The following content was originally posted by Darlene Coleman and is republished here with permission.
It’s 8:15 am, and I’m on my way to work. I have been awake most of the night with a sick dog, and I am tired. Also, I have a bad headache. While traveling down a busy thoroughfare, I come upon traffic stopped in both directions. Through the other vehicles, I can vaguely see a man crossing the road. I grumble something under my breath about the dangers of crossing at such a precarious place and, “Why would anyone do that?” As traffic begins to move, I notice two turtles on the shoulder; they appear to be mother and baby. I instantly shift into a state of gratitude; the man had been moving them out of harm’s way! By the time I arrive at my office, my headache is gone, and I don’t feel so worn out.
Because I had been working with Neurofeedback at the time, I wondered what effects, if any, feelings of gratitude have on my actual brain, as well as my body. I did a little research and, as it turns out, there are many. Happily, I wasn’t the only one curious about the effects of gratitude on the brain. In fact, there are several studies on the matter. One was conducted by postdoctoral researcher Glenn Fox from the University of Southern California. Fox and his team scanned participants’ brains while they were feeling grateful to see what would show up.
What appeared was enhanced activity in two primary regions of the brain: the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the medial prefrontal cortex (PFC). In basic terms, the ACC is connected to two areas of the brain: the emotional center, known as the limbic system, and the prefrontal cortex, which controls cognition. It also plays a role in regulating blood pressure and heart rate, as well as certain higher-level functions, such as reward anticipation, decision-making, impulse control and motivation.
There has been a bit of dispute about the role of PFC. Some say it mediates decision making, while others say it has more to do with memory. The most common explanation for the PFC is the “Executive Function” with abilities to distinguish between good and bad, same and different, social control and ability to predict outcomes, to name a few. There is also believed to be an “integral link” between a person’s personality and the functions of the prefrontal cortex.
Boiled down, feeling gratitude lights up the parts of our brain associated with “emotional processing, interpersonal bonding, rewarding social interactions, moral judgment and the ability to understand the mental state of others,” says Fox. This could explain why people who keep a gratitude journal report feelings of well-being, less depression and an overall improvement in attitude—even long after they stop journaling.
Does this mean we can rewire our brains for positivity?
Studies in NeuroImage—a Journal of Brain Function say “YES.” The researchers involved conducted studies with two groups of participants. Group 1 would write letters of gratitude in addition to their regular therapy. Group 2 did not write the letters but participated in counseling. Three months later all participants were called back in and given brain scans while performing a particular “gratitude task.” They found those who had practiced the letter writing showed more gratitude-related brain activity in the scanner. They also found that Group 1 was still experiencing the effects of gratitude months later, thereby suggesting that the more we practice the feelings of gratitude, the more likely our brain will be to spontaneously feel grateful in the future. Also, they found gratitude to be a unique emotion, as it showed up differently in the brain scan than other emotions like empathy, for example.
Gratitude and The Law of Attraction
This ties into what many would call “The Law of Attraction.” It’s great to now have instruments to measure what meditators and mystics have been saying for centuries: “What you focus on grows.”
So, now that we know gratitude is good for us, how can we more easily conjure feelings of it, especially when things are difficult? Here are a few ways:
- Gratitude Journal: The gratitude journal works due to the effects its repetitive nature has on our brains. The more practice you give your brain at feeling and expressing gratitude, the more it adapts to this mindset.
- Helping Others: When we help others, our brains release chemicals like serotonin, which enhances our mood, as well as oxytocin, which helps us to get close to and bond with others.
- Affirmations: Affirmations are also a type of repetitive practice that helps to create new patterns in our brains. However, a note of caution on affirmations: If you are practicing an affirmation that you do not believe, then you will be in a different energy or “mindset” than if you believe it. If you don’t believe the affirmation, you will be forming neural networks of resistance. Make sure you release any feelings of fear or doubt before your practice.
Of course, there are many other ways to feel gratitude. My experience has been that the more present I can remain in each moment, the easier it is to experience gratitude because I am able to see the good within the bad. Many of us will have ample opportunity this holiday season, as we gather with family and friends, to look for moments of gratitude. The reality is, the more grateful we feel, the easier it gets, the nicer we become and the increased likelihood we will want to help others… even turtles.