Whether dealing with a major life-shattering event or a small bump in the road, gratitude can help boost our happiness and change our outlook. While it won’t change our circumstances, experts say it can change how we feel about them.
“Gratitude is a core part of each of us,” explains Ryan Niemiec, Psy.D., education director for Cincinnati’s VIA Institute on Character. “Gratitude is easy to tap into, and when you tap into that strength, it’s truly energizing.”
Research on gratitude during the past 15 years has shown that it has many benefits—physically, mentally and emotionally. It’s been found to improve job performance, strengthen marriages and friendships, and enhance overall wellbeing. It is linked to stronger immune systems, lowered blood pressure, greater compassion and lowered stress levels. Gratitude also provides us with greater optimism and can increase happiness by as much as 25 percent.
The research pointing to gratitude’s benefits, as well as the increased attention it has been receiving, have encouraged many people to begin incorporating it into their daily lives, Ryan says. Part of its appeal is how simple it is to apply: “Just count your blessings. Write down things you’re thankful for. Say ‘thank you’ more. Write a gratitude letter to someone—all of these are things that are easy to identify with and easy to do.”
Your Brain on Gratitude
People’s definitions of gratitude vary—some call it an attitude, some call it an action, some call it an emotion. It’s one of VIA’s 24 character strengths and falls under the category of “transcendence,” which encompasses strengths that forge connections to the larger universe and provide our lives with meaning. What’s interesting about gratitude, says Christina Karns, Ph.D., a research associate at the University of Oregon, is that all those definitions are correct.
“It really is more than one thing,” she says. “As an emotion, it is complex and is made up of other emotions. Gratitude feels good—it is rewarding—but it’s also humbling [when you] consider what others have done for us.”
Studies are showing that people with higher gratitude levels experience more activity in the hypothalamus, which is the “control center” for everything from functions like eating, drinking and sleeping to metabolism and stress levels. Like other feel-good emotions such as love and compassion, gratitude releases a rush of dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain that makes us feel great both physically and emotionally. That’s why, scientists say, it improves sleep, lessens physical discomfort, and lowers stress and anxiety. It also helps create what they call a “virtuous cycle”—as you get the feel-good rush of gratitude, your brain starts looking for more things to be grateful for, hoping to get that next rush. The more we look for (and find) things we’re grateful for, the more we realize how blessed we are.
After practicing gratitude for years and seeing how it improved her life and helped her through hard times, Christina began researching how it affects the way our brains are wired and how gratitude affects our reward systems.
Her current research, which will be published in 2015, studies the key changes gratitude creates in the brain. She uses functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to show which regions of the brain are affected by gratitude. Her research shows that gratitude relies on and triggers multiple brain systems, so she now is studying how gratitude-based exercises can change our behavior, brain responses and improve our connections with other people.
“It’s fascinating how much [we] can change what our brain processes moment to moment, and how those changes can affect the wiring of the brain long term,” she says.
While her studies have not yet identified how long an act of gratitude affects the brain, or if that effect can be prolonged, one thing has become clear: “Gratitude will make lasting changes in the brain—but only if you keep practicing!”
Consistency is key, experts agree. Robert Emmons, Ph.D., of the University of California, Davis, has shown that people who keep a gratitude journal significantly increase their wellbeing over time, something he attributes to the way it makes us focus on the positives rather than the negatives. It helps us overcome what psychologists call our negativity bias, the natural tendency to remember negative experiences over positive ones.
“When we become more grateful, it helps us focus on what is important to us,” explains Louis Alloro of the Certificate in Applied Positive Psychology program in Philadelphia. “We are conditioned to focus on what’s not working rather than looking at what is working. Gratitude changes what we look at and how we see it.”
In fact, one Gallup study reports that more than 90 percent of American teens and adults said expressing gratitude made them “somewhat” or “extremely” happy. This same mindset is backed up by numerous studies showing the link between gratitude and an emotionally fulfilling life, personal growth, forgiveness, hope, optimism and even global positive effect.
In Sickness and in Health
Since much of the attention given to gratitude looks at emotional benefits and how it boosts an already healthy immune system, far less is known about the role of gratitude in people who are already sick. That led Fuschia Sirois, Ph.D., a professor in the department of psychology at Bishop’s University in Sherbrooke, Quebec, to research how gratitude affects people with chronic illness.
Her co-author on the study, Alex Wood, Ph.D., director of the Behavioral Science Centre at the Stirling Management School at the University of Stirling in Scotland, studied gratitude as a tool for wellbeing in healthy individuals—then wondered if it would be similarly beneficial for those with ongoing health challenges.
“Research tends to focus on the negative consequences of living with illness rather than how people can live well and flourish with chronic illness,” Fuschia says. What their studies found was that noticing “all the small but positive things in one’s life is key for enhancing happiness and wellbeing. When this becomes habitual, it can improve mood and adjustment.”
Fuschia and Alex compared patients who practiced gratitude with those who practice “benefit finding,” which involves looking at what they have gained from their experience. The researchers found the gratitude group enjoyed significantly greater wellbeing and were less vulnerable to depression.
“This is very important for individuals living with chronic illness, as [their] depression rates tend to be much higher compared to those without ongoing health issues,” she says. And, with further research, she said gratitude may be studied as an accompaniment to traditional medicine for overcoming health challenges in the future.
In more than a dozen studies conducted since 2003, gratitude has consistently been shown to lower the incidence of eating disorders, anxiety, phobias, dependence on drugs, alcohol and nicotine—among other ailments. Additional studies indicate that practicing gratitude has even helped Vietnam War veterans overcome post-traumatic stress disorder. Outcomes have been so positive that Todd Kashdan, Ph.D., of George Mason University, believes further research is needed to see how gratitude could be used to help survivors of other types of trauma heal and thrive.
The evidence for gratitude’s role in a happy life is substantial, but Louis teaches that it’s important to do more than just “be” grateful. He advises taking it a step further and “feeling” gratitude each time you express it.
“It is key to feel it in your heart instead of keeping it in your mind,” he says. “When you say you’re grateful for something, it’s very often something that happened in the past—even if it was earlier that day. So I encourage people to not just say why they’re grateful, but to take a moment to remember how they felt when that was happening.”
Taking time to feel that appreciation again gives that ever-important rush of dopamine, immediately increasing blood flow and activity. Basically, we emotionally re-enact the experience that made us feel grateful, and in doing so, we instantly generate healing, positive feelings.
“It takes a little more time and more effort,” Louis says, “but you’ll see such a difference in the way it affects you.”