How does expressing gratitude affect the brain?
Let’s take a few seconds and think about one thing we feel grateful for. I, for one, am grateful for all the kind and loving people in my life. What about you?
I’m sure you’re familiar with the feeling of gratitude. But what is it, exactly, and what are the effects of expressing gratitude?
Psychologists have defined gratitude as a positive emotional response that we perceive when we give or receive a benefit from someone.
An active practice of gratitude can increase mental wellbeing and lead to greater emotional intelligence. Plus, the effects compound, just like interest! The more you practice gratitude, the more you strengthen the brain’s neural circuits for gratitude, making it easier to focus on feelings of gratitude.
When you start to focus on the things you already have in your life that are good, your brain becomes better at discovering similar things. For example, if you consciously notice how beautiful the stars in the night sky are, you will be more likely to notice the stars and feel gratitude again. Even though the stars are always there, the gratitude focus is like a signal to your brain to notice them.
But what are the effects of gratitude on the brain? Here are some that I discovered and that I would like to share with you!
1. Increased Dopamine
When we express gratitude, the brain releases a surge of dopamine.
This happiness hormone gives you a natural high, creating good feelings that motivate you to repeat specific behaviors, like expressing gratitude even more.
Dopamine also increases the experience and duration of positive emotions. In short, it helps you feel good—and research shows that when you feel good, you are more likely to spread your positivity to those you work, live, and play with.
2. Increased Serotonin Production
Gratitude has also been associated with increased serotonin production. Serotonin is also a happiness chemical because it contributes to feelings of well-being, stabilizes our mood, and helps us feel more relaxed.
3. Improved sleep quality
Studies have shown that practicing gratitude activates the hypothalamus. This helps us get deeper and healthier sleep.
A brain filled with gratitude and kindness is more likely to sleep better and also wake up feeling refreshed and energetic every morning.
4. Better stress regulation
People who feel grateful show a reduction in the level of cortisol, the stress hormone. They had better cardiac functioning and are more resilient to emotional setbacks and negative experiences.
Significant studies over the years have established the fact that by practicing gratitude we can handle stress better than others.
5. Activation of the Brain’s “Altruism” and Reward System Regions
A recent study found that practicing gratitude activates a part of the human brain—the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Activating this part of the brain triggers a craving for giving.
The researchers concluded that “gratitude biases the brain’s reward system toward rewards for others versus oneself.” By giving, you become more likely to want to connect with others by giving again in the future. This strengthens your social bonds.
You’ve probably already heard plenty about the positive effects of expressing gratitude on mental health.
Now you know where these benefits come from!