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The Science of Gratitude

"If thankfulness were a drug, it would be the world's best-selling product with a health maintenance indication for every major organ system," -Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy, head of the division of biological psychology at Duke University Medical Center

What do you think of when you think of gratitude? For some people, it conjures up images of sitting around the table for a Thanksgiving dinner or a party with family and friends, laughing and enjoying the feelings of warmth within. For others, gratitude is a silent thought and inner acknowledgement of the good things in their life. Gratitude can be an emotion, a feeling or even a spiritual practice.

But did you know that gratitude also has a scientific explanation of why it works so well?

Do you know what happens to your brain when you are feeling thankful?

Gratitude can be viewed as both a scientific and holistic practice. There is definitely an emotional and spiritual component in the practice of gratitude, as it causes us to reflect on our lives and the world we live in. At the same time, there is also a scientific process that happens in our brain as we engage in gratitude.

Here at Be Your Best Self + Thrive Counseling, we believe in the value of both the scientific and holistic approaches to mental health as mental health treatment is not one-size-fits-all. But, we also believe in understanding why what we practice works. To best understand the benefits of practicing gratitude let’s take a look at what it is and how it works.

There are three different types of gratitude:

  1. “Interior” gratitude: this type of gratitude is focused on ourselves and our life experiences. For example, “I am grateful to have a fulfilling job” or “I am grateful I have good health.”

  2. “Exterior” gratitude: this type of gratitude focuses on others and our external world. For example, saying thank you to your partner for supporting you through a difficult time, or expressing thankfulness for living somewhere that has nice weather.

  3. “Small” gratitudes: This type of gratitude is focused on the seemingly small and insignificant things in our lives. For example, being grateful for air conditioning on a hot day, or noticing that gas prices went down a few cents.

When we engage in any of these three types of gratitudes, two different parts of our brains are activated: the hypothalamus and the ventral tegmental area (VTA).

The hypothalamus is a small lobe located in your inner brain area. It is responsible for maintaining “homeostasis”, which means it strives to keep all parts of your body in a state of perfect balance.

The Ventral Tegmental Area (AKA the VTA) is an area of the brain that is crucial to the brain’s reward system and feelings of pleasure. The VTA is an important area because when activated, chemicals called oxytocin (the love and pleasure chemical) are released, and these “warm and fuzzy” feelings reinforce our behavior and encourage us to keep doing something over and over again.

As you practice gratitude, the VTA activates, producing oxytocin and flooding your body with feelings of love and warmth while also sending signals to activate your hypothalamus. The hypothalamus, when activated, quickly scans the body and takes note of which systems are out of balance and works to bring you back to a state of homeostasis. For example, if you are breathing shallow because you are anxious, the hypothalamus sends signals to your lungs to breathe deeper in an effort to calm you down. The combination of an increased amount of oxytocin and restored balance in your body systems is so powerful, that your brain and body will remember that feeling and actually crave more gratitude to feel that way again!

Now that we understand the types of gratitude and how it works in the brain, let’s look at how we can make this beneficial practice a part of our daily lives.

Here’s a few tips from our clinicians:

  1. From our clinician Kate on practicing small gratitude: “Try a mindful walk. Find an area of the city you live in that you have walked many times before. As you walk, take notice of the sights, smells, sounds and sensations you might have previously taken for granted. Notice any street art or beautiful plants or trees you may have previously overlooked and admire the work it took to paint it or the time it must take to prune and care for the plants.”

  2. From our clinician we are practicing interior gratitude: “Take a moment to reflect on just one accomplishment you had today. It can be something big, like landing a new job, or very small, like making the bed for the first time in a while. Try to name one quality about yourself that these actions show you have such as ‘this accomplishment shows me I must be resilient.’”

  3. From our clinician Jamie on practicing exterior gratitude: “As the holiday season approaches, take time this year to write a thank you card to people who gave you the gifts that were the most significant to you. There’s no right or wrong way to write it, but instead of just saying “thank you for giving me a new pen”, try something specific to how this person’s gift is making your life better. For example: ‘thank you for giving me such a nice new pen, I know you must have listened when I said how much I dislike taking notes and this gift will make it much more enjoyable for me.’”

Gratitude practice is just that -- a “practice!” If you find yourself wondering “am I doing this right?”, remember there is no rulebook and no right or wrong way to practice being grateful. It may be difficult or awkward in the beginning, but soon enough, your brain will come to recognize the benefits of gratefulness and actually crave more gratitude, encouraging you to keep up the practice.

If you are suffering from anxiety, depression, or another mental health issue and you want to try making gratitude part of your life but are having difficulty, we are here to help you. Book a free 15 minute session here!

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