A sense of gratitude is key to many other emotional, physical and psychological processes.

How Gratitude Changes Your Brain

Gratitude delivers a number of positive neurobiological changes to the body and mind that determine:

  1. Quality of sleep
  2. Levels of anxiety
  3. Ability to concentrate
  4. Quality of social interactions
  5. Ability to predict future outcomes
  6. Ability to determine future course of action

The reason gratitude features so large in our choice and decision-making processes is due to its effects on both the body and the mind.

To understand that we really need to start from obvious truths: We are what we feel. Our feelings guide our emotions. Emotions determine our decisions and choices. Decisions and choices lead to our actions. Because we are not always clearly aware of what it is that we feel, this chain of events leaves us open to being guided and manipulated by circumstances and our environment.

A disconnect between where we want to go with our life and where we end up leads to unhappiness. This is where gratitude comes in. Beyond being an intentionally expressed emotion, gratitude is a neural activity that activates the release of the feel-good mood chemicals dopamine and serotonin in the brain. This makes gratitude an affective trait which then makes it a reliable characteristic of personality.

Gratitude’s ability to affect behavior and mood directly affect mental health and interpersonal relationships. The neurobiological correlates that arise out of this activity place gratitude in the center of a wide variety of mental and physical responses that range from social interactions and the building of mental models that predict future outcomes to the quality of sleep we get, how resilient we are, how physically healthy we are and how calm our brain is.

In a white paper prepared for the John Templeton Foundation by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley gratitude is presented as central to happiness. That’s a concept that’s supported further by a different study carried out at Eastern Washington University where happiness, wellbeing and behavioral responses are directly linked.

Gratitude then, both as a feeling that is experienced and a sensation that is articulated and communicated outwardly produces a host of physical and mental changes that are supported by hormonal responses. Over time these hormonal responses affect the neural architecture in the brain that processes them. The brain's neural architecture determines cognitive abilities and guides perception. Perception determines our sense of reality and our physical, emotional and mental response to external stimuli. These responses, in turn, determine cellular health in the body.

Because all these changes affect how the brain gathers information from the senses and how it interprets it, a brain that is used to experiencing a sense of gratitude is more likely to make positive, educated guesses at the future. This in turn determines what type of behavior is expressed (i.e. negative or positive) which, in turn, frequently determines the outcomes that are achieved as a result.

This makes gratitude a powerful key to unlocking positive emotions and accessing cognitive skills. Here’s what we can do to make this happen:

  1. Start each day with three things you’re grateful for
  2. Keep a “gratitude journal” that lists things you’re grateful for at the end of each day
  3. Become more articulate in expressing the challenges you face and the steps you’re taking to meet them.
  4. Achieve greater clarity in the things you like and find of value in your life and the things you worry about and want to avoid.

These are practical steps that produce deeper, lasting results.

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