Gratitude, the Brain, and Behavior

Anecdotally we all know we should try to be as grateful as possible. Many of us here in the US are reminded of this each year as Thanksgiving approaches and we are prompted by friends and family to share what we are giving thanks for. But what are the practical benefits for gratitude? Researchers at The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley set out to answer that very question and came away with four key findings:

  1. Gratitude unshackles us from toxic emotions – In their study, researchers found that participants who both used a higher percentage of positive emotion words and “we” words, and a lower proportion of negative emotion words in their communications were significantly more likely to report better mental health. In fact, it was the lack of negative emotion words—not the abundance of positive words—that explained the mental health gap between a gratitude writing group and other writing group members. So be sure to pay attention to the words you are using!

  2. Gratitude helps even if you don’t share it – The authors told participants who were assigned to write gratitude letters that they weren’t required to send their letters to their intended recipient, and found that those who didn’t send their letters enjoyed the benefits of experiencing gratitude nonetheless. So go ahead and express gratitude wherever you can, regardless of whether or not anyone hears you!

  3. Gratitude’s benefits take time – The authors found that the mental health benefits of gratitude writing in their study did not emerge immediately, but gradually accrued over time. The greatest benefits were most evident 4 and 12 weeks after the exercise, so manage your expectations and, as importantly, give yourself some slack on the more difficult days!

  4. Gratitude has lasting effects on the brain – The authors also used an fMRI scanner to measure brain activity while people from each group did a “pay it forward” task. In that task, the individuals were regularly given a small amount of money by a nice person, called the “benefactor.” This benefactor only asked that they pass the money on to someone if they felt grateful. The participants then decided how much of the money, if any, to pass on to a worthy cause. What they found was when people felt more grateful, their brain activity was distinct from brain activity related to guilt and the desire to help a cause. More specifically, they found that when people who are generally more grateful gave more money to a cause, they showed greater neural sensitivity in the medial prefrontal cortex, a brain area associated with learning and decision making. This suggests that people who are more grateful are also more attentive to how they express gratitude.

To read more about their study, visit the Greater Good Science Center homepage.