How Gratitude Rewires the Mind

Mindfulness experts recommend starting and ending each day by making a list — either in your mind, or in a journal — of all of the things that you have to be grateful for. As it turns out, they’re on to something. Giving thanks for the things in your life that you’re grateful for can have a deep impact on your mind.

Gratitude Affects Neural Activity

A 2016 study by researchers at Indiana University followed a group of people who consistently entered psychotherapy for depression, anxiety, or both. One half of the group continued therapy alone, while the other added a simple writing exercise: write letters expressing gratitude. After three months, the subjects were given an fMRI scan. During the scan, they were told that a benefactor had generously chosen to give them a monetary gift, and asked if they’d like to show their gratitude by donating some to charity. The people who had been asked to perform the writing exercise showed a greater sensitivity to feelings of gratitude, and their brains were more affected by it. In fact, even months after the study, the writing group had more gratitude-related activity in their brains. This means that expressing gratitude expands on your ability to experience gratitude, and the more grateful you are for the good things in your life, the happier you’ll be.

Gratitude Boosts Neurotransmitters

Another study in 2008 measured brain activity in subjects that were asked to imagine a number of different scenarios — either situations where they did something to trigger feelings of pride or guilt, or situations where someone did something to them to trigger gratitude or anger. They found that gratitude activated multiple brain pathways, even affecting parts of the brain’s reward center and causing the release of “feel good” chemicals like serotonin and dopamine.

Gratitude Changes the Body, Too

The Mindfulness Awareness Research Center of UCLA found that, in addition to creating a healthy self-perpetuating cycle and releasing neurotransmitters that make us happier, gratitude changes certain brain structures and can affect the rest of the body. Gratitude activates the hippocampus and amygdala, two key regulators of emotions, certain bodily functions, and memory, as well as the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus regulates sleep, so regularly expressing gratitude can lead to better, healthier sleep. A study that evaluated the effects of gratitude journaling on pain found that 16% of study participants who wrote expressing gratitude had reduced symptoms. Lastly, gratitude can help reduce levels of cortisol, the body’s stress hormone. People with reduced cortisol were more emotionally resilient, less anxious, and experienced better cardiac function.

You Don’t Have to Be a Gratitude Expert

The best part about gratitude’s effect on the brain? You don’t have to have much in order to experience the benefits. In fact, research shows that the simple act of looking for things to be grateful for is enough to trigger many of the rewiring processes. It gets easier with time, too — since gratitude activates the brain’s reward center and stimulates the release of dopamine, looking for things to be grateful for becomes easier the more you do it.

There’s virtually no limit to the ways you can express gratitude. Try journaling, writing thank you notes, or even just taking a few minutes every day to think of five things you have to be grateful for. The more you do it, the easier it becomes, and the more benefits you’ll experience. Even if you don’t know what you have to be grateful for, just taking the time to look for the sunny side of life can have some serious mental and physical benefits.