The science of gratitude

Gratitude is a bit of a buzzword these days, and it’s all over social media and hashtags!

It’s a common fact that gratitude is a positive emotion, but did you know that it actually causes chemical changes in your brain that can make you feel better and happier, and that it can improve your physical and general wellbeing too?

The word gratitude comes from the Latin gratus or gratia, meaning thankful. The Roman philosopher Cicero once said, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues but the parent of all others.”

Studies have shown that whenever you express gratitude, you experience a surge of dopamine in your brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter and is vital to functions such as pleasure, motivation, attention and movement. It is a feel-good substance that creates a natural high and boosts your mood. This positivity means you are more likely to show positive emotions with others and engage in social activity. Therefore, gratitude, via the dopamine it creates, has a knock-on effect that promotes positivity and engagement in those around you, as well as yourself.

It has also been suggested that gratitude increases the production of serotonin, another feel-good substance, often called “the happiness chemical”. Serotonin relaxes and calms you and production of this positive chemical is thought to be stimulated when you express gratitude.

But is it enough just to feel grateful…?

The medial prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that is involved with learning and decision making. In a 2015 study, 2 groups of volunteers had brain scans. One group was asked to think about a time they felt really grateful and the other group was asked to speak about an experience of gratitude, as if sharing it with another person. The scans showed a huge increase in activity in the medial prefrontal cortex area when gratitude was being verbally expressed. However, when gratitude was felt, but not expressed, the brain activity was much less. This study therefore suggests that in order to benefit from gratitude, we need to express it to others.

Research in the US has shown that although 90% of Americans feel grateful for their families, only 52% of women and 44% of men actually express that gratitude on a regular basis.

Interestingly, research has indicated that expressing gratitude may benefit our physical and mental wellbeing in other ways too. Links have been found between gratitude and improved cardiovascular health, as well as reduced rates of PTSD, depression and stress, better sleep and even higher productivity levels.

So how can you practice gratitude?

Some people like to keep a gratitude journal, where they express their gratitude every day. If you don’t fancy journaling, try a list of things you are grateful for. Take photos of things that make you grateful, you could even post them online with the tag #365project.

The simplest way and perhaps most effective, is to just tell people!

Express your gratitude to those who deserve it!

What are you grateful for? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Thank you!


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