As the leaves begin to change and 2021 starts to wind down, we often find ourselves reflecting on the past, giving thanks for our present, and hoping for the future. Modern American Thanksgiving further encourages people to practice gratitude and think deeply about themselves and everything that keeps the world together. Gratitude is also widely practiced in many cultural and religious practices, and it has been lauded as a mental health practice. But does gratitude actually have a positive influence on brain health, and if so, how?
The foundation for current gratitude research was contributed to by Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami, a prominent pair which has studied gratitude for over 20 years. One of their first collaborations is a 2003 article titled “Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life” in which they discussed the common association between gratitude and well-being in social culture and raised the question of whether this relationship is causal or correlational. This article analyzes three experimental studies in which participants regularly participated in gratitude practices and were monitored through social and physical standards. For example, prosocial behavior was measured by asking the participants how often they had offered social support and comfort to others during the duration of the experiment. This preliminary article concluded that gratitude practices generally appeared to have a positive effect on people’s physical and social wellbeing, two aspects which are fundamentally entwined with mental wellbeing.
Since then, scientific research has helped to solve the question of how gratitude affects our brains. One 2018 article details a study in which functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology was used to observe how gratitude practices correlated with brain activity in the anterior cingulate cortex and medial prefrontal cortex, two areas which have combined associations with memory retention, learning, morality, and emotional skills.
Also, numerous neurological and psychological studies have supported the conclusion that practicing gratitude positively influences our brain health. A 2010 article concluded that gratitude may help prevent anxiety and depression and that gratitude may be a helpful tool for therapy. Furthermore, happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky from the University of California, Riverside has helped to establish gratitude’s correlation with happiness and positivity. Although it is difficult to obtain concrete and universal conclusions about the influence of gratitude on mental wellbeing, the consensus is that gratitude is generally beneficial due to its high correlation with physical strength, happiness, confidence, and other positive aspects.
How can we implement this knowledge about gratitude’s benefits into our daily lives? Common gratitude practices include:
1. Writing thank-you notes
2. Consciously thanking someone in your mind
3. Keeping a gratitude journal.
4. Meditating to reflect on the good parts of your life and the world.
These are just a few of the many ways we can incorporate gratitude into our lives, and I strongly encourage you to do more research about gratitude practices if you are looking to establish a new habit.