Why Gratitude May Be Your Brain's Best Friend

Practicing gratitude can positively impact your health, including helping you sleep better.

By Anna Nordseth
May 22, 2024 1:00 PM
gratitude journal
(Credit: MarinelaM/Shutterstock)


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Imagine a simple, easy-to-access tool that could elevate your mood, improve your sleep, and strengthen your relationships. It's not a miracle pill or a high-tech device — it’s gratitude. Long extolled in proverbs and philosophical teachings, the age-old wisdom of being thankful now finds support in modern scientific studies, showing meaningful mental and physical health benefits. 

Gratitude on the Brain

At its core, gratitude involves recognizing and appreciating the positive aspects of life, both big and small. Pausing to experience this feeling not only improves our mood but also triggers noticeable changes in brain activity.

Brain scans have shown that expressing gratitude activates the prefrontal cortex, a crucial area responsible for decision-making and emotional regulation. This neurological activation prompts the release of dopamine, the 'feel-good' neurotransmitter, enhancing mood, increasing motivation, and sharpening attention.

Over time, a consistent gratitude practice goes beyond ephemeral emotions — it fosters lasting changes in the brain. By engaging regularly in gratitude practices, like journaling, mindful reflection, and expressing thanks, we modify our neural pathways, transforming a simple act of thankfulness into a sustainable habit. This habit enhances our mental resilience and facilitates a more optimistic outlook with ease, establishing a solid foundation for emotional stability. 

Read More: Try These 6 Science-Backed Secrets to Happiness

The Mental Health Benefits of Gratitude

Adopting a grateful mindset can subtly but meaningfully improve our mental health and outlook on life. This positive shift enhances our daily experiences and has been shown to help alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety, thereby boosting our overall happiness and resilience.

Additionally, as our mental health improves, we may begin to develop beneficial traits such as generosity and empathy. This growth not only enriches our personal lives but also positively impacts our interactions with others.

Read More: How to Improve Your Mental Health

Physical Health Benefits

While gratitude is well-known for boosting mental wellness, its impact on physical health is promising, albeit less certain. Research indicates that gratitude interventions significantly improve subjective sleep quality, aligning with anecdotal reports that practices such as nightly journaling lead to better rest. 

However, the effects on other physical health aspects, such as blood pressure and blood sugar levels, although showing potential, are not consistently proven across studies. These preliminary findings suggest possible benefits, but the evidence remains inconclusive due to the limited number of studies and their varied methodologies.

Effects on additional health markers like inflammation and self-reported physical symptoms present a mixed picture, further complicating our understanding. This inconsistency underscores the need for more comprehensive research to firmly establish gratitude's role in physical health. Such studies will help clarify whether gratitude practices can be effectively integrated into clinical practices as part of a holistic approach to health that benefits both body and mind. 

Read More: The Mental and Physical Benefits of Getting Outdoors

Personal and Professional Relationships

The ripple effects of gratitude begin within and then cascade into our interpersonal relationships. By encouraging us to recognize and value the positive contributions of others, gratitude deepens our social connections. This strengthening of personal ties not only enriches our close relationships but also sets the foundation for broader social impacts affecting larger groups and communities.

In workplaces and communities, gratitude improves dynamics, satisfaction, and productivity. It promotes acts of kindness and cooperation, fostering a more collaborative and supportive atmosphere. This is partly because gratitude activates brain areas associated with social bonding and ethical judgment.

"Feeling grateful has wellness potential in every setting. It is a type of positive thinking, which generally has better emotional effects on us than neutral or negative thinking," explains Dr. John Malouff, a psychology professor at the University of New England. "Wellness programs would be wise to promote thoughts of gratitude, as they can significantly enhance emotional and psychological resilience." 

Read More: Do Relationships Affect Our Physical Health?

How to Practice Gratitude Daily

Incorporating gratitude into your daily routine is simple and easy:

Keep a Gratitude Journal: Spend a few minutes each day noting what you’re thankful for, whether in a physical journal or in a note-taking app on your phone.

  • Mindful Reflection: Reflect on past experiences and the impact of key individuals in your life.

  • Express Gratitude to Others: Strengthen your relationships with simple thank-you notes, kind words, or thoughtful gestures.

"Too often, we focus on negatives or threats compared to what has gone well or what might go well," Malouff says. "Maintaining a balance of positive and negative thinking is crucial, and we should never take positive conditions and events for granted."

Gratitude is not about relentless cheerfulness or ignoring challenges; it's about embracing a balanced perspective that appreciates the positives while realistically managing adversities.  

Read More: Contentment is the Most Underrated Key to Happiness

A Complementary Mental Health Practice

While gratitude practices can meaningfully improve your well-being, they are not a cure-all. Instead, these practices should complement, rather than replace, professional therapy or medical treatments.

By incorporating simple gratitude exercises into your daily routine, you may find profound transformations in your life, opening the door to personal growth, resilience, and joy.

Read More: Therapy on a Plate: How Your Diet Can Benefit Your Mental Health

Article Sources

Our writers at Discovermagazine.com use peer-reviewed studies and high-quality sources for our articles, and our editors review for scientific accuracy and editorial standards. Review the sources used below for this article:

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