Alex Korb lays out several intriguing pieces of brain research that suggest gratitude can do more than just make you smile. Consistent feelings of gratitude may actually affect brain health!
In one, a group of people assigned to keep “gratitude journals” showed higher reported feelings of optimism and determination, and fewer reports of body pains. In another, feelings of gratitude were associated with less depression and anxiety and improved sleep.
Through a combination of behavior studies and some research into brain chemicals like dopamine, it seems at least plausible that being thankful can increase your brain’s “reward circuits”. Korb relates this to something called the “virtuous cycle”:
Gratitude can have such a powerful impact on your life because it engages your brain in a virtuous cycle. Your brain only has so much power to focus its attention. It cannot easily focus on both positive and negative stimuli. It is like a small child: easily distracted. Oh your tummy hurts? Here’s a lollipop. So you lost your job? Isn’t it wonderful we’re having KFC for dinner? On top of that your brain loves to fall for the confirmation bias, that is it looks for things that prove what it already believes to be true. And the dopamine reinforces that as well. So once you start seeing things to be grateful for, your brain starts looking for more things to be grateful for. That’s how the virtuous cycle gets created.
It’s certainly a simple way to look at complex brain behaviors, but I think it’s very suggestive proof that science says it’s good to be thankful.