The Amazing Science of Gratitude

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

The year 2021 is well underway. The hope which a new year brings has faded as COVID-stress and the endless waiting for improvements take their toll. Not seeing these improvements has resulted in poor coping…. The question remains: how do we continue to be most effective; to be our best selves each day? Whether clients, colleagues, or family; how do we guide them to a better future?

Gratitude!

The word immediately conjures images of bouquets, handmade cards written in inexperienced script with crayon, a turkey dinner surrounded by family, and whispered prayers. A nice sentiment, to be sure, but is there any substance to it? Indeed, the scientific data is in on the crucial and amazing effects of expressing thanks.

The Research

Scientists have discovered that grateful people are healthier, happier, better employees, more resilient in crisis, and more spiritually minded or connected to God.

Gratitude is good for our well-being. According to a 2012 study published in Personality and Individual Differences, gratitude’s positive effects resulted in fewer reports of aches and pains. These grateful people were also more likely to take care of their health, and exercised more often, which would increase health and well-being. 1

A 2011 study published in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being found that writing in a gratitude journal improves sleep. 2

As part of a study by Emmons and McCullough on the effects of gratitude, a group of young adults was asked to keep a daily gratitude journal. A second group was asked to journal about things that annoyed them or why they were better off than others. This conscious effort to be grateful in the first group was found to promote heightened well-being. It increased prosocial behaviors, built friendships, and inspired altruism. Comparison with others who are less fortunate did not have an impact unless it was intentionally processed into gratitude.3

This enhanced well-being and prosocial behavior extends to the workplace. A grateful manager results in greater cohesion within the group and increases employee productivity. Gratitude builds professional commitment as employees are more likely to volunteer for assignments or do something extra to complete a project. A study published in the International Journal of Workplace Health Management consistently found gratitude resulted in higher safety ratings, higher job satisfaction, more proactive behavior, less cynicism, and fewer absences due to illness.4

Gratitude increases resilience in times of crisis and stress. A Behavior Research and Therapy study on Vietnam War Veterans in 2006 found that a higher level of gratitude resulted in less Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and daily gratitude increased their sense of well-being.5

A study conducted during the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic among Chinese Singaporeans found that gratitude promoted positive coping and prosocial behavior. Participants were more open to supporting the well-being of others. In fact, “gratitude could be a key resource in enabling adaptation to crisis.”6

Brain Science

Our brains respond to giving and receiving expressions of gratitude by releasing the crucial neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. These neurotransmitters are responsible for our emotions and enhance our moods, resulting in feelings of happiness.

The hippocampus and amygdala, the parts of the brain which regulate bodily function, memory, and emotion, are activated with feelings of gratitude. This allows the limbic system in the brain to release toxic emotions, thereby reducing pain and depression, and improving sleep and stress regulation.7

An interesting aspect of this process is that events we experience do not trigger a release of dopamine unless our attention is focused on them. The average day is full of many good and bad moments, but unless noticed, the neurotransmitter will not be released that will allow one to feel either good or bad.8

Dr. Caroline Leaf says in her blog, Is Pessimism Bad for the Brain, that “Every time we feel pessimistic, we should practice being thankful rather than merely ruminating on our lot in life. This can revive the wired-for-love design of our brains, activating a self-perpetuating cycle of positivity in the mind. Choosing to be grateful instead of thinking the worst in any given situation helps us see our circumstances differently and gives us the ability to persevere and stay positive even when times are tough!”9

Where you focus your attention makes actual physical, and chemically discernable differences in your brain and in how you feel. However, gratitude is not a quick fix or a miracle guarantee. One still needs to acknowledge the reasons for sadness and grief, and work to reduce stress. Gratitude redirects our vision from the present difficulties to the many good and right things that also exist.

Science and Faith

Not only are grateful people physically, emotionally, and relationally healthier but they are also different in spiritual matters. 10 Scientific research confirms what human nature has intuitively known, and history demonstrates: a strong positive association between gratitude and religion.

Across the globe are varied cultures that had equally varied celebrations of thanksgiving for harvests and blessings. History documents that chants of gratitude were part of ancient Buddhist monks’ days and that prayers of gratitude were often included in Native American ceremonies. Ancient wisdom in the Judeo-Christian Bible references giving thanks well over 100 times in the Old Testament, and one out of every 6 of its Psalms contain expressions of thankfulness. Therefore, gratitude is not a new idea, nor is it exclusively connected to one culture or religion. It is deeply rooted in human interactions and is how we can see beyond ourselves to other people or circumstances responsible for blessings. As part of the common human experience, gratitude forges connections with individual people, groups, communities, ideas, or with God.11

Along with many of our clients, the staff at Plains Edge embrace the Judeo-Christian perspective of God. Therefore, we would like to highlight the way gratitude is woven into the Christian faith.

The Biblical Psalms are full of gratitude expressions in worship (Psalm 100:4, 95:2, NIV)12. When Colossians 3:17 says, “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.”, it shows God’s awareness that looking beyond ourselves with gratitude is what we need to forge a spiritual connection with Him.

Alternatively, as Dr. Leaf has pointed out, the consequence of neglecting thankfulness rewires the brain in negative ways. The result is a loss of spiritual connection with God, “For although they knew God, they neither glorified Him as God nor gave thanks to Him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.” (Romans 1:21)

The Bible encourages believers not to “conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (Romans 12:2) This is to be accomplished by taking “…captive every thought…” (2 Cor 10:5) and thinking about things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, or praiseworthy (Phil 4:8).

When we respond to problems around us by praying “with thanksgiving,” we are promised that we “…will experience God’s peace…” which exceeds anything we can understand. (Phil 4:6-7) Focusing on difficulties causes us to lose sight of both God’s presence and His goodness, thereby robbing us of peace.

Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, we receive undeserved grace and forgiveness of sins, resulting in profound gratitude to God.

Barriers

If gratitude is beneficial from a scientific and faith perspective, why do people struggle to practice it? Obviously, problems demand attention, whereas blessings are already secured and easier to take for granted, but the struggle is much deeper than that.

One common barrier is entitlement. The entitled person receives something good but feels they are “owed” or deserve it, essentially practicing ingratitude. The grateful person does not assume the world owes them anything.

Another barrier is the misunderstanding that gratitude comes from a place of privilege. The expectation that “I will be happy when…” causes us to miss out on the day-to-day joys of life while waiting for a particular dream to be fulfilled. This mindset feeds the myth of scarcity and feelings of never having enough.

Fear also creates barriers to gratitude by making us uncomfortable in sharing our emotions. Honesty about how hard a situation is does not nullify the goodness of God or other valid feelings of thankfulness. Choosing to practice gratitude during difficult circumstances shifts our perspective and brings joy back into life.

Gratitude Lifestyle

It is easier to feel thankful when things in life are going well, but gratitude is not just a singular event but rather a lifestyle that habitually looks for blessings each day. Dr. Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., states that there are two parts to gratitude. The first is affirming the goodness that always exists in life. The second is recognizing that the source of these good things is often outside of ourselves.

Begin cultivating a gratitude lifestyle by affirming goodness around you. Like the students who participated in the Emmons and McCullough study, try keeping a gratitude journal. List three things every day that you are thankful for or create a weekly list. When life gives you lemons, read over the journal to remind yourself of the good things while you sip that proverbial lemonade! When you look in the mirror, think about things that you did well today.

Embrace gratitude’s change of focus to see beyond yourself to the source of those good blessings. Express gratitude to those around you and to God. Meditate on Scripture, use prayer and worship music to keep your focus on Him.

Finally, allow the gratitude lifestyle to develop prosocial behaviors and enhance social relationships. Extend grace to those around you who are struggling and be a source of positive change in your community.

Conclusion

Gratitude is more than just a polite sentiment. An integral part of the human experience, it is how the human brain is wired to forge connections beyond oneself. Being grateful evokes good feelings in us today and creates a lifestyle that helps us embrace the good in future days. It enables us to be the best self that God intended for us to be.

Thanks for joining us in exploring this topic!


1 Forbes: 7 Scientifically Proven Benefits Of Gratitude That Will Motivate You To Give Thanks Year-Round
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Personality and Individual Differences Journal Vol. 54 Issue 1

2 Effects of Constructive Worry, Imagery Distraction, and Gratitude Interventions on Sleep Quality: A Pilot Trial. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being July 2011, Volume 3, Issue 2, pages 193-206 Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being July 2011

3 Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life, Robert A. Emmons, University of California, Davis and Michael E. McCullough, University of Miami Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2003, Vol. 84, No. 2, 377-389 Greater Good in Education: Counting Blessings Versus Burdens

4 Burke, R.J., Ng, E.S.W. and Fiksenbaum, L. (2009), Virtues, work satisfactions and psychological wellbeing among nurses, International Journal of Workplace Health Management, Vol. 2 No. 3, pp. 202-219. emerald insight: Virtues, work satisfactions and psychological wellbeing among nurses

5 Kashdan TB, Uswatte G, Julian T. Gratitude and hedonic and eudaimonic well-being in Vietnam war veterans. Behav Res Ther. 2006 Feb;44(2):177-99. doi: 10.1016/j.brat.2005.01.005. PMID: 16389060. National Library of Medicine

6 Tong EMW, Oh VYS. Gratitude and Adaptive Coping Among Chinese Singaporeans During the Beginning of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Front Psychiatry. 2021 Jan 26;11:628937. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2020.628937. PMID: 33574774; PMCID: PMC7870711. National Library of Medicine

7 Positive Psychology: The Neuroscience of Gratitude and How It Affects Anxiety & Grief

8 ABC News: Thankfulness Linked to Positive Changes in Brain and Body

9 Dr. C. Leaf: Is Pessimism Bad for the Brain

10 The Grateful Disposition: A conceptual and Empirical Topography Michael E. McCullough, Southern Methodist University, Robert A. Emmons, University of California, Davis, Jo-Ann Tsang, Southern Methodist University. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2002, Vol. 82, No. 1, 124 Greater Good in Education: The Grateful Disposition

11 Forbes: The Science of Gratitude: How it affects your Brain and How You Can Use it to Create a Better Life

12 All scriptures are quoted from the New International Version (NIV) Bible

Cover Image by Priscilla Du Preez from unsplash.com