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The Power of Gratitude: What Happens to Your Brain When You're Thankful

"What are you grateful for?" That's a question many Americans ask and answer at Thanksgiving. However, the power of gratitude is far too valuable to reserve for the holidays. Saying thanks is more than a polite way to acknowledge when others demonstrate kindness. Thinking about, and expressing, gratitude positively impacts your physical and mental health. In fact, your brain actively responds to gratitude.

So, how does thankfulness contribute to your holistic well-being?

This Is Your Brain on Gratitude

The power of gratitude is, at least in part, common sense. You simply feel better when you focus on positive emotions rather than negative ones, and because gratitude means feeling happy about something that someone else has done for you, you feel more connected.

Studies on grateful thinking show that it does more than improve your mood and relationships. According to research published by the American Psychological Association, it leads to better mental health, better sleep, less fatigue, and even better cardiac health.

Scientists have long understood the power of gratitude, but have only been able to guess why it has such holistic healing benefits. In a 2015 study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, researchers stimulated feelings of gratitude in 23 subjects by having them read firsthand accounts from Holocaust survivors about strangers who gave them shelter, food, and other life-saving gifts. Then, while they underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), participants were asked to imagine what it would be like to receive these gifts.

The result revealed increased activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, medial prefrontal cortex, and various parts of both hemispheres of the brain. Activity in these regions has also been linked to reward, moral cognitive processes, and social connections — meaning these parts stimulate happiness or relief, and play a role in how you make moral decisions and judge other people. These areas of the brain are also involved in self-processing.

In other words, grateful thinking changes how you feel about others and yourself.

Gratitude: A Healthy Habit to Form

Grateful thinking provides more than a quick burst of health and happiness. It can actually rewire your brain to feel extra thankful for months, according to another 2015 brain-scanning study in NeuroImage. This experiment involved 43 people who were entering counseling to treat anxiety or depression. While the control group simply attended weekly counseling sessions, 22 participants also completed a gratitude intervention. Before their first three sessions, they spent 20 minutes writing a letter expressing gratitude to someone.

Three months later, all of the participants completed a "Pay It Forward" gratitude exercise in a brain scanner. They were "gifted" various amounts of money by imaginary benefactors and told they could donate some or all of the money to a third party. On average, the more money a participant donated, the more grateful they reported feeling. More generous participants also experienced greater activity in the frontal, parietal, and occipital regions of the brain. Researchers noted that these activity patterns were different than those stimulated by other related emotions, such as empathy and compassion. This suggests that gratitude is a unique emotion with unique psychological benefits.

The results were even better for participants who completed the gratitude task months earlier. Two weeks after the writing assignments, not only did they report feeling more grateful than the control group, but they also showed more gratitude-related brain activity months later. This suggests that gratitude is self-perpetuating — the more you practice gratitude, the more you notice opportunities to be thankful.

Psychologists still have a lot to learn on this topic, and more studies will surely follow. But these early brain imaging results prove that the power of gratitude is more than touchy-feely pseudoscience. It's a very real psychological phenomenon with measurable benefits for both your mind and body.

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