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How Gratitude Changes Your Brain, Relationships And Life

By October 26, 2021Blog
gratitude research sam owen blog

Gratitude is calming. It affects our patience and our perspective on what is unfolding in our life.

No matter how many challenges we face, gratitude helps us to keep moving forward with grace.

Defined as a state of thankfulness and/or appreciation, gratitude directs our main focus towards what we do have instead of thinking too much about what we don’t have. In turn, as positive emotions improve our problem-solving ability, [1] this positive emotional state helps your brain to find solutions to life’s challenges.

But what else does this positive emotional state do for us? Well, a lot, actually. Woop woop! Let’s take a look!

Gratitude and your mental health

In research conducted on 293 people undergoing psychotherapy, [2] participants were randomly assigned to one of three conditions: psychotherapy only, psychotherapy plus expressive writing, and psychotherapy plus gratitude writing.

In the gratitude group, participants wrote letters expressing gratitude to others, whilst those in the expressive writing condition wrote about their deepest thoughts and feelings regarding stressful experiences. They were instructed to do the writing exercise three times over about a two week period: the day they were recruited for the experiment, a week later, and again a week after.

One week after the writing intervention had been concluded there were no notable differences between the mental health states of the participants. However, at about 4 weeks and 12 weeks after the conclusion of the writing intervention, those who had been randomly assigned to writing gratitude letters, reported significantly better mental health than those in the other two groups (psychotherapy only and psychotherapy combined with expressive writing).

Little difference was seen between the other two groups in terms of mental health.

Importantly, the gratitude writing group wrote proportionately fewer negative emotion words than those in the expressive writing group, highlighting the effects of positive and negative thoughts and emotions, on the brain.

And given only 23% delivered their letter to at least one recipient, it appears focusing on gratitude determined their improved mental health, rather than the giving of that gift of appreciation.

That writing three letters of gratitude for at least 20 minutes at a time can produce such lasting effects 12 weeks after such gratitude writing has been completed, suggests three things could be at play here:

  • One, the power of our thoughts to uplift or deflate our mental health (something that has been repeatedly demonstrated in research elsewhere).
  • Two, the power of recognising that we have positive relationships in our lives.
  • Three, the power of maintaining a balanced perspective of what we do have to be grateful for.

Even if the gratitude writing was done without psychotherapy, it is likely that beneficial effects would still occur as suggested by other research, given simply counting one’s blessings has been found to improve well-being. [3]

And it gets better.

Gratitude changes your brain

In a follow up study, several of the same researchers discovered that those earlier expressions of gratitude (from the gratitude letter writing) left lasting effects on participants’ neural activity in the medial prefrontal cortex as much as three months later! [4] The participants that were more grateful had more desire to express their gratitude and this coincided with greater activation of this brain region associated with learning and decision making.

This study highlights (a) the ongoing effects of your past thoughts on your present brain function and (b), as the researchers state, ‘…that practicing gratitude may help train the brain to be more sensitive to the experience of gratitude down the line, and this could contribute to improved mental health over time.’

If gratitude begets gratitude, and that gratitude makes us more generous and more mentally healthy, it’s definitely worth incorporating into our lives for the sake of ourselves and others.

Gratitude and relationship maintenance behaviour

Speaking of others, research looking at the expression of gratitude in friendships [5], demonstrated that expressing gratitude for a friend makes both parties perceive one another more positively. Plus, this increased positive perception then, directly and indirectly, increased their comfort in airing relationship concerns.

Of course, if we value a friend and feel that we too are appreciated, we will invest more effort into the relationship. That effort might mean having to have uncomfortable conversations. We are much more likely to do that if we feel that the relationship is worth the investment and that the friend is going to be receptive to our concerns.

To nurture significant relationships, strike a balance between voicing the good and the could-be-better elements. Instead of letting the discomfort of being insincere place a strain on the relationship and your own well-being, thus driving you apart, be authentic and show your gratitude for them, to help keep you together.

Gratitude and life satisfaction

So we know that gratitude improves mental health, changes our brain activity months later, and enables relationship growth.

We also know from other research that life satisfaction results in better mental and physical health, well-being, and relationship quality. [6]

But does gratitude itself increase life satisfaction or does life satisfaction increase gratitude? It could go either way, couldn’t it!

To find out, researchers used two studies with a total of 2566 participants to reveal if one affected the other and if so, in which direction. [6]

They looked at gratitude levels with statements like, ‘If I had to list everything that I felt grateful for, it would be a very long list.’ Participants were asked to rate each questionnaire item on a scale of 1 (completely disagree) to 7 (completely agree).

They assessed life satisfaction with statements such as, ‘In most ways my life is close to my ideal.’ This time the participants rated each item on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 6 (strongly agree).

The results of both longitudinal studies revealed that gratitude and life satisfaction have a mutually positive spiral effect, i.e. higher levels of gratitude increased life satisfaction which in turn increased gratitude.

And the great thing is, you can start practising gratitude immediately to begin this positive effect.

Implementing gratitude into your life

Should you want to try the gratitude letter writing task from the experiment above, here are some details on what they did.

Across the three gratitude letter writing sessions on day 1, a week later, and two weeks later:

1. Participants most commonly wrote gratitude letters to friends (28%, 35%, and 41%), mothers (31%, 22%, and 20%), and fathers (17%, 12%, and 9%), respectively.

2. They were given the option to send the letter to their intended recipients even though only 23% delivered their letter to at least one of their three recipients (i.e. 77% solely wrote the letters).

3. They were encouraged to write about how the person had impacted their life, describe specific things the person had done for them, and how they felt toward the person.

4. Participants were allowed to write to the same person three times or to different individuals in each letter.

5. They wrote for at least 20 minutes in each session and were allowed to use more time if they needed it.

Try it. It might be the launch pad you need to brighter days filled with positive thoughts and a happy life.

Gratitude uplifts and shifts

How we angle the lens of our mind is important for our minute-to-minute and long-term resilience, mental health, well-being, relationships, life satisfaction and more.

And when you are happier and healthier, others you come into contact with, benefit too. You are more pleasant to be around, and you’re more likely to uplift others and help others. All of which circles back to you as it further nourishes your well-being and self-worth.

A little gratitude goes a long way. We live in an overwhelming world but it’s often the simple tweaks to our daily habits, maintained consistently, that positively change our life.

 

References

1. Isen, A. M., Daubman, K. A. and Nowicki, G. P. (1987). ‘Positive Affect Facilitates Creative Problem Solving’. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52(6): 1122–31.

2. Wong, Y. J., Owen, J., Gabana, N. T., Brown, J. W., McInnis, S., Toth, P., & Gilman, L. (2016). Does gratitude writing improve the mental health of psychotherapy clients? Evidence from a randomized controlled trial. Psychotherapy Research, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10503307.2016.1169332

3. Lyubomirsky, S. and Layous, K. (2013). ‘How Do Simple Positive Activities Increase Well-Being?’. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22(1): 57–62.

4. Kini, P., Wong, J., McInnis, S., Gabana, N. and Brown, J. W. (2016). The Effects of Gratitude Expression on Neural Activity. NeuroImage, 128: 1–10.

5. Lambert, N. M., & Fincham, F. D. (2011). Expressing gratitude to a partner leads to more relationship maintenance behavior. Emotion, 11(1), 52–60. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0021557

6. Unanue, W., Gomez Mella, M. E., Cortez, D. A., Bravo, D., Araya-Véliz, C., Unanue, J., & Van Den Broeck, A. (2019). The Reciprocal Relationship Between Gratitude and Life Satisfaction: Evidence From Two Longitudinal Field Studies. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 2480. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02480