The Effects Of Gratitude On The Human Brain
As the end of the year draws near Thanksgiving is upon us. As the name implies, this holiday is a day to express our gratitude and give thanks. But beyond simply being appreciative of family or what the year has brought us, it’s meant to help us focus on all we have to be thankful for now and into the season of giving.
The neurology of gratitude
Gratitude is a strong emotion and studies show, expressing it in meaningful ways can actually change the brain. When we experience gratitude, the limbic system lights up. This triggers the production of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. Because dopamine is linked with our reward system, our brain is programmed to want to engage in behaviors that trigger this release. The more we practice gratitude, the more we train these neural pathways for a more positive attitude. These neurochemicals also reduce the levels of cortisol in our brain, lowering our stress.
Another area of our brain that shows greater activity when we 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. Our ventromedial prefrontal cortex also activates, which is our altruism center. This is where our brain craves being generous and as it’s also linked to the reward system, the more we experience giving, the more we want to give.
Beyond these brain changes, gratitude can do some remarkable things to improve our overall mental health as well.
Studies show that practicing gratitude reduces pain and inflammation when measuring specific biomarkers in the body. Part of this is due to a significant reduction of the stress hormone cortisol, but practicing gratitude lowers our blood pressure, improves our nervous system health, and even increases how effective our kidney’s flush toxins from our body.
We mentioned that gratitude activates the hypothalamus which regulates various bodily functions, including the sleep-wake cycle. And it lowers the stress hormone cortisol allowing the natural sleep hormone melatonin to be released. But practicing gratitude also helps reduce negative pre-sleep cognitive activity. These are the thoughts that keep the executive functions of our brain operational. Practicing gratitude, even early in the day, lowers the high-level activity levels, allowing our brain to fall into deep, restorative sleep.
Reduces anxiety and depression
When we practice being actively grateful, activity levels in our hypothalamus increase and activity in our prefrontal cortex stabilizes. This means our overall bodily functions improve, but it also balances the hormones responsible for mood. 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 lowers the stress hormone cortisol and triggers the reward system to seek out activities we can complete, building a reward loop for positivity.
Simply put, gratitude is the way we can not only feel appreciation towards others, but it allows us to express this as well. Because it is such a strong emotion, tied to powerful areas in our brain, gratitude has the ability to change the brain and improve our mental health.