The Science Behind Gratitude



Gratitude

grat·i·tude /ˈɡradəˌt(y)o͞od/

noun

  1. the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness. "she expressed her gratitude to the committee for their support"

In times of darkness, it is very difficult to remember all of the great things around us. I have personally struggled with seeing the good in things after traumatic life events, but have found that in doing so, it is one of the few things that helped. Taking the time to reflect on what we are grateful for can greatly improve our day research shows. When we express gratitude, our brain releases dopamine and serotonin, also known as “the feel-good” neurotransmitters.

  • Dopamine is released when we anticipate receiving a “reward” and contributes to our motivation, alertness, focus, and overall happiness. When someone is depressed, their brain produces very little dopamine. Low levels of dopamine can cause a lack of sleep, difficulty concentrating, reduced alertness, and can severely reduce enthusiasm for life.

  • Serotonin is created when we eat foods that contain the amino acid, tryptophan. Although serotonin is found in the digestive system, it actually runs through the nervous system as well. When released, it causes mood stabilization, reduces anxiety, and can help you become more focused. Low levels of serotonin may cause depression, anxiety and, difficulty sleeping.

You can see the correlation here and how beneficial increasing the release of these two neurotransmitters is for our brain. Having low levels of both dopamine and serotonin gratefully affects our overall mental health and can lead to struggles with depression and anxiety.


When practicing gratitude, we are teaching our brain to release more of these chemicals, causing a huge improvement in our mental health.

Here is a video created by Kurzgesagt about how gratitude affects our brain.

“Life is complicated. On some days it feels like you are in control of yourself, and on others, you feel like you are not. And this is okay. Also, sometimes pursuing happiness can make you more unhappy if you put too much pressure on yourself. Gratitude should also not be seen as a solution for depression or a substitute for professional help. It can only be a piece of the puzzle. It is not the solution to the puzzle itself.”

-Kurzgesagt


The Prefrontal Cortex

Berkeley, the University of California, did a three-month study to see how gratitude affects brain activity. Two groups of people were studied; those who wrote gratitude letters daily, and those who did not. The fMRI results recorded that those who wrote gratitude letters had greater Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) activation in their brain than those who did not write gratitude letters. The PFC plays a role in our cognitive behavior, expression of our personality, social behavior, and decision making.

There are three subregions to the PFC:

  1. Medial prefrontal cortex - contributes to attention and motivation.

  2. Orbital prefrontal cortex - helps people control their impulses and ignore distractions.

  3. Lateral prefrontal cortex - allows people to create and execute plans.

A healthy PFC can greatly benefit our success in life. Exercising this part of the brain is crucial, and gratitude journaling is one of the many ways to help achieve that.


How to practice gratitude

Make It A Goal

It takes 21 days to build a habit. Make it a goal to try this exercise for 21 days straight and see how you feel. Here is the exercise and an example of what I am grateful for today:

  • Write 3 things a day you are grateful for.

  • Today I Am Grateful For...

  • My Fiancé (Trent)

  • The Weather

  • My Health

I typically try to think of a person or people I am grateful for, and then I try to think of other factors that don't first come to mind.


I live in Arizona and our dreaded summers are coming. Some people love the heat, however, I am more of a cold weather type of gal. I try to remind myself to step outside and enjoy the weather while it is not scorching hot and take it all in. Not to mention, just stepping outside to slow down and take in your surroundings is a good mental boost.


My health is one I write about often. We usually take our health for granted until we are sick. Then we swear we will never take it for granted if we can just kick this cold to the curb quickly. However, Health is not an option everyone has right now. Whether it's cancer, terminal illness, or even Covid, there are people out there fighting for their lives trying to regain their health back. It is so important to embrace and be grateful for the things we have now, especially something that others are praying to have themselves.


Practice, Practice, Practice

Like most things in life, practice is required to achieve something. As you continue to practice, you may be surprised at the things you come up with that you hadn’t thought of in your previous entries. It may feel awkward if you have never done it before but think of something you have in your everyday life that makes you happy. Is it the first cup of coffee in the morning, your pet, nature, your significant other, or loved ones? What is something that brings you even the smallest amount of joy? Write it down and challenge yourself to find new things to be grateful for every day.



Gratitude Journals

Having guidance can be extremely helpful. Sometimes staring at a blank piece of paper can be overwhelming. Here are a few gratitude journals I have used in the past:

Good Days Start With Gratitude $6.99 USD

This one is great for beginners. There are only three lines to fill in per journaling session which will help you get started without feeling overwhelmed. It has has new quotes on each page which can be super helpful when you need encouraging words!



Kurzgesagt Gratitude Journal $19.90 USD

This one is my favorite. There are three levels of gratitude within the book, so it makes aiming to achieve the new level and practicing daily more enticing!



Zen as F*ck: A Journal for Practicing the Mindful Art of Not Giving a Sh*t $14.99 USD

This one is not for everyone, but it definitely has some comical pages in there. I don't recommend this as your only journal. I think having one basic one and this one can be fun for mixing it up!



Overview

Gratitude is scientifically proven to show improvement in our brain. When we suffer traumatic events or are severely depressed we can easily get trapped in our negative thoughts and fall into a downward spiral. Although motivation is difficult when going through hard times, challenging yourself to practice gratitude is a great small step into helping yourself. Try the 21-day challenge and see if it makes you feel different in any way. We would love to hear how you feel after the challenge is complete!


Reminder that gratitude is not a solution to the problem as a whole, but a small step in the right direction. Please do not replace seeking professional help with gratitude practices, but instead implementing it along with the additional help needed.