Sci + Society,

#142: What Gratitude Can Do For Your Brain

August 19, 2016

Growing up, how many times did your mom tell you to be grateful for what you have?  Well, turns out she was on the right track (although you can’t make people feel grateful).

This ain’t no hippy-dippy stuff either.  This is cold, hard neuroscience showing concrete physical and cognitive benefits from being grateful for things big and small on a regular basis.

Dr. Glenn R . Fox, Research Fellow at USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute, started out wondering:  What are the universal traits of good living?  That question led him down the path to the new science of gratitude.

What is Gratitude Anyways?

Gratitude is the emotion we experience when we receive something that came from some level of effort from the donor and that fulfills some need for the recipient.

So, gratitude is made of two separate ingredients:

  1. Effort from the donor.
  2. Fulfilling a need of the recipient.
The research has, so far, focused on small, tangible favors.  But you might feel grateful for the sun on your back or the wind in your hair, without thinking that the sun or wind is exerting any particular effort for your benefit.

Let’s distinguish gratitude from appreciation.  You can appreciate the effort your preschooler put into making breakfast, but since it’s probably inedible, you won’t feel very grateful.

And it’s not the same thing as happiness.  It requires the humility to understand that we depend on other people to regularly provide things we need.

Neither is it indebtedness.  True gratitude does not come from the feeling that you have to repay the other person right away.

How Does Gratitude Benefit Us?

The tangible benefits of gratitude are pretty well established and reach all areas of our lives:  physical, cognitive, and interpersonal.

Grateful people have better interpersonal relationships.  They recover faster from heart surgery and trauma.  They have less inflammation.  They have reduced physical pain.  They can live up to 10 years longer (yes you read that right — 10 years!).

On the cognitive side of things, being grateful improves sleep quality and duration, and we all know how darn important sleep is for a healthy brain, right?  (If you don’t, go listen to Episode 36 right now).

Grateful people also have fewer PTSD symptoms than less grateful people who experienced the same trauma.  It seems that being grateful can build up a cognitive reserve, protecting the brain against future trauma.

How Can You Practice Gratitude?

The good news is that it’s easy to reap the benefits of gratitude.  It’s a trainable skill, so the more you practice, the better you get, and the larger the benefits.

You don’t have to wait to win the lottery to feel grateful.  Small doses of regular gratitude probably do more to change your brain than occasional huge doses because you’re constantly strengthening the neural connections of gratitude.

You do need to have some social awareness, though.  You need to have the emotional maturity to recognize and understand that other people are helping you.

Here are Dr. Fox’s recommendations for practicing gratitude:

  • Write thank you notes and give them to people who are not expecting them.
  • Keep a weekly gratitude journal.  Weekly journals are actually more effective and beneficial than daily ones.
  • Try to focus on things you’re grateful for, and let go of small, daily hassles.
  • Notice small things people have done to give you a better life, like running water, a working car, or a good cup of coffee.
  • Take a moment in transition times, like while waiting for the coffee to brew, to be grateful for 30 seconds.

And check out Dr. Fox’s latest research on the Neural Correlates of Gratitude for more of the science behind gratitude.

PS:  We’d be forever grateful if you joined our weekly Brain Breakfast email, jam packed with neuroscience goodness.

Read Full Transcript
Show Notes
  • 00:00:22

    Dr. Glenn R. Fox on Gratitude

  • 00:01:21

    This Week in Neuroscience: Obesity associated with increased brain age from midlife

  • 00:03:55

    The audience interaction section

  • 00:06:08

    Intro to Dr. Fox

  • 00:06:52

    The nature of “the good life”

  • 00:08:02

    The definition of gratitude

  • 00:09:07

    Religion and gratitude

  • 00:11:55

    Cognitive and physiological benefits of gratitude

  • 00:14:43

    Is there a limit to gratitude’s usefulness?

  • 00:18:15

    Gratitude versus appreciation

  • 00:22:25

    How gratitude develops in people

  • 00:26:13

    Gratitude and cynicism

  • 00:28:01

    The effect of gratitude on sleep

  • 00:30:12

    How to practice gratitude

  • 00:33:05

    Mindfulness and gratitude

  • 00:34:03

    Gratitude under the influence

  • 00:35:19

    What Dr. Fox wants to see next in gratitude research

  • 00:39:41

    Ruthless Listener-Retention Gimmick: The first human head transplant


  1. ben says:

    I wonder what the research would show on handwritten thank-you notes versus digital (email). I would imagine the effect on both the recipient and the giver would be much less, since it takes so little effort, yet it’s probably and increasingly, the form most likely used.

    Also, kind of related to gratitude, I was reminded by an episode of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast, where they talk about the Ben Franklin effect… which basically states that you can get someone to like you by having them do you a favor.. more so than you doing them a favor.

    1. ben says:

      Just in case anyone is interested, Freakonmics had a great episode recently describing gratitude “Why Is My Life So Hard”. They talk about how we naturally focus on the problem at hand (‘Headwinds’) at the expense of noticing the positive (‘TailWinds’). Even worse, thinking in terms that the world is unfair, will cause you more likely to act unethically, and give rise to moral licensing. Malcom Gladwell’s The Lady Vanishes episode goes into this subject as well.

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