As we move into the Thanksgiving season it can be a natural time for us to take a moment to reflect on the blessings in our lives and appreciate the things for which we are grateful. This simple act has incredibly powerful implications for both our physical health and emotional well-being that science is just beginning to understand.
It has been proven that gratitude physically changes our brains. An NIH study performed in 2009 examined physiological effects of gratitude on the brain. It revealed that those who engaged in gratitude had increased activity in the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is responsible for many bodily functions – including sleep, metabolism, and how we respond to stress. Additionally, researchers found that gratitude correlates with increased activity in areas of the brain that are associated with the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is often referred to as the “reward” neurotransmitter, which is crucial in both reinforcing and initiating behaviors.
Gratitude also increases our happiness. In one study, participants were asked to journal every day for one week, documenting three good things that happened each day and the cause that resulted in the good thing occurring. After one week, participants reported being 2% happier than before. After one month, happiness increased by 5% and after 6 months participants reported increases in their happiness by 9%. Many of the participants of that study continued the journaling activity beyond the one week as they enjoyed it so much.
The research on gratitude is amazing:
- In a 2003 study in which ill patients were asked to keep a simple gratitude journal, 16% reported having a reduction of symptoms and 10% also reported a decrease in physical pain. Not only was that significant, but it had the added effect of participants being much more willing to exercise and participate in their recovery.
- There are multiple studies that indicate gratitude positively impacts sleep by increasing its quality and length, as well as decreasing the amount of time it takes to fall asleep.
- Gratitude greatly decreases the effects of stress on the body. A 2007 study showed that writing a gratitude journal can reduce blood pressure by 10%. Gratitude also affects cortisol levels in the body. A 1998 study showed that 23% of those practicing gratitude had lower cortisol levels and 80% had changes in heart rate variability (a result of decreased stress).
- A study among stage B heart failure patients who were asked to keep a gratitude journal for 8 weeks showed a decrease in circulating levels of several key inflammatory markers and an overall decrease in cardiac risk.
- Finally, not only can gratitude increase happiness, it can work to decrease depression and anxiety. In 2005, one study reported a 30% reduction of depressive symptoms in those participating in some sort of gratitude practice.
So still not feeling particularly grateful? Don’t worry! Science says this is an area where you can fake it until you make it, and there are studies supporting this this too. Because of the dopamine feedback loop, practicing gratitude even when you are not really feeling it will basically trick your brain into reinforcing the behavior until you actually are grateful! Incorporating gratitude into your life does not need to be a difficult task at all. It can be as simple as thinking of a few things at the end of the day or at end of the week for which you are grateful. These could be put into a journal or not. Other ideas include: writing a thank you letter, thinking a “thank you” to someone, prayer or meditation with an intention of gratitude, and at the dinner table one can make it a family affair by starting the meal’s conversation with each mentioning something for which they are grateful. Such simple acts can create such profound changes, just fake it until you make it!
(written by Deborah)