Gratitude: A Genuine Gift
What is Gratitude?
You may not understand gratitude or know what it is…
But you definitely know how it feels like.
The warmth in your chest, the joy that overcomes your senses.
The rush of positive elation in response to the utter goodness that you have just experienced in your life.
We feel grateful when we overcome obstacles and achieve milestones in our lives. We feel it when a loved one is there, offering us a shoulder to cry on; and we feel it when a stranger helps us pick up the groceries we just dropped, saving us from turning red with embarrassment.
Gratitude is a deep sense of appreciation which results in lasting positive emotions.
The Harvard Medical School defines gratitude as:
“a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives. As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals – whether to other people, nature or a higher power”
Gratitude is a beautiful emotional experience and a kindness that is offered in return for a kindness received. In that context, gratitude is an emotion and energy that can be directed towards another for offering you something that you were never owed.
This exchange led researchers Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough to define gratitude as a two-step process: (1) “recognizing that one has obtained a positive outcome”; and (2) “recognizing that there is an external source for this positive outcome.”
Simply put, gratitude is the acknowledgment of the goodness in one’s life and the recognition that the sources of this goodness may lie either within or beyond the self.
Unsurprisingly, gratitude is a universal human attribute that is expressed by people from all cultures, religions and backgrounds.
It has been the lubricant which has promoted collaboration and camaraderie between peoples since the dawn of time.
In fact, reciprocal altruism, whereby a kindness received is a kindness returned, may be driven by gratitude. So is upstream altruism – whereby an act of kindness is paid forward due to the positive rush of gratitude.
Gratitude is both a trait and a state.
Some researchers have found expressions of gratitude in our genes – an evolutionary mechanism that inspires us to turn strangers into friends through acts of reciprocal altruism. The personal inclination towards a daily gratitude practice suggests that gratitude may be a personality trait, and an immense character strength at that.
Gratitude is also a neurological response to a gift, with the power to rewire our minds. Hormones and neurotransmitters act on certain regions in the brain to lower fear, increase bonding, and heighten our vibrations. This results in an emotional response and a deep sense of appreciation which frame gratitude as a state.
Whether as a trait or a state, recent studies into the health benefits of practicing gratitude swear by gratitude’s immense boost to our well-being – cognitively, psychologically, spiritually and physically.
But before we dive into the benefits of practicing gratitude and how you can begin to master it today, let’s explore how gratitude is reflected in our brain.
The Brain on Gratitude
Gratitude is truly a foundational human emotion that reflects virtuous character and fosters strong social bonds.
Researchers have explored how gratitude is experienced in the brain and found that neurotransmitters released and brain regions activated by feelings of gratitude could explain some of the long-term benefits of a gratitude practice.
In addition, understanding the neurological processes involved in gratitude could help us better understand the nature and functions of gratitude.
By understanding how gratitude influences health, we are able to devise interventions that help us consciously elicit gratitude and stand to reap the benefits just the same.
Gratitude Is a Process
Our brain is designed to keep us alive.
As such, when we meet with decisions and experiences, the brain integrates costs and benefits using its reasoning centres – weighing the expected rewards and losses – before accepting or rejecting options.
With that said, researchers observed that gratitude decreases brain integration of costs and benefits, especially in instances where the kindness received is unexpected or impossible to repay.
Emmons and MacNamara, gratitude researchers and authors, explored this phenomenon and found gratitude to be three-step process that begins with the benefactor (the person initiating the kindness) and ends with the recipient (the person experiencing gratitude) inspired to pay it forward:
Awareness and presence are key in the gratitude experience.
Through awareness, the recipient acknowledges that a gift has been received. Positive emotions rush to the surface as the acknowledgement sinks in. The recipient feels humbled to have been blessed with the gift which appears undeserved.
This is followed by the recipient expressing verbally, or nonverbally, gratitude cues like a gush of “thanks”, a bright smile, or a warm hug. The benefactor is then the lucky recipient of appreciation and compassionate love. This inspires the benefactor to keep repeating this behavior which apparently has a wonderful impact.
Finally, the recipient is met with a choice. Gratitude motivates reciprocity, and the recipient can choose to pay it forward through reciprocal or upstream altruism. If the gift received was significant, or possibly from the universe, the recipient may choose to bask in the joy of gratitude without the need to reciprocate at all.
Some would argue that sincere, heartfelt gratitude – the kind that can lift your spirits and lighten your load – is reciprocity enough.
Gratitude Is a Neurological Phenomenon
Gratitude research has revealed that there are about 1200 chemical reactions that take place within our bodies when we are in a state of gratitude.
Let’s have a look at how the brain behaves when it’s in gratitude.
Dopamine, the primary reward and pleasure hormone, surges through the brain when we express gratitude.
Research into the neuroscience of gratitude reveals that dopamine released during expressions of gratitude result in a “natural high” accompanied by positive emotions, pro-social behavior and feelings of long-lasting happiness. It is also involved in the motivation for seeking reward – in this case, repeating kindness and gratitude to experience the high once again.
Serotonin has long been hailed as the “happiness neurotransmitter” and is released when we’re in a state of gratitude.
Serotonin helps in mood stabilization and enhances feelings of well-being, contentment and joy. Increasing serotonin in the brain has been linked to decreased symptoms of depression as well as its prevention. Gratitude, which in and of itself is a positive thought, stimulates the release of serotonin and helps boost our mood and wellbeing.
Cortisol, also known as the “stress hormone”, decreases during feelings of gratitude.
Cortisol is released by the body as a defence mechanism because it increases glucose in the blood stream to facilitate brain activity and tissue repair. However, chronic stress can lead to anxiety, depression, digestive problems, headaches and more. Gratitude curbs cortisol production to help vanquish stress and relieve our bodies from stress-related deterioration.
Activation of the Hypothalamus
Feeling gratitude increases activation in the hypothalamus, resulting in better health.
The hypothalamus is the region of the brain that is responsible for managing a wide array of bodily functions including eating, drinking, sleeping, metabolism and stress regulation.
Researchers from the National Institute of Health examined the effect of gratitude on the brain and found that simply conjuring feelings of gratitude sent more blood flow into the hypothalamus. This activation resulted in gratitude being linked with better sleep, improved weight management, decreased depression and overall improved health.
Activation in Medial Prefrontal Cortex
The medial prefrontal cortex, responsible for learning, helps us remember how rewarding gratitude is when we experience it.
Researchers Joshua Brown and Joel Wong conducted fMRI scans which showed increased activation in the medial prefrontal cortex – the area of the brain responsible for learning and long term memory. This revealed that gratitude lingers in the brain and has lasting effects that have boost our mental health over time.
Activation of Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex
Expressing gratitude activates the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, inspiring us to not only reciprocate, but to extend altruistic acts towards others.
The ventromedial prefrontal cortex has been associated with neural pure altruism. This brain region computes perceptual difference signals related to decision-making such as cost-benefit analysis, reflected through neural signals which code the extent to which an event or activity is a cost or benefit.
Gratitude, especially in a spiritual sense, transcends the daily tit-for-tat computation system of cost-benefit. Instead of ascribing value to the gift received, the receiver – overcome with gratitude – considers the gift invaluable.
As we feel humbled by gratitude, we share this positivity and kindness with others.
Social Psychology & Gratitude
In their book Where God & Science Meet: Evolution, Genes and the Religious Brain, Emmons and MacNamara write:
“Specifically, the emotion of gratitude has been hypothesized to have developed in order to solve problems of group governance.”
From an evolutionary perspective, gratitude has ensured our survival by cultivating a drive towards good-will and reciprocity between people.
Reciprocal and upstream altruism inspired by gratitude help spread goodness and positive behavior beyond the single, individual experience.
Historically, gratitude served to ensure that people sustained moral and virtuous behavior and stifled destructive interpersonal behavior.
Through the understanding that goodness received is goodness reciprocated, people are more likely to engage in acts of good-will as an unconscious investment – if I am kind, others will be kind to me.
As we are rewarded with reciprocal kindness, it reinforces our commitment to repeating our initial acts of kindness to perpetuate the cycle of kindness for ourselves and others.
People who practice gratitude enjoy heightened positive feelings and report higher tendencies towards helping and emotionally supporting others.
On the contrary, lack of gratitude where gratitude is due could signal serious internal issues that one must work through in order to live a fuller and more joyful life.
Robert Solomon summarizes that concept beautifully in the book The Psychology of Gratitude:
“Where gratitude is appropriate, even mandatory, being ungrateful is a sign of symptom of lack of socialization, whether evident in the inability to appreciate what others have done for one or, worse, the grudging resentment of one’s own vulnerability and the refusal to admit one’s debt to others.”
Ethics and virtue philosophers have long taken the stand that gratitude was integral to positive character and have gone as far as listing ‘ingratitude’ as a vice – a crime that is at the heart of wickedness.
Through that lens, gratitude is seen as an obligation and a moral responsibility of every human. We are part of a community and the social relationships depend on our capacity for compassionate love and gratitude.
In truth, gratitude is a window into the heart and life of the recipient.
Emmons and MacNamara break down the four messages communicated to the benefactor when indications of gratitude brightens up the receiver’s countenance:
The receiver has perceived that he has been bestowed with a gift and therefore holds possible valuable resources.
The receiver is most likely trustworthy and cooperative as gratitude inspires reciprocity.
The receiver is most likely genuine, as gratitude is a costly, complex emotion.
The receiver may likely be connected to networks of individuals who may offer gifts and opportunities.
Insofar as gratitude is expressed, it acts as a social lubricant.
It signals both the benefactor and receiver that an acknowledgement of the kindness has been made and, albeit unconsciously, a promise for reciprocity has been set in stone. This pleasant, reciprocal exchange also holds the potential for further pleasant exchanges in the future.
Gratitude offers individual and adaptive advantages, signalling to others that you are capable of humility and appreciation. Gratitude can win you new friends and increases your likeability as it lets others know that you’re warm and willing to enter into a reciprocal exchange with them.
Gratitude also goes beyond reciprocity, promoting relationship formation and maintenance. Gratitude research has revealed that gratitude increases your social capital – a stronger and wider social network of meaningful relationships – thus enhancing group dynamics and social support.
Nathaniel M. Lambert and his research team explored the benefits of expressing gratitude in social contexts and concluded that gratitude changes the way family, friends and partners view the relationship, reporting higher communal strength and solidarity.
In love and relationships, gratitude has been linked to increased relationship maintenance behaviours like talking things over, thinking positively about the relationship and partner, and offering support. It also enhances reliance and dependability in the relationship and demonstrates care.
Having considered the benefits of gratitude on social relationships and evolution, gratitude goes beyond deep appreciation towards X for gift Y.
Gratitude rises beyond relationships and brings to mind the bigger picture, our lives in its entirety, and just how much, in every phase of our lives, we are indebted to forces beyond ourselves.
It encourages us be to be present and aware of the fact that goodness may well come from outside of ourselves, allowing us to transcend over our current situations and carry hope for the future.
The reality is, as humans, we are always vulnerable and dependent on the goodwill of others to be able to thrive.
As children, we can’t survive without the care of adults. As adults, our longevity, good health and happiness are empowered by the people around us that love us. In the business world, entrepreneurs are urged to surround themselves with mentors who can help them take their businesses to the next level.
Gratitude is not limited to one instance of kindness, nor is it particularly personal. In the greater and wider scheme of things, there is no need to begrudge ourselves our innate vulnerability. Instead, we can acknowledge humbly our weaknesses and express gratitude to those who complement them – allowing us to soar.
As we soar, we may offer many others numerous kindnesses and, in turn, bask in the gratitude we receive.
Gratitude & Emotional Healing
Gratitude practice has become a therapeutic intervention for those of us suffering from depression, anxiety, and feelings of low self-worth.
It gives our life a more positive spin and helps put things in perspective. This contributes to our wellbeing because it sends us on an “upward spiral” – where one positive emotion triggers more positive emotions, attitudes and behaviours.
Gratitude belongs under the broaden-and-build theory which proposes that positive emotions broaden the minds of individuals, leading them to build better personal, physical, intellectual, social and psychological resources.
In the same way that positive emotions can drive more positivity, negativity can spiral quickly and result in feelings of anxiety, depression, overwhelm, stress and hopelessness. Gratitude practices can be used to reverse the downward spiral, allowing us to mitigate, if not alleviate, negativity.
As you experience gratitude and flood your brain with more positivity, you cultivate happiness, which in turn, inspires you to act in a positive manner, resulting in more positive emotions.
Gratitude has been linked with greater happiness, life-satisfaction and energy. It acts like a social glue, enhancing our relationships and deepening our connections with others. As we belong to a wider social circle, we banish loneliness and isolation and open ourselves up to receiving and offering support.
A ten-week study into the impact of gratitude on overall health and wellbeing was conducted by dividing participants into three groups: (a) kept a gratitude journal; (b) journaled daily issues that upset them; and (c) journaled about neutral daily events. The group that journaled reported higher levels of physical activity and lower trips to the doctors than the other two groups.
In a similar study, researchers examined the impact of gratitude on 300 adult patients seeking psychotherapy for issues related to depression and anxiety. All participants were undergoing counselling and were divided into three groups: (a)
Another study published in the Journal of Health Psychology examined the effects of gratitude on individuals suffering from depression, anxiety, chronic pain, and sleep disturbances. As you can imagine at this point, the results reflected that practising gratitude improved patients’ sleep quality and alleviated their symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Gratitude acts on the parasympathetic nervous system which is responsible for undoing the trauma left behind in the wake of stressful situations. This activation allows our bodies to develop stronger resilience to better overcome anxiety, anger, and resentment.
Gratitude is a powerful coping mechanism that helps us relieve stress. As we cultivate gratitude and practice it, we spend more time in a positive place, reaping all the rewards through the power of a grateful thought.
Gratitude heals grief. We will all come face to face with the loss of a loved one. It’s an inevitability of life. However, it does not need to be heart-crushing.
Grief doesn’t necessary only apply to the loss of a dear one. It also rears its head when we lose our dreams, time, identity, marriage, friends, and self-esteem.
Practising gratitude in those moments– however unrealistic it may feel – has the potential to shift the energy from a place of sadness and possibly despair, to one of appreciation, optimism, and transformation.
But wait, there’s more. Studies reveal that even our DNA is affected by gratitude!
Our DNA changes shape according to our feelings. When we are stressed, fearful, frustrated and anxious, our DNA tightens its strands, shortens itself, and begins turning off DNA codes. This is why we feel tired when we’re feeling down.
However, when we are drowning in love and gratitude, our DNA relaxes, unwinding and lengthening its strands. It also switches back on all the DNA codes previously shut off. This allows the body to multiply its immune capacity, heal our cells, and increase our longevity.
And we all deserve to live happy, healthy lives.
More Brilliant Benefits of Gratitude
Gratitude enriches every aspect of our lives and has been hailed as a meta-strategy for promoting good health and well-being.
In her book The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want, Sonja Lyubomirsky writes:
“Gratitude is an antidote to negative emotions, a neutralizer of envy, hostility, worry and irritation. It is savouring; it is not taking things for granted; it is present-oriented.”
Gratitude has a multitude of benefits on every dimension of our lives.
Gratitude rewires the brain: In accordance with neuroscience research and Hebb’s Law which states that “neurons that fire together, wire together”, practicing gratitude increases neuron density and allows us to benefit from the healing brought on by gratitude long after the initial feelings of gratitude have passed.
Gratitude lowers cellular inflammation: Research into patients of heart failure showed that when they kept a ‘gratitude journal’ for eight weeks, they had reduced signs of inflammation afterwards.
Gratitude increases resilience: Gratitude practices have been shown to markedly reduce levels of stress, resulting in better cardiac functioning, increased resilience to trauma and a generally more positive outlook on life.
Gratitude strengthens social bonds: Gratitude inspires people to be more generous and altruistic – characteristics that are linked with pro-social behavior. It also helps people remember the positive experiences and goodness they share with others, inspiring them to form deeper bonds with others.
Gratitude enhances relationships: Expressing gratitude to partners has been shown to sustain their relationships and increase mutual trust, loyalty, and happiness in relationships.
Gratitude improves health: Practicing gratitude and keeping a ‘gratitude journal’ has been linked with decreased stress, improved quality of sleep, and increased energy.
Gratitude reduces aches and pains: Gratitude activates parts of the brain that regulate emotion and increases energy, resulting in decreased subjective feelings of pain.
Gratitude improves sleep quality: Gratitude’s effect on the hypothalamus, which regulates our sleep, triggers deeper and more peaceful sleep and leads to more energy in the morning.
So, there you have it.
There is no end to the list of benefits of gratitude on every aspect of our physical, mental, psychological, emotional and social wellbeing.
And luckily, gratitude is easy to master.
Indiana University researchers, led by Prathik Kini, recruited 43 people who were undergoing counselling to treat anxiety and/or depression in order to understand the effects of gratitude on neural expression. The researchers tasked the participants to write letters expressing gratitude and measured their brain activity.
Three months later, the researchers once again measured the brain activity of the participants and found more gratitude-related activity than initially recorded.
Lo and behold, gratitude lingers in the brain and, like a muscle, it is strengthened when it is consistently used.
There is no doubt that gratitude is the way forward for you, me and all of us.
Here are 3 research-backed ways you can begin to cultivate and practice gratitude in your daily life:
There is great power in the written word.
A gratitude journal is a powerful way to practice gratitude. This article itself has mentioned a many of the benefits associated with keeping a gratitude journal. Here’s one more just to be sure:
Gratitude experts, Emmons and Mccullough, conducted a study examining the effect of gratitude journaling on individuals living with neuromuscular disease. Participants were required to keep a daily gratitude journal where they recorded in detail things that they were grateful for that day. They concluded gratitude journaling involved consciously counting blessings, resulting in emotional and interpersonal benefits.
Keeping a gratitude journal is a personal practice and an opportunity for reflection. There’s so much to be grateful for, many of which we take for granted, such as our beating hearts, the trees around us, the roof over our heads.
You can get started by acquiring a blank notebook and a pen, then following some of these suggestions to help you make the most of the practice:
Show up motivated and excited to journal. Having the right mindset helps you make the most of the practice. If you believe that gratitude journaling will help you tap into the healing power of gratitude, it most likely will.
Set time aside for your gratitude journaling practice. You may choose to journal early or late in the day. Luckily, it’s reported that writing once or twice a week is more effective than journaling three times a week or more.
Don’t constrict yourself to only positive events. Negatives events may also offer opportunities for gratitude. A setback may have been all you needed to inspire you to grow and learn; that’s definitely something to be grateful for.
Don’t skimp on the details. It’s better to focus on a few events and express them in detail than to mention many events superficially. Spend time digging deep and recognize that every item that you list in your journal is a gift that deserves to be savoured and appreciated.
There is no right or wrong way to keep a gratitude journal. Tap into your imagination and find ways to make the experience enjoyable. Keeping a gratitude journal is not a chore, it’s a rewarding experience – one you willingly and happily undertake.
So, pull out the big guns – your creativity – and express your gratitude in all the colours imaginable.
Once again, we are awed by the power of words.
In a study investigating the extent of gratitude interventions in increasing individual happiness, researchers gave the participants a week to write a gratitude letter to someone who has been exceptionally kind to them and deliver it, in person.
The steps of writing the gratitude letter were as follows:
Think of someone who has done you a wonderful kindness that you have not properly thanked.
Reflect on the benefits you received from the person and write a letter expressing in detail what they have done for you and why you feel grateful.
Arrange to meet the person so you can deliver the letter and stay for a while to talk about what you wrote in the letter.
You probably know what happened next.
The participants reported more happiness a month later.
They felt absolved of the guilt of not having shown enough appreciation before. The interaction also served to strengthen their bonds with the recipients of their letters, leading to higher overall satisfaction and meaning in their lives.
So, who are you going to write a gratitude letter to?
There is power in silence too.
Researchers examined the impact of gratitude meditation on wellbeing, self-compassion, and confidence by having participants undergo a gratitude meditation training online and practice it only once. From only one instance of gratitude meditation, participants were able to access all the benefits of gratitude and strengthen their gratitude “muscle”.
You can find a number of wonderful guided gratitude meditations online.
Here are some tips to help you get started with a guided gratitude meditation:
Practice daily, even if it’s for just five minutes. Consistency is key. Starting and ending the day with a gratitude mediation can help you focus on the things you have, instead of the things you don’t. It’s also a wonderful way to begin and end your day!
Find a comfortable, quiet place and schedule a good time that you can commit to. Picking a good spot can help manage distractions during your practice. Draw the blinds, light a scented candle and keep the volume at comfortable levels.
Sit upright and maintain the right posture, as much as you can. Good posture helps in blood and energy circulation, helping to relax your muscles and promote better posture all day. If sitting is too uncomfortable, you may choose to lie down on your back with your palms facing upwards.
Be open and non-judgmental during your practice. Your mind may wander. Your posture may slouch. Don’t overthink those thoughts. The goal is to look beyond the temporary obstacles and remember we have much to be grateful for. Afterall…
…It’s the grateful thought that counts.