers that relay that positivity to the rest of the body. These chemical messengers include dopamine and serotonin, otherwise known as “happy chemicals.” People experiencing depression often have low levels of dopamine and serotonin. When these chemicals are moving through the central nervous system, you have a better chance of staying in a good mood!
Try it now. Sit and make a list of things you are grateful for, and don’t stop until you start to feel the changes in your mood and your brain. Now think about how your mood might change if you did this every morning.
Reshaping Our Brains
With every new experience, our brain can create new neural connections and change its shape. This concept, called neuroplasticity, has significantly changed the way that
Studies on gratitude show that more grateful people have more neural sensitivity in the medial prefrontal cortex. This means there is more activity going on in this area thinking about gratitude. The medial prefrontal cortex plays a role in a lot of brain functions, from memory consolidation to sleep to making assessments about others. After taking time to be grateful and activating this part of the brain, people saw themselves and their relationships with others differently.
Other Benefits of Gratitude
An influx of happy chemicals doesn’t just impact how you feel on the inside. The more you practice gratitude, the more benefits you will enjoy in every area of your life!
Instead of thinking about what you’re grateful for, think about who you are grateful for and how they make your life better. Studies show that people who practice gratitude toward their partner are happier in their relationships and are more willing to come forward and express things that are upsetting them. By seeing your partner as a gracious and wonderful human being, you will have an easier time approaching them to have conversations about your feelings, your concerns, and the solutions you propose.
Relationships with friends, family, and coworkers also improve when you take a moment to feel grateful for them! Even if a friend annoys you or a coworker drives you nuts, you can find ways to get creative and be grateful for something they do.
Look at all you have accomplished. Look at all you have available to you! People who practice gratitude have higher self-esteem and more hope for their future. It is so important to practice gratitude and see all the positivity in the world around you. When you spend more time looking at the positive and spend less time ruminating on negative experiences, you are more likely to see a more positive world filled with more opportunities.
Higher Job Satisfaction
Do you like your job? If you spent time being thankful for it, and your boss spent more time being thankful for you, you’d probably like your job a lot! Research shows that gratitude has a significant impact on job satisfaction and turnover. If you are a manager, be sure to show your employees that you are grateful for them through a bonus, recognition, or other means. If you are an employee and don’t feel like you are being recognized for your work, speak out!
How to Practice Gratitude
Gratitude doesn’t cost a thing! All you need is time to reflect on your life and an open mind. This page has a list of gratitude exercises that you can utilize to invoke gratitude and get those neurotransmitters firing!
Common gratitude exercises include:
- Gratitude Journal
- Write A Gratitude Letter
- Gratitude Meditation
- Loving-Kindness Meditation
- Do Something Good for Others
- Read a Book About Struggle and Resilience
- Go on a Nature Walk
- Mindful and Gracious Seeing
Quotes About Gratitude
- “Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things.” -Robert Brault
- “Gratitude turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, confusion into clarity...it makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.” -Melody Beattie
- “We learned about gratitude and humility - that so many people had a hand in our success." -Michelle Obama
- “When eating fruit, remember the one who planted the tree.” -Vietnamese Proverb
- “For my part, I am almost contented just now, and very thankful. Gratitude is a divine emotion: it fills the heart, but not to bursting; it warms it, but not to fever.” -Charlotte Brontë
- "Gratitude is riches. Complaint is poverty." -Doris Day
- “When you arise in the morning give thanks for the food and for the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies only in yourself.” -Tecumseh
- “The soul that gives thanks can find comfort in everything; the soul that complains can find comfort in nothing.” -Hannah Whitall Smith