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Inside a Grateful Brain

Updated: Nov 23, 2023

Recent neuroscience now identifies how the daily practice of gratitude affects healthy brain activity as well as our physical and psychosocial well-being.

Researchers at the National Institutes of Health examined the neural activity and blood flow in various regions of the brain when people experienced gratitude. They found that greater levels of gratitude generated increased activity in the hypothalamus, a region about the size of an almond that links the nervous system to the endocrine system. The hypothalamus is responsible for some pretty important body functions such as body temperature, hunger, thirst, sleeping, metabolic activity and managing stress.

In addition, feelings of gratitude directly activate the limbic system and trigger a release of dopamine. Dopamine is the reward chemical, but it is also responsible for initiating the action to get that good feeling again. It’s your brain saying, “Oh… that felt good! Do that again!”

That shot of dopamine is also what sends your brain into what neuroscientists call the virtuous cycle. As complex as the human brain is, it has a one-track mind. It likes to focus on either positive stimuli or negative stimuli but not both at the same time. When the brain is focused on positive events, the natural tendency is to stay in that positive loop until a negative experience ultimately intervenes and breaks the cycle.

Conversely, the brain can also get stuck in a negative loop called a vicious cycle. This is what I like to call WMS or “Why Me Syndrome.” When the brain gets trapped in the vicious cycle, it only sees the negatives. “The traffic made me late for work, someone took my parking place, I spilled my coffee, it’s raining, and I forgot my umbrella, my boss is a jerk, this has been the worst day ever…” There may be many positive things going on, but the brain is too focused on the negatives to notice them. 

In addition to dopamine, your brain also produces oxytocin when you experience gratitude. Oxytocin - often called the "cuddle drug" - is a neurotransmitter known for its effects on pro-social behaviors, like trust, empathy, and affection. It’s involved in all kinds of human social interactions, but here's the key: the body's natural baseline for oxytocin is almost zero. We don't automatically produce it; we need a stimulus. A study published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience indicates that gratitude is a powerful trigger for the production of oxytocin. Moreover, we produce more oxytocin when we express gratitude than we receive it from someone else. 

A genuine expression of gratitude to someone else gives your brain a bigger reward than the person you thank!

The brain also has a natural tendency to look for things that prove what it believes to be true. It’s called confirmation bias, and it can be both friend and foe. For example, if you get up in the morning and believe that you’re going to have a miserable day, your brain will search for evidence to prove you right. Likewise, if you start your day with the belief that life is good, your brain will search for evidence to confirm that worldview. The outlook you choose determines whether you’ll get stuck in the virtuous cycle or the vicious cycle. The only way to get out of the vicious cycle is to intentionally point your brain in the other direction.

Research shows that including a gratitude journal into your daily routine is one of the most effective ways to stay in virtuous cycle. 

In gratitude study conducted by Robert Emmons, participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups. All three groups were given a weekly journaling assignment for a total of ten weeks. One group was asked to record five things that happened during each week for which they were grateful. The second group was asked to record five obstacles or challenges they experienced each week. The third group was asked to record five events from the week that had an impact on them but were given no direction as to whether the events should be positive or negative events.

The participants in the first group who recorded positive expressions of gratitude reported fewer physical aches and pains, felt better about their lives in general and were more optimistic about the upcoming week compared to the other two groups. They also exercised an average of 1.5 hours more and reported making greater progress toward personal goals than the other participants. 

Emmons expanded his research to explore the impact of gratitude on adults suffering from neuromuscular disease. After participants had completed a 21-day gratitude journal, researchers looked for evidence of physical and socioemotional differences compared to a control group. The gratitude group demonstrated an increase in energy, positive moods, better quality and duration of sleep, as well as a greater sense of connectedness compared to the control group. 

Just like in our personal lives, a sense of gratitude can improve self-esteem, optimism, a sense of unity, and overall well-being at work. When we extend expressions of gratitude with our colleagues, we create a "pay it forward" chain of positivity that impacts productivity, creativity and the overall culture of the organization. It's called emotional contagion, and it's far more compelling than incentives or contests. The dopamine effect is a powerful force. Instead of trying to influence positive change with initiatives or extrinsic rewards, focus on the brain. You'll get farther faster. 

If you've forgotten the language of gratitude, you'll never be on speaking terms with happiness.

Gratitude is a powerful catalyst for personal and professional growth, mental and physical health, and an overall sense of well-being if we incorporate it into our daily lives with deliberate practice.

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