Inside a Grateful Brain

Everyone knows that gratitude is good for us and makes us feel better. But do you know what actually happens in the brain when you spend just a few minutes each day reflecting on that which you are grateful? 

Recent neuroscience now identifies how the daily practice of gratitude not only affects our mood and emotional well-being, but it also has a significant impact on brain activity and physical health. Researchers at the National Institutes of Health examined the neural activity and blood flow in various regions of the brain when people experienced gratitude. They found that greater levels of gratitude generated increased activity in the hypothalamus – the brain region responsible for some pretty important body functions such as body temperature, hunger, thirst, sleeping, metabolic activity and managing stress.

In addition, feelings of gratitude directly activate the limbic system and trigger a release of dopamine. Dopamine is the reward and pleasure chemical, but it is also responsible for initiating the action to get that good feeling again. It’s your brain saying, “Oh… that felt good! Do that again!”

In addition to dopamine, your brain also produces oxytocin when you experience gratitude. Oxytocin - often called the "cuddle drug" - is a neurotransmitter known for its effects on pro-social behaviors, like trust, empathy, and affection. It’s involved in all kinds of human social interactions, but here's the key: the body's natural baseline for oxytocin is almost zero. We don't automatically produce it; we need a stimulus. A study published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience indicates that gratitude is a powerful trigger for the production of oxytocin.

 We produce more oxytocin when we express gratitude than

when we receive it from someone else. 

Those good chemicals send your brain into what neuroscientists call the virtuous cycle. As complex as the human brain is, it has a one-track mind. It likes to focus on either positive stimuli or negative stimuli but not both at the same time. When the brain is focused on positive events, the natural tendency is to stay in that positive loop until a negative experience ultimately intervenes and breaks the cycle.

Research shows that including a gratitude journal into your daily routine is one of the most effective ways to stay in the virtuous cycle. 

Conversely, the brain can also get stuck in a negative loop called a vicious cycle. This is what I like to call WMS or “Why Me Syndrome.” When the brain gets trapped in the vicious cycle, it only sees the negatives. “The traffic made me late for work, someone took my parking place, I spilled my coffee, it’s raining, and I forgot my umbrella, my boss is a jerk, this has been the worst day ever…” There may be many positive things going on, but the brain is too focused on the negatives to notice them. 

The brain also has a natural tendency to look for things that prove what it believes to be true. It’s called confirmation bias, and it can be both friend and foe. For example, if you get up in the morning and believe that you’re going to have a miserable day, your brain will search for evidence to prove you right. Likewise, if you start your day with the belief that life is good, your brain will search for evidence to confirm that worldview. The outlook you choose determines whether you’ll get stuck in the virtuous cycle or the vicious cycle. The only way to get out of the vicious cycle is to intentionally point your brain in the other direction.

Just like in our personal lives, a sense of gratitude can improve self-esteem, optimism, a sense of unity, and overall well-being at work. When we extend expressions of gratitude with our colleagues, we create a "pay it forward" chain of positivity that impacts productivity, creativity and the overall culture of the organization. It's called emotional contagion, and it's far more compelling than incentives or contests.

Beyond all of the feel-good chemicals your brain produces when you practice gratitude, being grateful is a form of emotional intelligence. Studies show that people with increased emotional intelligence have a more neural-dense prefrontal cortex. What does that mean? As we make gratitude a daily habit, we build emotional intelligence, and as an added bonus, the part of the brain that handles all of the higher-level executive functions becomes more efficient.

So, on those days that are particularly tough, writing a simple thank you note to someone else or acknowledging the things in your life for which you are grateful is the best way to put your brain in a healthy self-perpetuating cycle. Smarter and happier? Yes, please! 

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