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Your Brain on Gratitude

Is Thanksgiving Good for the Brain?

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All across the United States, people are about to sit down to dinner with families and friends and express their thanks for all we have.

The Thanksgiving feast may not be great for the waistline, but the expression of gratitude underlying the holiday is very good for the brain.

Gratitude and Brain Chemistry

When we express gratitude, the brain releases the neuromodulator dopamine — the same powerful brain chemical that is released when something good happens and we feel rewarded. Just thinking of the good things in our life has the same kind of effect.

It creates a virtuous cycle in which the feeling you get from your recognition of good things, makes you want to think of more good things to focus on. The brain is pumping dopamine —contributing to our warm good feelings and brightening our day — all day long on Thanksgiving.

Studies of Gratitude

Gratitude has been extensively studied. 

People who are grateful, as a rule, are longer-lived and have healthier lives. People who engage in the regular practice of expressing gratitude are less depressed and more positive. A useful practice is to tell your spouse or friend three good things that happened at the end of every day to be happier and keep depression at bay.

Studies have shown expressing gratitude improves empathy and decreases aggression. A study among athletes found being grateful for what you have not only improves your self-esteem but makes you appreciate what others accomplish.

There are actually physical changes in the brain that can be observed.  You can see that the areas of the brain that control aspects of your emotions and social interactions change physically, in manner that correlates with being more empathetic.

A study found making note of what you are grateful before bed improves the length and quality of your sleep. And…gratitude helps with your mental strength and resilience, including in studies among people grappling with trauma.

Dr. Merzenich is interviewed in the video above: Your Brain on Gratitude

The Power of Gratitude

If you look at the brain of the average individual — across the thousands of thousands of daily thoughts — about two-thirds of those thoughts are focused on negative things and possible negative outcomes.

Gratitude is the anti-negative medicine. One place to get a good-sized dose of that medicine is t the Thanksgiving table. You see how many things you should be thankful for — the connection to people who love you and whom you love, the good things happening in those lives, the food on the table.  

There’s almost no time of the year that the average person gets a more intense dose of practicing gratitude than Thanksgiving.

Gratitude as a Daily Practice

However, it would be a really good idea to remind yourself of those things every day. The practice of gratitude has an impact on the physical machinery that releases the chemicals that control your mood, emotions, and ability to learn.

That machinery typically becomes more sluggish as we age, because there is less and less that is new and stands out as rewarding. The good news is scientists have shown that machinery is “plastic” – capable of chemical, structural, and functional change, based on how we experience life.

We need to exercise that machinery to stay mentally fit.

Exercising that machinery more regularly keeps that machinery in shape, so you are more apt to notice the things around you that are rewarding. The effects of expressing gratitude are cumulative, positive, and reinforcing; just as the effects of complaining are cumulative, negative, and reinforcing.

Complaining as a practice makes you miserable; and expressing gratitude as a practice makes you optimistic. Both are cumulative. Which would you rather accumulate?

Be grateful.

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