The Neuroscience of Gratitude
I started being thankful & it changed my life.
"Develop an attitude of gratitude."
You've most likely heard this saying (or its variation) one too many times; yet most profound. What is it about staying grateful that has remained a piece of timeless advice, admonished by both religion and science (one of the few things both seem to agree on)?
I'll never forget one particular evening after a most frustrating day when I sat by the balcony. There I was, legs strewn across the pavement, alone with my thoughts and the background sound of birds.
At that moment, I gave in to a sense of sudden gratitude, despite my mood.
For the peace and quiet, the chilly breeze, and even the ability to have a shitty day (I mean, didn't one have to even be alive to have one of those?)
When I say my mood went from -15 to 90 almost immediately, it might sound like an exaggeration. It was most jarring, and I'd always wondered why this happened.
Let's find out today.
A magic trick? 🪄
At the level of the brain, gratitude has very tangible effects, as shown on functional brain scans.
This particular research had participants do something basic — journal. The caveat was that while one group focused on gratitude-based journaling, the other did not.
fMRI showed the parts of the brain that lit up after 3 consistent weeks of doing this. A group of brain areas whose activity lit up with the intensity of reported gratitude was identified.
One crucial brain region discovered was the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which has many functions. Essential here is its involvement in mediating long-term memory. This is understandable as we often might need to recall events to be thankful for.
Another study confirmed this but showed other areas, such as the anterior cingulate cortex, which is involved in expressing emotions and regulating moods.
In truth, gratitude has real consequences on our biology — such as a more robust immune system and reduced perception of pain.
But the genuine beauty of making gratitude a habit is because of neuroplasticity. Gratitude is not a one-off event. If we remain consistent, we can actively rewire and train our brain to notice positive patterns more than the negatives — making us happier in the long term. However, beyond psychological and physical effects, the social, such as greater empathy and stronger relationships, also abound.
A drop of Dopamine, a shot of Serotonin and an ounce of Oxytocin.
These were the ingredients chosen to create a perfectly happy life. But Professor Utonium accidentally added an extra ingredient—oh wait, wrong show.
Pass the cocktail 🍸
The simple words "thank you" are a gift to both the giver and recipient. Because gratitude shown to others is its own form of altruism, a radical act of kindness. And indeed, one of the above studies shows this association.
My Yoruba people have a saying that loosely translates to:
He who doesn't show gratitude today cannot return to ask for a favour the next day.
So why don't we do it more often?
Perhaps this plays into our negativity bias, a cognitive model initially intended to keep us alert and safe.
Truth be told, it's not fun to always "look at the bright side". Nor is it healthy, I believe. All our feelings should be acknowledged and worked through. But it is also possible for multiple truths to exist.
I can be upset about bad weather and still be grateful I have a roof over my head. I guess I'm learning to lend more weight to the latter, more often. And the more specific a thanks is, the better it feels.
So perhaps I shall begin here: I am grateful to you for being here, reading, and sharing.
🔌 Recommendation of the month
An Instagram page that helps to keep me grounded and in awe of this great, big planet.