The Neuroscience of Gratitude

Woman writing in gratitude journal

The holiday season brings a mix of emotions — joy, nostalgia, and yes, sometimes stress. Many of us look at the late fall and early winter as a season of change where we shed old layers and hunker down for the shorter, colder days. This season of change presents an ideal backdrop to focus on a remarkably transformative mental health tool: gratitude.

Practicing gratitude isn't about pretending life is perfect; it's about taking a moment to recognize what's going well, even amid challenges. You don't have to be grateful for every little thing or love every moment of your day. 

When we practice gratitude, the expectation is not to be grateful for everything. It doesn't mean we love every minute of the day, and it certainly doesn't mean we're not annoyed with that pile of dirty dishes or email inbox that won't quit. But it does mean we acknowledge gratitude for something. When you do take time to acknowledge even small moments of gratitude, you're actually engaging in a form of mental fitness. The neuroscience behind this simple practice is surprisingly powerful, offering benefits that extend from enhancing your mood to improving sleep quality.

Did that morning coffee taste extra tasty this morning? Share your gratitude. Did you feel extra cozy watching Netflix in bed? Share your gratitude. Did your dog give you a warm greeting when you got home from the grocery store? Share your gratitude. Gratitude knows no limits. And it has excellent physical, social, and psychological benefits, too.

So, ready to dive into the brain science that makes gratitude more than just a feel-good buzzword? Let's explore.

Gratitude as a natural antidepressant

Filtering your mindset to focus on positive acts that bring you joy acts as a natural antidepressant. Neuroscientists discovered the link between positive thinking and activation of certain neurotransmitters — like dopamine and serotonin. These neurotransmitters earned the reputation of "happy chemicals." 

When we feel good, we're able to do things to keep feeling good. People inherently want to feel better, but when we're already so strained from stress or lack of sleep, we have difficulty making beneficial behavior changes. These behavior changes, like meditation, deep breathing, and exercise, require us to feel well enough to make good choices purposefully. And generally, when we're stressed and tired and depleted, we don't have the energy for these actions. 

Drink from the fountain of youth and health

Gratitude actually changes your brain's neural pathways, combats chronic stress, and strengthens our immune system — generally boosting our well-being. Research shows that our parasympathetic nervous system, or rest-and-digest, is triggered when we think about what we appreciate, versus focusing on the negative thought loop. Rest-and-digest is the part of the autonomic nervous system that we want activated to maintain a healthy immune system to help alleviate illness, chronic pain, and improve quality of sleep. "In studies, after eight weeks of practice, brain scans of individuals who practice gratitude have stronger brain structure for social cognition and empathy, as well as the part of the brain that processes reward," said Dr. Emiliana Simon-Thomas, the science director of the Greater Good Science Center.

Practice makes perfect it easier

Habits form from repetition. The more we practice anything, the better we get at it, which can help us form neural pathways for positive or negative habits. Practicing gratitude when things we enjoy happen and intentionally taking time each day to pay attention to what is positive actually reinforces our neural pathways to remember experiencing positive feelings and help prevent stress from getting to us. Think of gratitude practice as brain training - by giving thanks for what we have, we can retrain our brains to be stronger and more resilient to stress. On the flipside, if we practice momentarily distracting ourselves from how we’re feeling when we’re stressed, by reaching for the ice cream or taking another scroll through social media, we train ourselves to rely on a habit that might distract us for a moment, but often makes us feel worse.  

Overcome future challenges

Gratitude today makes for a better tomorrow. Once we become practiced in reframing situations through gratitude, we get out of the scarcity mindset and can be more present. 

Research shows that if we're grateful, we can't resent someone for having something that we don't, meaning we're taking control of negative feelings like envy, regret, and resentment. Resentment is tied closely to the general dissatisfaction with life.

How do I practice gratitude?

We can practice gratitude as prayer, meditation, journaling, and more. Here are some ways to get started practicing gratitude:

  • Write a thank-you note
  • Keep a gratitude journal
  • During transitions in the day, take a minute to think about what went well. This is a great exercise during work breaks.
  • Look in the mirror or move your body and think about something you like about yourself
  • Text or call a loved one to tell them something you appreciate about them 
  • Take a moment to notice the beauty of your surroundings - trees changing color, a moody sky, a particularly cozy nook in your house that gives you comfort

Consider The Four Pillars 

Here’s one of Dr. Dave’s favorite ways to practice gratitude: “The Four Pillars (similar to the Four Virtues of ancient Buddhism and Hinduism) is the first thing that I try to think about every morning when I wake up and the last thing I think about every night before I go to bed. I write these down in a notebook or on a piece of paper to keep them as fresh in my mind as possible. The more we practice a simple exercise like this, the more these ancient and powerful thought-skills will stick in our minds throughout the day and the more we will jump-start the retraining and rewiring of our brains. These skills form the foundation of trust in ourselves that allows meaningful change to take hold in our life and actually stick.”

  • Self-Gratitude - This can look like being grateful and saying “thank you” to yourself for being here now and for the opportunity to take a breath in this moment.
  • Self-Forgiveness - This can look like forgiving ourselves for making mistakes in the past because we all make mistakes and without them, we wouldn’t grow.
  • Self-Compassion - This can look like patience to allow things to unfold as they will, such as the growth and healing process. We didn’t get here overnight.
  • Self-Love - This can look like truly accepting and loving ourselves for who we are and for getting ourselves this far.

What to do with the pesky negative voice that gets in the way?

We all have thoughts that pop into our heads that are frustrating, disruptive, unpleasant, and not useful at times (sometimes lots of the time). That little thought-pump machine in the middle of our brains that never seems to turn off is part of being human. When you have thoughts that pop into your head that seem unpleasant or uncomfortable, make sure these thoughts pass the “Is it true? Is it useful?” Test. This test dictates that for a thought to be worth your time and energy - it must be both true and useful to deserve your attention. If the thought is neither or only one of these, then it doesn’t pass the test and you can let it go to create space to think about something else. 

While the “Is it true? Is it useful?” test is a staple of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), it actually dates back to Socrates in ancient Greece, as a way to ensure respect for our time and the time of whomever it is that we are communicating with. Our time is valuable! For something to be worth our time and effort, it must be both true AND useful.

Gratitude is far more than just a buzzword or a fleeting emotion. It's a neuroscientifically backed practice with tangible benefits for our mental and emotional well-being. Whether it's rewiring our brain to focus on the positive, improving our sleep, or even enhancing our relationships, taking the time to be thankful can be a game-changer. So, as the holiday season ushers in a wave of emotions and experiences, let's not forget this simple yet potent tool we all have at our disposal. Because when it comes to the brain's capability to change and grow, a little gratitude goes a long way.

What's one simple way you plan to incorporate gratitude into your daily routine?