The Biology of Gratitude
We all know that gratitude is a good thing, but here’s a fact that might surprise you: Gratitude is good for your body. The concept is simple; a healthy mind = a healthy body. Since kindness lifts our spirits and warms our hearts, it aids in fighting off, healing and sometimes even curing a plethora of illnesses that ail us. There are many ways to reap the benefits of gratitude—for example, keeping a gratitude journal, praying, meditating or simply saying how you feel.
But no matter what your method of giving thanks is, something as simple as writing thank you notes whenever the urge hits is a powerful, and lovely way to stay healthy. It all starts with the astounding neurological effects that gratitude has on us.
1. Gratitude is Good for Our Brains
For those of us who did not pay attention in biology class; the hypothalamus is the part of our brain that regulates a number of our bodily functions including our appetites, sleep, temperature, metabolism and growth. A 2009 National Institutes of Health (NIH) study showed that our hypothalamus is activated when we feel gratitude, or display acts of kindness. This research on gratitude means that although it might be hard to believe—that we literally can’t function without grace. That is a powerful thought.
But gratitude is also addictive—another one of the benefits of gratitude that research has discovered. Not in the customary sense one would associate with that word, however. Acts of kindness and feelings of gratitude flood our brains with a chemical called dopamine. When we are truly grateful for something (or someone) our brains reward us by giving us a natural high. Because this feeling is so good, we are motivated to feel it again and become more inclined to give thanks, and also to do good for others.
Research on gratitude benefits shows that these neurological effects open the doors to many health benefits including:
2. Decreased Pain Levels
Our first instinct is to disregard this benefit of gratitude, because it is hard to believe that something as simple as saying thank you can alleviate physical pain. But it’s true. In a study called Counting Blessings vs. Burdens that was done in 2003, ill patients were made to keep a gratitude journal. Sixteen percent of subjects reported reduced symptoms, and 10% of subjects reported a decrease in pain. It also showed that subjects were more willing to exercise, and were far more motivated in their recovery. Could the influx of dopamine be the reason why this gratitude benefit happens?
3. Better Sleep
Numerous scientific studies and research on gratitude have all yielded the same result: Gratitude increases the quality of our sleep, decreases the time it takes to fall asleep and lengthens the duration of our sleep. As mentioned previously, sleep is one of the many vital things controlled by the hypothalamus. Since gratitude activates it (and in fact, our entire limbic system), when we are thankful it becomes easier for us to fall into deep, healthy, natural sleep. This of course has a domino effect on our health, spreading the benefits of gratitude practices even further. For instance, sleep is connected to many bodily functions, and enough of it can remedy anxiety, depression, pain and stress. It also boosts our immune systems—meaning we become healthier overall.
4. Stress Relief
Better sleep, naturally, means that we are more relaxed. While this applies to the weight we carry around from work, financial strain and other emotional disturbances, gratitude is physically good for our hearts and nervous system too. In a 2007 study that speaks to the benefits of gratitude, patients with hypertension were made to count their blessings once a week. Results showed a significant decrease in their systolic blood pressure. This gratitude research also discovered that writing in a gratitude journal (often) can reduce blood pressure by 10%. In a different research study on gratitude (by McCraty and Colleagues in 1998), subjects were made to cultivate appreciation. Twenty-three percent showed a decrease in cortisol—the most prominent stress hormone. Even more impressive is that 80% of participants showed changes in heart rate variability; a direct result of reduced stress levels.
That’s not all. Gratitude benefits us by making us more resilient to trauma and stressful events. The GGSC underwent a study that proved that subjects who were grateful were faster in their recoveries after something traumatic, than those who weren’t.
5. Reduced Anxiety and Depression
Numerous studies on the benefits of gratitude practices have shown that keeping a gratitude journal, or writing and sending thank you notes can increase our long-term happiness by more than 10%. A 2005 study also showed that keeping a gratitude journal decreased depression by more than 30% for the duration of the study.
In a recent gratitude research study, it was found that all anxious and depressed subjects who participated in a gratitude letter writing experiment, showed significant behavioural changes. Using MRI scans it was determined that not only was there an increase in neural modulation, brought about by changes in the medial prefrontal cortex; but they were better able to manage negative emotions (like guilt) and were more willing to be helpful, empathetic and kind—once again linking the benefits of gratitude to other positive emotions. In a 2012 research study on gratitude, Chinese researchers noticed that gratitude had a profound effect on sleep, but they took it a step further. Controlling the sleep of their subjects bought forth the following results and gratitude benefits:
+ In subjects with depression, the amount and quality of sleep was unrelated to lower depression scores, meaning that gratitude alleviated their depressive symptoms regardless of how much or how well the patient slept. This suggests that one of the benefits of gratitude may be decreasing symptoms related to depression.
+ In patients with anxiety, however, sleep and reduced anxiety were correlated, leading researchers to conclude that lower anxiety scores were the result of healthy sleep. Although the result was indirect, gratitude also led to better sleep, which in turn led to reduced anxiety.
6. Increased Energy and Vitality
With all of the benefits of gratitude that have been mentioned here, does it come as a surprise that gratitude makes us stronger? There are many hypotheses supporting why exactly gratitude makes us healthier—from stronger immune systems thanks to sleep, to healthier hearts due to less stress, and even to the more spiritual theories—such as being thankful makes us more optimistic and that in itself boosts our vitality.
Gratitude research has repeatedly shown that thankful people have higher energy levels, are more relaxed, are happier and are healthier. Naturally, these gratitude benefits lead us to the conclusion that being grateful has the potential to lengthen our lifespans.
Of course, it doesn’t matter if gratitude makes us healthier due to the power of positivity, or if the dopamine in our brains sets off a chain reaction that ignites the benefits of gratitude. Every study done on the subject of gratitude research has undisputable evidence that gratitude benefits our bodies, minds and souls.
It’s understandable that in these dark, violent times, we may sometimes feel that we have less to be thankful for, but perhaps the reason why we feel that way is because we aren’t saying thank you enough.
If that is the case, start small to start experiencing the benefits of gratitude. For example: We don’t need excuses to add more kindness to the world, but the fact that gratitude is healthy is definitely something in itself to be thankful for.
BY MINDVALLEY ACADEMY