How Gratitude Helps Your Brain

  •   Danielle L’Ami

An attitude of gratitude has many benefits including promoting brain health and cognitive ability.

An image of a woman looking up to illustrate how gratitude helps your brain.

How Gratitude Helps Your Brain

In today’s world, it feels like the more we have in life, the more we seem to desire. The more we want, the less grateful we feel for what we have. However,  as Aesop said: “Gratitude turns what we have into enough.”

Gratitude also helps your brain. Many researchers would even say it rewires your brain. Whether you practice gratitude to aid in improving your mental wellness, e.g. increasing appreciation or healing, gratitude is a powerful tool. Let’s examine how gratitude helps your brain.

1.       It Affects Neural Activity

First, let’s look directly at the brain and how gratitude can affect it. Neural activity consists of the constant electrical currents and transmissions that occur in the brain. In the following study, researchers wanted to better understand how gratitude expression may lead to longer-term effects on brain activity.

Participants attending therapy for depression or anxiety also used writing about gratitude as part of their therapy. Three months later, they were given the task of pay-it-forward. This task was performed in an fMRI scanner. After receiving a monetary gift, participants were asked to donate to a charitable cause to the extent to which they felt grateful for the gift.

The results? First, gratitude writing intervention was associated with notably greater and lasting sensitivity to gratitude. This change was directly seen in the prefrontal cortex when evaluated three months later. Second, the regions that directly related to self-reported gratitude had lively brain activity.

So, what does this mean? While researchers know there is a distinct visual change in brain activity, can they be sure that it helps the brain? Further research may be needed, but for the moment, it appears as though these visual changes directly link to a person’s mental health.


2.       It Improves Your Mental Health

According to a similar study, where 293 participants took part in a gratitude based exercise, gratitude showed a positive impact on mental health. In this study, the first group had psychotherapy only, the second group did psychotherapy and writing, and the third group did psychotherapy and gratitude writing. The result? Those who expressed gratitude reported notably better mental health.

Mental illness can have a negative impact on your brain, including the way your brain works. For example, neurotransmitters, like serotonin, can be affected in those who suffer from depression. Therefore, medication to treat depression will work to increase the levels of serotonin in the brain.

While we can recognize that some situations may require more effort than gratitude, the combination of gratitude and seeking help can go a long way to improving poor mental health. It also helps in improving your mood, makes a person more optimistic, improves social bonds, and can even improve your physical health.


3.       The More Gratitude You Give, the More You Have

Have you heard of muscle memory? It’s the ability to reproduce a movement without conscious thought. So, imagine the idea of your brain as having a gratitude muscle that can do the same. As with any task, riding a bike, for example, the more you practice, the better you become.

Now imagine practicing gratitude daily. Although it may seem challenging at first, particularly on a day when nothing seems to go right, daily practice allows you to get better. The more gratitude you give, the more you will find you have to be grateful for.

There are a variety of ways to practice gratitude. Some like to start their day with gratitude practice, while others like to do so before they go to sleep. And don’t forget, many online gratitude meditations are helpful if you are feeling uninspired.

Or, perhaps you would like to write down your gratitude, as you would like to keep track and see your progression. Ultimately, the more you give to your gratitude practice, the more you work your gratitude muscle, and the better you become at it.


4.       It Can Help Heal Trauma

Neuroscience researcher Glenn Fox, believes in the power of gratitude to help heal grief and perhaps even trauma. His story begins with the discovery that his mother had developed stage IV ovarian cancer.

Upon studying for his Ph.D., Fox had concluded that gratitude helps improve our resilience, lower our stress, and even boosts our overall health. During his research Mr. Fox discovered studies where gratitude can help cancer patients. His mother, ever a believer of his work, would apply his philosophies herself and keep a gratitude journal.  

Sometimes she would be grateful for little things, at other times, bigger things, such as health victories. But through this practice, it helped her be in the moment to appreciate the time she had left. According to Fox, he believes that showing his gratitude after his mom’s passing allowed him to heal, even if slowly at first.

While gratitude is not a magical pill that will take the pain away, it is a helpful tool for shifting our perspective. Through regular practice, we can change how we perceive bad moments. And perhaps for some, it can help pave the path to healed trauma.

Final Thoughts

If for no other reason than to recognize what we already have in life and show appreciation to our loved ones, gratitude should be practiced daily. While the study of gratitude and the brain looks quite promising, there is the spiritual aspect of gratitude that may be the most rewarding.

“Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.”

- Melody Beattie.

Danielle L’Ami

Danielle L’Ami is a logophile who writes her passion and loves to connect with others through her thoughts and personal experiences. When she is not writing, you can find her watching hockey with her husband, torturing her children with new recipes, or practicing yoga to keep herself balanced.

My Toolbox Genomics empowers individuals in their healthcare journey by creating reports focused on genetic predispositions derived from published research. Test results and suggestions are intended to lead to consultation with one’s healthcare practitioner. MyTBG reports do not diagnose disease or medical conditions. Any lifestyle changes should result from consultation with qualified healthcare practitioners.