As we enter the season for giving, we wanted to take a moment and talk about why being thankful is so important to your brain health. Gratitude is a word we hear frequently in our daily lives, but it can also be difficult to explain exactly what that means. Is simply saying thank you throughout your day expressing gratitude? Yes. But it’s also deeper than that.
When you adopt a lifestyle of gratitude, you experience a change in your perspective. It is your choice to focus on what you have or what you could have, what is or what could have been. Gratitude is the key to better mental health, and it also contributes to better physical health, as well. Studies show that gratitude is a powerful emotion, and expressing it in meaningful ways can actually change the brain.
Gratitude releases powerful neurochemicals
When you experience gratitude, your limbic system lights up. This triggers the production of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. Because dopamine is linked with your reward system, your brain is programmed to want to engage in behaviors that trigger this release. The more you practice gratitude, the more you train these neural pathways to seek positivity and release these feel-good chemicals.
The more you experience gratitude, the more dopamine your brain produces. And dopamine is a powerful chemical in the pleasure-seeking circuit of the brain. Studies have shown individuals with low dopamine levels have a higher chance or impaired memory and slow thinking, so while we associate dopamine with feeling good, it’s vital for healthy brain function.
When you have low levels of dopamine, you’re at higher risk for depression, anxiety, and lack of motivation. Expressing gratitude elevates your dopamine levels, which puts you in a better mood. But because it’s linked to your reward system, it motivates you to continue engaging in behaviors that make you feel good, helping you increase your productivity and seek out social interactions.
Gratitude also boosts your serotonin levels. Where dopamine makes you feel good, serotonin makes you feel happy. It elevates your mood, lowers your cortisol, regulates sleep, and has been shown to enhance memory and learning. When you focus on expressing gratitude for the things in your life, it activates serotonin production in your anterior cingulate cortex. As your mood elevates, your stress levels decrease, which help with better focus, problem-solving, and decision-making.
Studies have shown that simply expressing gratitude daily can increase the optimistic outlook in patients by an astonishing 88%. This increased optimism reduces the feeling of helplessness, which can be detrimental to overall physical and mental health. By elevating the hormones associated with happiness, consistently being thankful can help lower depression and anxiety, and help give you a new, happier perspective on life.
Gratitude impacts your neurological function
Another area of the brain that shows greater activity when you express gratitude is the medial prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain is linked with learning and decision making. Practicing gratitude and expressing it frequently, keeps this area of the brain active longer and can help increase your memory, focus, and concentration.
Your ventromedial prefrontal cortex also activates, which is your altruism center. It’s the area of your brain linked with being generous and is intricately tied to your reward system. The more gratitude you express, the more generous you become, and the better you feel, activating a powerful habit loop.
Studies show that individuals who express gratitude often have reduced pain levels and lower inflammation in specific biomarkers in the body. Part of this is the significantly lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, but being thankful and expressing that emotion lowers blood pressure, improves your overall nervous system health, and can even increase how effective your kidney’s flush toxins from your body.
In addition to lowering stress, gratitude activates the hypothalamus, which regulates various bodily functions, including the sleep-wake cycle. Without the increased cortisol levels, your brain is able to release more of the natural sleep hormone melatonin, helping you fall asleep faster.
It also reduces negative pre-sleep cognition. These are the thoughts that keep the executive functions of your brain operational, even when you’re trying to wind down for sleep. Practicing gratitude, even early in the day, lowers these high-level cognitive activities, allowing your brain to fall into deep, restorative sleep.
As you practice gratitude actively throughout your day, the activity in your hypothalamus increases and your prefrontal cortex stabilizes. This means your overall bodily functions improve. Gratitude doesn’t simply help you achieve a better state of mind, it can physically improve your health, as well.
How to make gratitude a habit
Expressing gratitude consistently doesn’t mean you’ll never experience negativity or hard times. Everyone has bad days and struggles through difficulties. But what matters during these low moments is what you choose to focus on.
If you’re new to embracing an attitude of gratitude, an easy place to start is simply by paying attention to your five senses throughout the day. What does the sun feel like on your skin? Or how does the rain smell as you walk to your car? Are there flowers blooming? Birds chirping? Children playing? What positive details can you pick up through sight, touch, taste, smell, and hearing?
Every time you sit down to eat, or take a sip of a drink, you can express appreciation for those items in that moment. As you make your way home, be thankful for your job, even if it was a stressful day. Rather than focusing on the negative, you can try to find a positive note and express gratitude for that detail.
Simply making an effort to say thank you throughout your day goes a long way as well. Thank a stranger when they open the door for you or hold an elevator. Notice how a friendly smile and genuine appreciation affects them. Thank your children, spouse, friends, and family for the little things they do to make your life easier or when they make you smile. Express your love for them abundantly and frequently.
Another effective way to embrace gratitude is by keeping a journal. Every day write down three things you’re grateful for, or start keeping a gratitude list. Write down everything things that make you happy, no matter how small. When you start paying attention to the things in your life that you’re thankful for, you’ll start noticing more things in your life to be grateful for. What you appreciate, appreciates, and you’ll never feel more lucky than when you start noticing how abundant your life is.
While you journal you can play with different thought experiments. What if all you had tomorrow were the things you were grateful for today? What would your life look like? If gratitude was one dollar, how much money would you accumulate by the end of the day? How can you grow that number tomorrow? Write thank you notes to people you’re grateful to have in your life, and write thank you notes more often overall.
These small habits can take time to build, so be patient. Start small and watch as your gratitude muscle grows.
The more you notice how thankful you are, the more you’ll find things to be thankful about. You’ll find that you are happier, more optimistic, and more generous. This creates a positive feedback loop because positive emotions lead to more positivity.
Gratitude has the power to not only change your outlook, it will change the way you think, how your brain functions, and improves your overall physical health. But more importantly, it will improve your relationships and sense of satisfaction in the world.