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Science, Thoughts, And Chemistry…OH MY! More On Gratitude

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How gratitude changes your brain
Find Your Attitude of Gratitude before the holiday season.

Monday we talked about gratitude. How its good for us and what we can do to pull it into our daily routines. But we really just skimmed the surface. Today I want to talk about what it does to your brain. Digging deep into the science of gratitude to find out just how amazing changing your attitude can be.

Gratitude Research

Recent evidence suggests that promising complimentary interventions that are not too taxing often yield higher results. Gratitude is ones of these. Many studies over the last decade have found that people who count their blessing tend to be happier and less depressed. The only problem is that much of that research has been conducted with well functioning people. So the question becomes is it as beneficial with people struggling with mental health concerns? And if so, then how? What does the science of gratitude have to share on this topic? Let’s find out.

A research study involving nearly 300 adults attempted to answer these questions. The subjects were mostly college students seeking counseling at a university, recruited right before their first session. many of them struggling with depression and anxiety. They were divided into three groups. One had to write positive letters of gratitude to someone else, the second, to write down their negative experiences, and the third was given no additional intervention.

The study found, those writing the gratitude letters reported significantly better mental health up to 12 weeks after the exercises ended. This was in comparison to the other two who showed either little progress or very slow progress suggesting the importance of gratitude in mental well being. In addition, it seems, practicing gratitude on top of psychological intervention carries greater benefit than counseling alone. Even when the practice is brief.

In addition to the above noted benefits, the researchers found indications of how gratitude affects our minds and bodies. While not definitive, it may be a step towards understanding.

1. Releasing Toxic Emotions

The researchers were provided copies of the letters written during the exercises. This better enabled them to understand the words used and the mechanisms of change that occurred. They compared the percentage of positive to negative descriptions as well as the use of first person plural words used in the writings. Not surprisingly, the gratitude group used a higher percentage of inclusive positive words than those in the other group. It was the use of less negative words that ultimately explained the change, not just the use of more positive ones.

2. Pass It On…Or Not

The second thing they found is that gratitude did not have to be passed on. The participants were just required to write, not give the letters. And even those who did not send them benefited. In fact less than a fourth of the participants delivered their letters. It suggests that the benefits don’t depend on actually communicating your gratitude to others.

So if you’re thinking of writing a letter of gratitude to someone, but you’re unsure whether you want that person to read the letter, we encourage you to write it anyway. You can decide later whether to send it (and we think it’s often a good idea to do so). But the mere act of writing the letter can help you appreciate the people in your life and shift your focus away from negative feelings and thoughts

3. It takes time

Note that the benefits of writing these letters did not emerge over night. It happened gradually over time. Most people started seeing benefits after about four weeks. These benefits became more significant as they continued the practice even after the end of the required participating.

This is amazing as many other studies have suggested that the benefits of positive activities usually decrease rather than increase. Perhaps the gratitude letter writers discussed what they wrote in their letters with their counselors or with others. For now all we know for sure, is that the act of writing or thinking about gratitude has a lasting effect. You’ll feel better, especially if you keep up the practice.

4. Our Brain On Gratitude

Three months into sessions the study began to use fMRI to scan the brains, comparing the groups. The scans took place 3 months after sessions began. Each was given a “pay it forward” task to complete during the scan. The participants determined how much, if any, of the money to pass on to a worthy cause. Which the group did in fact donate to a local charity.

In addition to this they wanted to know about the motivations behind why, whether it was guilt, obligation, or gratitude and joy. So they asked the participants to rate how grateful they felt toward the benefactor. As well as how much they wanted to help the charitable cause and how guilty they would feel if they didn’t help. This was accompanied by a questionnaire to measure their general levels of gratitude.

The brain activity of those who felt more gratitude was distinct from those related to guilt and the desire to help a cause. Specifically, they found that when people who are more grateful gave to the cause, they showed grater neural sensitivity in the medial prefrontal cortex (ADD LINK)(a part of the brain associated with learning and decision making). It suggests that those who are grateful are more attentive to how they express that gratitude.

Our Wondrous Brain

Gratitude can really change your mind, its function, and your behaviors. All of these studies about the science of gratitude show just how important the way you view things can be to your well being. Just like with hypnosis where we are still learning the mechanisms, but the results are clear. All of us can benefit from just a few positive thoughts a day. It’s only as simple or as hard as you make it.

For more information check out our prior post Attitude of Gratitude and All About Hypnosis, your epicenter for hypnotic information. Until next time, we hope you enjoyed our science of gratitude and change your mind. Take care and happy holidays.

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