Thinking about all of the things you are grateful for is likely to bring a smile to your face and a feeling of warmth to your heart.
Would you be surprised to learn that feeling appreciative can also cause changes in your brain? It’s true! Experts at UCLA’s Mindfulness Awareness Research Center have uncovered evidence that indicates that feeling gratitude can alter the brain’s molecular structure, paving the way for gratitude to be used as a powerful tool against depression as well as anxiety (https://www.collective-evolution.com/2019/02/14/scientists-show-how-gratitude-literally-alters-the-human-heart-molecular-structure-of-the-brain/).
Many other studies have found similarly eye-opening data about the link between gratitude and well-being.
For example, one study divided individuals into three groups, each with a different journal assignment. One group was asked to list five things they were grateful for within the past week, one group was asked to list troublesome events form the previous week and the third group was asked to list five previous occasions but not instructed to report on negative or positive events. The study lasted for two and a half months and overall subjects in the gratitude group reported more positive feelings regarding their lives and were 25% happier than the group asked to record negative events. In addition, they reported fewer health issues and exercised more.
Another study from the University of California, of almost 300 adults with diagnosed mental health concerns, also randomly assigned subjects to three groups.
All individuals received counseling. In addition, one group was asked to write one letter of gratitude to another person three times in three weeks, one group was asked to write about negative experiences, and the last was not given a writing assignment.
Think you can guess the findings from this study? If you guessed that the group who wrote gratitude letters reported significantly better mental health after the study, versus the individuals who wrote about negative experiences or not at all, you’d be right!
But the researchers took their study further by also measuring biological markers of gratitude. To do this they used an fMRI scanner to measure brain activity when subjects performed a “pay it forward” task, one based on feelings of gratitude.
What they found was that the people who felt more gratitude in general showed a different type of brain activity than the other participants. Specifically, these individuals displayed greater neural sensitivity in the part of the brain area associated with decision making and learning, the medial prefrontal cortex.
For example, those who wrote gratitude letters showed greater activation in the medial prefrontal cortex than those who didn’t write them.
Even more profound, this effect was found to still be in place a full three months after the letter writing commenced. Does this mean that expressing gratitude has lingering effects on the brain?
Researchers cannot make this statement with certainty. But, these findings do suggest that practicing an act of gratitude may help teach the brain to be predisposed to gratefulness in the future, perhaps leading to enhanced mental health over time.
What the findings do suggest is that writing about gratitude may be a useful tool for boosting well-being in individuals struggling with mental health issues, and that when combined with counseling, practicing gratitude is potentially more beneficial than counseling by itself.
Based on their findings, the scientists from Berkeley listed several takeaways from their research on gratitude and well-being:
- Gratitude can be beneficial even if it isn’t shared with others
- Gratitude liberates us from toxic emotions
- Gratitude has lingering effects on the brain
- Gratitude’s benefits don’t happen overnight
On a related note, science is also uncovering evidence that feeling grateful has the power to affect the heart as well as the brain.
Researchers at the Institute of HeartMath have recently published intriguing findings that show the heart taps out a different message when we are feeling positive emotions such as gratitude, versus negative emotions.
For example, the heart rhythm pattern is erratic and disordered when we feel stressed and negative, and this inhibits the brain’s cognitive function which in turn limits our ability to reason, remember and make effective decisions. Conversely, positive emotional states are associated with a more stable and orderly heart pattern which ultimately aids cognitive function and acts to reinforce emotional stability.
Rolin McCratey, the Director of Research at HeartMath says that, “Emotional information is actually coded and modulated … by learning to shift our emotions, we are changing the information coded into the magnetic fields that are radiated by the heart, and that can impact those around us. We are fundamentally and deeply connected with each other and the planet itself.”
He goes on to note that, “One important way the heart can speak to and influence the brain is when the heart is coherent – experiencing stable, sine-wavelike pattern in its rhythms. When the heart is coherent, the body, including the brain, begins to experience all sorts of benefits, among them are greater mental clarity and ability, including better decision making.”
If it’s true that each individual’s energy affects our collective environment, than emotions and other factors associated with consciousness have the potential to not only transform our inner world, but also the world around us.
Think about it: if we can change our own being through gratitude, we have the power to make the world at large a better place.
In the words of McCratey, it is theoretically possible to involve a large enough number of individuals to feel, think about, and write about what they appreciate in life so that they affect a global unity and peacefulness.
That kind of makes you want to make a list of things you’re grateful for, doesn’t it?!
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