Your Brain on Gratitude

If you’re looking for the perfect gift this holiday season, look no further. We’ve got one you can give to others and yourself.

Gratitude – wrapped in a sparkling package of thank-yous and appreciation – is not only a conduit for kindness and good feelings, it also changes your brain and body for the better.

According to the Research Project on Gratitude and Thankfulness co-directors Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough, college students who were taught to “count their blessings” and cultivate gratitude, exercised more, were more optimistic, and felt better about their lives overall. Pretty good benefits, especially during these dark winter months.

Emmons calls gratitude “a relationship-strengthening emotion.” Acknowledging that good things are happening around us is essential in amplifying the effect of gratitude. Focusing on what we are grateful for each day has the added bonus of increasing dopamine – a neurotransmitter critical for learning and motivation, and serotonin, the brain’s feel-good hormone – so the more you do it, the more your brain seeks out positive experiences. Gratitude really is the gift that keeps on giving.

Researchers have also examined what parts of the brain are involved in the experience of gratitude and appreciation. They found that a key brain region activated is the same as that involved in processing emotions, social rewards and empathy with others. Not only that, practicing gratitude may actually help restructure or re-wire our brain, improving depression symptoms associated with social isolation.

Cultivating gratitude is actually easy. The Greater Good Magazine, published by UC Berkely, outlines “10 Ways to Become More Grateful,” including keeping a daily gratitude journal, using visual reminders as cues to trigger thoughts of gratitude, and being aware of your language, using words such as givers, blessed and fortunate.

So take time to acknowledge even the smallest of gifts, knowing that the biggest ones don’t come wrapped in fancy packaging at all.

Noesis delivers neuroleadership consulting and training to organizations handling everyday change and major transformation initiatives. We help our Fortune 500 clients scientifically improve leadership.