How Gratitude Changes Your Brain

How Gratitude Changes Your Brain

The holidays are a great time to reflect on how you can be more grateful in your daily life. Gratitude changes you in many ways. It makes you happier and more optimistic, helps you be more resilient, and even boosts your immune system. But perhaps most importantly, gratitude changes how your brain works—specifically, how it processes emotions.

Brain Health And Your Thoughts

When you feel grateful, the brain becomes less sensitive to negative stimuli and more sensitive to positive ones. This means that when something negative happens, like getting stuck in traffic on the way home, you’re less likely to get upset about it because your brain has shifted its focus away from negativity towards making sure you appreciate what’s good in your life. 

And this is important because your thoughts greatly affect neuroplasticity. When you think positively, the brain produces serotonin, and cortisol decreases, leading to a sense of well-being. When your serotonin levels are normal, you will feel more focused, calmer, happier, and more emotionally stable. In addition, dopamine, a neurotransmitter that contributes to the control of the brain’s reward and pleasure systems, is also released.

In a 2008 study, the researchers measured the brain activity of people who were thinking and feeling gratitude. They found that gratitude activates multiple brain regions synchronously, boosting the neurotransmitter serotonin and activating the brain stem to produce dopamine.

On the other hand, when you have negative thoughts, you take away metabolic energy from your prefrontal cortex. This leads to decreased creativity and difficulty in taking in and processing information. Brain imaging studies also show that negative thoughts impede cognition by affecting the cerebellum, the part of the brain responsible for controlling coordination, speed of thought, working relationships with others, and balance.


Gratitude And Your Mental Well-being

Gratitude has been shown to improve overall well-being, mental health, and happiness. Being grateful also encourages us to be more optimistic about the future and more resilient when things go wrong. It can help us feel less lonely or isolated by putting our lives into perspective relative to others’ experiences. And it can even make us feel more connected to other people by reminding us how much we all have in common.

It relieves stress and reduces anxiety.

Practicing gratitude can train the brain to be more attentive to positive emotions and thoughts. Researchers said it promotes a positive and supportive attitude towards others and relieves stress. A study conducted at the University of California at Los Angeles measured brain activity in participants using magnetic resonance imaging as they were prompted to feel gratitude by receiving gifts. Among the brain areas showing increased activities were the anterior cingulate cortex and medial prefrontal cortex, which are associated with reward, moral cognition, value judgment, and empathy. 

Gratitude helps reduce fear and symptoms of depression and anxiety by regulating the stress hormones. A study on gratitude and appreciation showed that participants who felt grateful exhibited a reduction in the stress hormone cortisol. They had stronger cardiac functioning and showed more resilience to negative experiences. Numerous studies have demonstrated that practicing gratitude can help people handle stress more effectively.

It improves sleep quality.

It’s well-known that sleep is important for our health and well-being. But did you know that gratitude can improve your sleep quality? People who feel grateful experience better and restorative sleep. This is because grateful people have more positive “pre-sleep cognitions” and fewer negative pre-sleep cognitions. If you have positive and pleasant thoughts right before going to sleep, it promotes sleepiness. Negative thoughts, on the other hand, inhibit sleep and can lead to insomnia or sleeplessness.

One study found that people who kept a gratitude journal slept on average 30 minutes more per night, felt more refreshed upon waking, and had an easier time staying awake during the day than people who did not practice gratitude.


6 Ways to Become More Grateful

The dictionary defines gratitude as “a feeling of appreciation for what someone has done or given to you.” It’s important to note that gratitude isn’t merely a feeling—it’s also an action. When we act from a place of gratitude, we’re able to express our appreciation for those around us, which can help strengthen relationships between friends and family members. Gratitude is a state of mind, an attitude, and a way of living that allows us to see the good in everything and everyone around us. Practicing gratitude daily throughout the year can change your brain and your life for the better. Here are some ways to become more grateful:

  1. Keep a gratitude journal. Write down three things that you are thankful for each day. Writing them down helps cement them into your memory. Set an intention to be grateful throughout the day. This can be a great way to focus your attention on the positive things in your life, find what’s going right, and recognize that you have so much to be thankful for.
  2. Meditate and say prayers of gratitude. When you meditate, your brain is trained to focus on the present moment. When you pray, you bring your mind to focus on something—be it a higher power or an idea of gratitude. Both these practices lead to a state of consciousness in which we are able to see what we have and be grateful for it.
  3. Show gratitude to others. “Thank you” are two words that are sometimes taken for granted and left unspoken. Don’t be afraid to let people know when they’ve done something nice for you. If they don’t seem to notice, tell them anyway! It’ll make them feel good and help build relationships with the people around you. Notice the good in others and how they contribute to your life.
  4. Practice mindfulness, which is being fully present in the moment and recognizing all of the blessings around you. Be aware of your surroundings, and take time to appreciate them. Be mindful of what stands out in your day-to-day life as something worthy of gratitude. Notice the small things in life that make it great, like the smell of rain or a good cup of coffee, when your favorite song plays on the radio, or an unexpected compliment from a stranger. These moments will help you remember that there’s always something good in the world around us if we just look hard enough! 
  5. Pay attention to how others express gratitude around you—and try adopting those same practices yourself.
  6. Take time to reflect on your achievements in life and everything you’ve had to overcome to achieve them. When you recognize your hardships, you become more grateful for the things you have and what you’ve accomplished rather than focusing on what you don’t have and on your failures.


Key Takeaway

Gratitude impacts your well-being, mental health, stress levels, sleep quality, and outlook for the future as it allows you to see the best in any situation without forgetting that you have so much to be grateful for. Even a few minutes spent appreciating, reflecting, or giving thanks increases your ability to focus and see the big picture. Ultimately, gratitude, when practiced often, changes your brain for the better.

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