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Neal O'Farrell

Why Your Brain Is So Grateful For Gratitude

Did you know that having cratefuls of gratefuls can dramatically improve your mental health, happiness, purpose and so many other things.? Some of us don’t experience it at all, some of us appreciate it but don’t give it a voice, and a few, a very lucky few, really understand its incredible power over the mind and mood.

I’m talking about gratitude, and yet another way to be, to think in the world that if practiced the right way can also permanently rewire your brain and re energize your mood.

Gratitude isn’t just a word or a feeling, or something you might express occasionally. Nor is it your ability to politely say thank you when it’s appropriate.

Gratitude is a solidly science-based practice that has proven central to improving feelings of hope and happiness, for building stronger relationships and social connections, and in overall brain health.

So many studies over the past decade have found that people who consciously count their blessings more than they count their belongings tend to be happier and less depressed.

According to the greater good science center at UC Berkeley, people who are generally more grateful tended to give more money to worthy causes. Which by itself is an act of kindness which triggers even greater benefits, because science tells us that the act of giving also helps to rewire the brain for the, well, greater good.

They also showed greater neural sensitivity in an area of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex, an area associated with learning and decision making. This suggests that people who are more grateful are also more attentive to how they express gratitude.

They also found that Gratitude unshackles us from toxic emotions, from envy and resentment to frustration and regret. Who amongst us doesn’t experience those, at least some of the time. 

There’s something called the Gratitude Project, a multiyear collaboration between the Greater Good Science Center and Robert Emmons of the University of California, Davis.

Their studies found that people who regularly practice gratitude, who are grateful and who demonstrated their gratitude, experienced more than a dozen different physical, psychological, and social benefits.

Physical benefits included:

  • Stronger immune systems, which also helps brain health.
  • Lower blood pressure, which also helps brain health
  • A greater inclination to exercise, and a better sleeping experience, which also helps brain health and which I cover in my episode on exercise and the mind.

Psychological benefits include:

  • Higher levels of positive emotions
  • Greater joy and pleasure
  • Greater optimism and happiness.

And greater social benefits include:

  • Being more helpful, generous, and compassionate
  • Being More forgiving,
  • Being more outgoing
  • And feeling less lonely and isolated.

And the project also concluded that practicing gratitude can Improve relationships and create the opportunity to forge new relationships, and those can also significantly improve mental health too.

Separately, a study conducted by Virginia Commonwealth University showed that thankfulness seemed to be connected to a significantly lower risk of major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, phobia, nicotine dependence, alcohol dependence and drug abuse.

Gratitude has been shown to enhance empathy, reduce aggression, and improve self-esteem. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology found that amongst athletes studied, gratitude increased their self-esteem, which it turns out is an essential component to optimal performance. 

Other studies have shown that gratitude reduces social comparisons. Rather than becoming resentful toward people who have more money or better jobs—a major factor in reduced self-esteem—grateful people are able to appreciate other people’s accomplishments.

So there you have yet. Yet another example of the power of positive psychology, and devoting  a little more thought and practice to something that most of us feel but don’t express.

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