Why Being Grateful Is Good for Your Brain

You were probably told to say “thank you” from a young age. Gratitude is a long-standing ritual.

Those two words have become so commonplace that their meaning is often lost. “Thank you” can become a rote response; mindless. That is especially ironic considering the word thank can be traced way back to the Old English word for “to think” or “thought.”

It is all about the mind.

With inner peace and gratitude you hold the sun in your hand

“The roots of all goodness lie in the soil of appreciation for goodness.” 
~Dalai Lama

If we link gratitude back to the brain—the thinking organ—then gratitude regains its power. A genuine “thank you,” said as an expression of gratitude, does indeed take mental effort. Turns out, practicing gratitude has great benefits for your brain, too.

Here are four ways that practicing true gratitude can actually improve your mental and emotional well-being. Each method engaging gratitude releases good chemicals that help us feel better. To understand the neurotransmitters and chemicals that the brain naturally produces, read "the Brain Romance."

Gratitude reduces toxic emotions.

In studies about gratitude and psychological health, practicing grateful thoughts has been shown to reduce envy, resentment, frustration and regret. Leading Psychology researcher Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D. at UC Davis found that gratitude and depressed thoughts have an inverse relationship in the brain. More sincere gratitude can lead to less depression.

Gratitude improves social psychology.

A study in Emotion magazine found that thanking new acquaintances had a huge effect on whether they would pursue further interactions. So not only does gratitude make people more likely to socialize with you (to an extent, of course), being grateful makes you more likely to handle social situations with ease. A study at University of Kentucky found grateful people less likely to pursue revenge and more likely to experience empathy.

Gratitude increases self-confidence.

Self-esteem is often cited as vital for success. Gratitude is an under-recognized key in becoming more self-confident. Instead of being resentful, jealous or downtrodden in the face of others’ successes, being grateful for what you have builds your self-esteem. Bolstered by the gifts you do have, you’re more likely to feel self-confident, and therefore more likely to succeed. For tips on how to train your brain to be more grateful, check out our series on Building Healthy Brain Habits). 

Gratitude increases resilience in your brain.

After the tragedy of September 11, in one Journal of Social Psychology study, researchers found that gratitude made a big difference in people’s resilience as they coped with loss. From veterans struggling with PTSD, to partners navigating relationships and parents trying to connect with their children, taking time to mindfully recognize what you’re grateful for will make you stronger when inevitable struggles do arise.

John F. Kennedy said this about being thankful:

“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that
the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.

Gratitude is a practice of mindfulnessGratitude is not just saying “thank you,” like you might’ve been taught as a child. Gratitude is a thoughtful practice, an exercise in mindfulness that has much to do with the Old English root of the word: to think.

Practice gratitude for your brain’s health and happiness, to benefit of your relationships, boost your self-confidence and give you strength through struggles. Plus, gratitude might help you sleep! Noting grateful thoughts before bed was proven to help people sleep deeper and longer in a study for Applied Psychology.

For more tips on how to practice gratitude in your daily life, Positive Psychology Program has a "How to" article. And Happier Human has a helpful infographic about the benefits of gratitude practice. With all the psychology, social studies and neuroscience behind it, gratitude seems like a no-brainer at this point.

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Enid R. Spitz / Heartmanity ContributorEnid R. Spitz / Heartmanity Contributor
Enid Spitz is a writer and yoga instructor based in Charleston, SC. She previously lived in Portland, OR and Seattle, WA, where she was a newspaper editor and researched yoga for Traumatic Brain Injury. Heartmanity combines Enid's passions for social wellbeing, neuroscience and yoga. When not writing or on the yoga mat, she is an avid traveller, enjoys a good whiskey, and loves being outdoors. Twitter: @enidrosalyn, Instagram: @littleyogibird.

Posted in Brain Fitness, Mindfulness and Perspective

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