Why Being Thankful Is Good for Your Brain

The neuroscience of gratitude and how to make it a habit.

Practicing gratitude is something you’ve mentally resigned to yogi’s who meditate, devout Christian grandmothers, and your hippie friend who rants about Cicero to the bartender at happy hour.

However—and this might be the turkey talking—we admit even we feel a little more upbeat and positive after engaging in the annual round of fill-in-the-blank.

“I am thankful for…”

But the tradition is more than just your mom’s sneaky trick to get all of her kid’s to proclaim their love for her at the dinner table; it’s an exercise in cultivating gratitude, a practice that has benefits that go far beyond Thanksgiving day.

Both religion and philosophy have long held gratitude as central to well-being and health, and now that science has caught wind, studies are being conducted that reveal very tangible benefits of the practice.

“When I first started studying gratitude ten years ago, the emotion initially seemed simplistic to me,” wrote Robert Emmons, PhD, a leading gratitude researcher, in Designing Positive Psychology: Taking Stock and Moving Forward. “But I soon discovered that gratitude is a deep, complex phenomenon that plays a critical role in human happiness. We’ve discovered scientific proof that when people regularly work on cultivating gratitude, they experience a variety of measurable benefits: psychological, physical, and social.”

For many the idea of gratitude being a simplistic emotion does rings true, but this is juxtaposed with an abstractness that makes it hard to translate into concrete, everyday practice. So in order to reap the benefits of this powerful emotion it’s important to start at the most basic level and ask, what, exactly, is gratitude?

“Gratitude is an acknowledgment that we have received something of value from others. It arises from a posture of openness to others, where we are able to gladly recognize their benevolence,” wrote Emmons. He defines it more concisely as a felt sense of wonder, thankfulness, and appreciation for life. In this sense, gratitude is a choice. And, it has been studied as a trait (a personality trait that makes an individual more likely to express gratitude), an emotion (brief psychophysiological reaction to being the recipient of a benefit from an other), and a mood (a subtle, longer-lasting impact on perception).

Your Brain on Gratitude

Since gratitude is at its core an emotional response to circumstances, its only natural to wonder what’s actually occurring in the brain when we are experiencing it. A recent study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology looked at just that: designing an experiment to see what aspects of brain function are common to both small feelings of appreciation and large feelings of gratitude.

To do this they induced gratitude in participants while inside a scanner that produced MRI’s of brain activity. The resulting scans showed that gratitude induced brain activity in the anterior cingulate cortex and medial prefrontal cortex—areas of the brain also associated with reward, moral cognition and value judgment, as well as social reward and interpersonal bonding.

Surprisingly, gratitude didn’t just appear in the brain’s reward center, but in various areas of the brain. “A lot of people conflate gratitude with the simple emotion of receiving a nice thing. What we found was something a little more interesting,” said Glenn Fox, a postdoctoral researcher at USC and lead author of the study. “The pattern of [brain] activity we see shows that gratitude is a complex social emotion that is really built around how others seek to benefit us.”

The researchers noted a relationship between gratitude, pain, and empathy that may provide important insight into the way in which gratitude is associated with improved health outcomes, relationships and well-being.

“Ask your brain to do algebra every day and it gets better at algebra. Ask your brain to give thanks and it will get better at finding things to be grateful for. Not only does your brain find these things easier, but it actually refashions itself based on what you ask it to do,” explained Emmons. “Some parts of the brain grow denser, packing in more gray matter like a muscle bulking up from exercise. As science begins to examine the neural circuitry of gratitude, we can speculate that the practice of gratitude could lead to increases in brain gray matter densities in regions involved in grateful feelings, including the reward center and regions central to social awareness, learning and memory processes, and emotion regulation.”

The Tangible Benefits of Gratitude

The brain scans revealed that gratitude is an undeniably powerful emotion, with the ability to have immense effects on our health and happiness.

As lab director at Emmons Lab, Emmons is exploring this notion, exploring methods to cultivate gratitude in daily life and assess its affect on wellbeing. And his immense body of research has revealed benefits that will have even the most skeptical running to Paper Source to pick up a leather-bound, gold-edged, gratitude journal (hey, if you’re going to do it, might as well do it in style, right?). Some of the positive correlations he has made regarding taking note of things you are grateful for(when compared to those who recorded hassles or neutral life events) include:

  • You are physically healthier. Those who kept weekly gratitude journals exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic about the upcoming week.
  • You are more successful at work. People who kept gratitude lists were more likely to make progress toward important personal goals (academic, interpersonal and health-based) over a two-month period. “Research has shown that people were more successful at attaining their goals if they’re keeping a gratitude journal at the time,” said Emmons. “They were working harder and exerting more effort towards those goals because they were feeling more alive, energetic and awake. Gratitude leads to action.”
  • You’re more likely to help others. Daily gratitude lists were associated with a higher likelihood to help someone with a personal problem or offering emotional support to another.
  • You are more resistant to stress. “There are a number of studies showing that in the face of serious trauma, adversity, and suffering, if people have a grateful disposition, they’ll recover more quickly,” writes Emmons. “And consciously cultivating an attitude of gratitude builds up a sort of psychological immune system that can cushion us when we fall. There is scientific evidence that grateful people are more resilient to stress, whether minor everyday hassles or major personal upheavals.”

Why Being Grateful is Hard as Hell

“People say it’s good, they make positive associations to it, but is everyone practicing gratitude?” asked Emmons.

The answer is no. And the reason is that just like other habits that have immense benefits to our health and happiness (exercising regularly, nixing takeout in favor of preparing your own healthy meals, volunteering at a soup kitchen), gratitude doesn’t come naturally, so it’s extremely hard to practice. It’s just so much easier to spend Saturday on the couch, eating pizza while complaining about our co-workers, isn’t it?

But seeing it as more than just a positive outlook (which we can all admit is enormously hard to maintain all the time), may make it easier.

“If we only focus on the goodness of it, we’re missing half the picture,” said Emmons. “There are real obstacles to gratitude that need to be identified.”

One of the reasons why it’s so difficult to practice gratitude is because of incompatible behaviors that are more habitual to people. “Separate processes may be necessary to diminish these vices before you can amplify a virtue like gratitude,” said Emmons.

So what are the vices preventing us from being grateful? One of the biggest is “pervasive negativity: the uncanny ability we have to latch onto complaint and dissatisfaction,” said Emmons. “Whether we notice it or not, it’s all around us.” The sense of entitlement rampant in our society also serves as a roadblock. “’We earned it; we deserve this,’ is a message we get told all the time,” Emmons added. Sound familiar? Everyone from our parents, to our co-workers, to our friends encourage this notion that we’ve worked hard and earned the success. Which seems in itself a motivating idea. But Emmons presents us with an important question: “If you deserve everything, can you be grateful for anything?”

5 Facts About Gratitude That Will Make it Easier to Practice 

In addition to consciously working to diminish behaviors that are standing in the way of cultivating gratitude, here are five other lessons that will help make it a habit:

  1. It comes with responsibilities. “Gratitude can be very difficult, because in gratitude you recognize your dependence upon others–that’s not always positive, since this implies a sense of obligation or indebtedness,” said Emmons. When you are grateful to someone for something they provide you, you’re also recognizing that you now have to reciprocate that at some time, and this undoubtedly can feel uncomfortable, instead of inciting that warm, fuzzy feeling that most associate with gratefulness. “Gratitude has responsibilities that come with it that can be challenging,” said Emmons. But recognizing this can make it easier to foster—it won’t always feel good, and that’s okay.
  1. Feeling grateful versus being grateful: There’s a difference. It’s obviously easy to feel grateful when you’re happy, but what about the hard times? When the going gets tough, it’s especially hard to feel this sense of gratitude—a feeling that’s compounded during the holidays when societal expectations often make us feel pressured to exude happiness and contentment. But according to Emmons, that’s the most important time to put gratitude into practice. “It’s vital to make a distinction between feeling grateful and being grateful,” writes Emmons in his book, Gratitude Works!: A 21-Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity. “We don’t have total control over our emotions. We cannot easily will ourselves to feel grateful, less depressed, or happy. Feelings follow from the way we look at the world, thoughts we have about the way things are and the way things should be, and the distance between these two points.” Sparknotes version: You don’t have to feel grateful to be grateful.
  2. Gratitude is often born out of times of suffering. In the same way that being grateful is an important coping strategy for tough times, it’s also born out of those same hardships. You’d think that times of prosperity (you’ve scored a promotion, started an exciting, new relationship) would elicit the presence of gratitude in your life, but research shows that it’s actually times of crisis and suffering that deepen our ability to express gratitude. “In times of uncertainty people realize how powerless they are to control their own destiny,” said Emmons. “If you begin to see that everything you have, everything you have counted on, may be taken away, it becomes much harder to take it for granted.” Which makes sense, it’s often those who have been through particularly difficult times who emerge with a deeper appreciation for life. We’re celebrating a perfect example this week–anyone who knows the history of Thanksgiving knows it was far from the jovial event filled with games of touch football and eating so much you have to unbutton your pants that it is today.
  3. It doesn’t mean denying pain; it means reframing it. The reason that gratitude often emerges from periods of suffering is that it allows us to reframe a negative situation in a more constructive light. But if you think this means telling your friend who was just fired to suck it up and be grateful for everything else they have in their life, you’re wrong. “Processing a life experience through a grateful lens does not mean denying negativity; It is not a form of superficial happiology,” said Emmons. “Instead, it means realizing the power you have to transform an obstacle into an opportunity. It means reframing a loss into a potential gain, recasting negativity into positive channels for gratitude.” By reframing the way we look at a negative experience, we’re able to decrease the unpleasant emotional impact of that event. While losing your job is unfortunate, seeing it as an opportunity to focus on your freelance career, network with professionals, and even seriously consider starting that business you’ve thought about for years suddenly transforms it into a constructive, potentially happiological turn in your life. In this way, it helps us better cope with crisis and hardship.
  4. It can be cultivated. Just like playing the trumpet or learning a new language, gratitude is a skill that doesn’t come easily–you have to put in the practice time and consciously be aware of ways to implement it in your everyday to improve the skill (plus it’s way less annoying than learning the trumpet–ask your roommate). If you were trying to learn a language, what would you do? Join a group where you could practice using it in conversation? Watch videos? Download an app with daily lessons? In the same way, we need to use exercises that intentionally focus our attention on developing this way of thinking to make it a habit. Schedule a time each day to sit down and count your blessings, whether that be on a piece of paper or in your head. Or use visual cues and visual reminders (which experts use to teach gratitude to children, who aren’t yet abstract thinkers). Try wearing a gratitude bracelet, or leave a jar on your counter labelled “gratitude” where you put your spare change at the end of each day–when it’s full, donate it to charity. Emmons also encourages people to go through grateful motions–smiling, saying thank you, writing letters of gratitude–to trigger the emotion of gratitude.

Start with Journaling

Perhaps the easiest way to ease into the practice, and make it a no-brainer part of your day, is to set aside a specific time each day to jot down what you are grateful for. Emmons has used journaling to cultivate gratitude (so that he and his fellow researchers could study its effects) and found that the simple habit led to overall improved well-being, including fewer health complaints and a more positive outlook toward life. Journaling can be as simple as listing out five things for which you’re grateful every week. “This practice works, I think, because it consciously, intentionally focuses our attention on developing more grateful thinking and on eliminating ungrateful thoughts,” he said.

What better time to put the practice into action? Sit down on Thanksgiving and fill out the first page of your gratitude journal. We think pumpkin beer, the joy of sleeping in your childhood room (still covered with posters of Dave Matthews Band and Christmas lights) and having someone else run after your kids all day are a good place to start.