Gratitude Changes Everything!

The Science of Gratitude

Happy November! The month of November has been marked as National Gratitude Month, and at Cryo Recovery, we want to spread the word about not only what we are grateful for, but also on the science of gratitude. That’s right—scientists have been studying gratitude for many years, and they can now say that gratitude unequivocally changes your brain, your response to stress and trauma, and your overall health.

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“Gratitude can transform common days into thanksgiving, turn routine jobs into joy, and change ordinary opportunities into blessings.” –Proverb

While the definition of gratitude varies from person to person, researchers have worked to better define the framework of this concept. Drs. Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough, whose study we’ve highlighted below, define gratitude as a two-part process.

  1. The first is an affirmation of goodness. This means that we affirm that there are good things that happen in this world, some of which are gifts that we receive.

  2. Second, we recognize that the source of this positive experience comes from outside of ourselves.

Gratitude has deeply embedded roots in evolutionary history, and is actually seeded within our DNA. In fact, many children can innately express gratitude without any prompting, and this “gratitude muscle” continues to develop throughout childhood. Simply put, gratitude is part of the human experience, and cultivating gratitude is beneficial to all aspects of our lives!

A multitude of studies have identified particular structures of the brain that are involved in the practice of gratitude, further demonstrating that it is an intrinsic part of humanity. As you read above, two psychologists who have pioneered the field of gratitude research, Dr. Robert A. Emmons and Dr. Michael E. McCullough, are well-known for their gratitude study that had participants write a few sentences each week, focusing on particular topics.

In the study, one group wrote about things they were grateful for that had occurred during the week. The second group wrote about daily irritations or negative experiences. The third group wrote about events that had affected them, leaving out any positive or negative emphasis on said events. After the 10-week practice, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. An additional surprise was that they also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on sources of aggravation.

But how does gratitude do this? One way is by stimulating two important regions in our brains: the hypothalamus, which regulates stress, and the ventral tegmental area, which plays a significant role in the brain’s reward system that produces feelings of pleasure. Research further suggests that gratitude may be associated with many benefits for individuals, including: better physical and psychological health, increased happiness and life satisfaction, decreased materialism, and more.

For example:

  • This study found that heart failure patients practicing gratitude reported better sleep, less fatigue, and lower levels of cellular inflammation.

  • This study found that more grateful people seem to experience less depression, more social support, and less stress.

  • In this study of 401 people, (40% of which had clinically impaired sleep), more grateful people reported falling asleep more quickly, sleeping longer, having better sleep quality, and staying awake more easily during the day.

  • This 2003 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that gratitude was a major contributor to resilience following the terrorist attacks on September 11.

  • This study found that Vietnam War Veterans with higher levels of gratitude experienced lower rates of PTSD.

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The Mindfulness Awareness Research Center of UCLA found that gratitude does, in fact, change the molecular structure of the brain. As stated above, scientific evidence has shown gratitude to stimulate two important regions in our brains that contribute to the reward system and to feelings of pleasure. To further elaborate on this, we look to neuroscientists who have been studying both the framework of gratitude, and the ways under which gratitude changes the brain’s neural pathways.

One key finding in gratitude research has to do with the impact that gratitude has on our brain’s neurotransmitters. When we express gratitude, our brains release two critical neurotransmitters: dopamine and serotonin. These are “feel good” neurotransmitters that have instant mood-lifting benefits. As you can imagine, adopting a daily gratitude practice can help to strengthen neural pathways, and provide a consistent source of beneficial mood boosters.

In addition to gratitude’s impact on neurotransmitters, studies have shown that acts of kindness can activate a structure in the brain known as the hypothalamus. This structure regulates a myriad of bodily functions, including sleep, a vital component to overall health. The cited study above found that hypothalamic regulation that was triggered by gratitude allowed participants to achieve deeper and healthier sleep naturally.

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  1. Write a Thank-You Note: It doesn't have to be complicated! In less than five minutes, you can write a quick note to someone you are grateful for. A research study demonstrated that participants greatly underestimated the positive effects that writing letters of gratitude would have on them.

  2. Keep a Gratitude Journal: Writing in a gratitude journal for a few minutes a day can make us more optimistic. By practicing gratitude through writing, we are participating in an act of mindfulness that evokes optimistic thoughts. Optimism, in turn, can make us happier, improve our health, and has been shown to increase lifespan.

  3. Surround Yourself with Positivity: Gratitude comes when you have positivity in your life. Considering the fact that we are a combination of the five people we spend the most time with, surrounding ourselves with positivity can bring about reasons to be grateful.

  4. Give Back: The very nature of gratitude is to focus on others. When we give back to others, or even when we help those in need, we are able to focus on the things that we are grateful for.

  5. Meditate: Meditation and gratitude go hand in hand. Since meditation is also a practice in mindfulness, it has been shown to improve well-being, self-compassion, confidence, and yes, feelings of gratitude!