Gratitude and Brain Fitness: What the Research Says

Every year neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists make more exciting discoveries about the health benefits of gratitude. The research is now clear that if you want to achieve high levels of physical and mental fitness, practicing gratitude is a good place to start.

Before sharing some of this research, it may be helpful to recap the ground we’ve already covered in our ongoing series about gratitude. 

Our earlier post How Peace of Mind is a Skill That Can Be Developed With Practice looked at six things anyone can do to achieve peace of mind. Step number 6 was to practice gratitude. I referred to research showing that when we choose to focus on all we have to be grateful for, this actually affects material changes in the brain, leading to a happier life and greater levels of mental peace. I built on this in my follow-up post, Gratitude and Your EPPP Prep (Peace of Mind Part 2), by considering the important role gratitude can play in managing stress, including the type of stress that is common among those preparing to take their psychology licensure exam (EPPP). Our post Gratitude as a Way of Seeing added to this understanding by considering why human beings have trouble being grateful for ordinary things. We explored ways to retrain your brain to “see” life in a way permeated with constant thankfulness. 

It’s time to build on these previous posts by going deeper into the research on the neurological, psychological and physiological benefits of gratitude.

In one sense, there is nothing new to what I am about to share: after all, for thousands of years it’s been common knowledge that we feel better when we take time to count our blessings. But it’s only been recently that science has been able to show why gratitude is so good for the brain and body.

Because of its ability to mitigate the effects of common problems like stress, depression, anxiety and disordered cognitions, a little gratitude each day may be even more effective than psychiatric drugs. “If [thankfulness] were a drug, it would be the world’s best-selling product with a health maintenance indication for every major organ system,” Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy was quoted by  ABC news as saying. If you think Dr. Doraiswamy is exaggerating, here’s a smattering of recent research on the benefits of gratitude:

  • In 2015, researchers at the University of Southern California conducted FMRI scans on subjects who had been primed to feel grateful. Summarizing this research for Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, Adam Hoffman explained that “The researchers found that grateful brains showed enhanced activity in two primary regions: the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC). These areas have been previously associated with emotional processing, interpersonal bonding and rewarding social interactions, moral judgment, and the ability to understand the mental states of others.”
  • A 2006 study published in Behavior Research and Therapy found that rates of PTSD were significantly less in Vietnam War Veterans who had higher levels of gratitude.
  • “Grateful people are more likely to behave in a prosocial manner, even when others behave less kind, according to a 2012 study by the University of Kentucky. Study participants who ranked higher on gratitude scales were less likely to retaliate against others, even when given negative feedback. They experienced more sensitivity and empathy toward other people and a decreased desire to seek revenge.” (Amy Morin, from 7 Scientifically Proven Benefits Of Gratitude That Will Motivate You To Give Thanks Year-Round.)
  • Researchers have found that gratitude has measurable effects on multiple brain and body systems, including “mood neurotransmitters (serotonin, norepinephrine), reproductive hormones (testosterone), social bonding hormones (oxytocin), cognitive and pleasure related neurotransmitters (dopamine), inflammatory and immune systems (cytokines), stress hormones (cortisol), cardiac and EEG rhythms, blood pressure, and blood sugar.” (Mikaela Conley, from Thankfulness Linked to Positive Changes in Brain and Body.)
  • Gratitude helps people be resilient in the face of suffering. “A 2003 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that gratitude was a major contributor to resilience following the terrorist attacks on September 11. Recognizing all you have to be thankful for – even during the worst times of your life – fosters resilience.” (Amy Morin, from 7 Scientifically Proven Benefits Of Gratitude That Will Motivate You To Give Thanks Year-Round. The study referred to in the above quote is available here.
  • In early 2016, the journal NeuroImage reported that researchers at the Indiana University found that the effects of a gratitude-based writing exercise activated changes in the frontal, parietal, and occipital regions of the brain. These changes, which were not detectable in a control group, were still detectable through brain scans three months after the experiment. (See Prathik Kini et al.,  The Effects of Gratitude Expression on Neural Activity.)
  • “Grateful people experience fewer aches and pains and they report feeling healthier than other people, according to a 2012 study published in Personality and Individual Differences. Not surprisingly, grateful people are also more likely to take care of their health. They exercise more often and are more likely to attend regular check-ups with their doctors, which is likely to contribute to further longevity.” (Amy Morin, from 7 Scientifically Proven Benefits Of Gratitude That Will Motivate You To Give Thanks Year-Round.)
  • People who are grateful show more resilience in the face of suffering and recover quicker from stress. (Robert Emmons, Why Gratitude Is Good.)
  • Studies among random groups, in which half the participants were asked to keep gratitude journals and the other half were not, found that gratitude is associated with people feeling better about their lives as a whole, choosing to exercise more, feeling more refreshed after waking up, having fewer health complaints and choosing to offer more emotional support to those facing personal problems. (Ocean Robbins, The Neuroscience of Why Gratitude Makes Us Healthier.)
  • Researchers out of Indiana University recruited 43 people who were suffering from anxiety or depression. Half of the people were given a gratitude exercise (writing letters of thanks to people in their lives). Three months afterwards, all the subjects were given brain scans. Those who had done the gratitude activity months earlier showed more gratitude-related brain activity in the scanner compared with the control group. This is profound, for it shows that even a little gratitude rewires the brain in ways that are long-lasting. (See Prathik Kini et al., The Effects of Gratitude Expression on Neural Activity.)

I could keep going with further examples, but by now you should get the picture. All the research is points in the same direction: if you want to have mental fitness, choose to be grateful.


Further Resources 

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