The Science of Gratitude: How Thankfulness Rewires Your Brain for Better Mental Health

mental health mindfulness Nov 13, 2023

As the last of the Halloween candy gets eaten and the spooky decorations make their way back into the closet, we start to look ahead towards the holidays. As we head into a season of thanksgiving, we hear ‘gratitude’ come up often. While this topic feels intrinsically important to us, it can also start to feel like an overused and nebulous idea. It sounds great in theory but can start to feel pointless when we don't feel connected to its true power. 

What's fascinating (and potentially surprising!) to learn is that gratitude is not just a feel-good sentiment; it's a scientifically proven way to rewire your brain and boost your mental well-being. With this in mind, let's explore gratitude through a whole new lens and discover its true purpose this season and beyond. 

The Science Behind Gratitude 

Gratitude is a simple, yet profound, practice that extends far beyond just saying "thank you." It’s a mindset. It’s a unique way of approaching the world with a real appreciation for the good things in your life, no matter how big or small. This mindset, the practice of gratitude, doesn't just warm the heart - it influences our brains, too! 

In the field of positive psychology, researchers have discovered that when you express gratitude, whether through spoken words, written notes, or introspective thoughts, your brain's reward center springs into action. It's like hitting the "feel-good" button in your mind. This action triggers the release of chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin - also known as the feel-good neurotransmitters. These compounds are linked to sensations of happiness and overall well-being, and they play an important role in regulating your mood. So, when you genuinely feel and express gratitude, it's not just a figure of speech – you quite literally feel happier. 

Its power doesn’t stop there!  

Gratitude also has the ability to reduce the production of cortisol, often referred to as the stress hormone. Cortisol is the body's natural response to stress. It serves a purpose in helping to regulate your body’s stress response, but excessive levels can have detrimental effects on your health, both mentally and physically. 

When you actively practice gratitude, you initiate a chain reaction in your body that helps regulate and lower the levels of cortisol in your system. Think of it as a built-in stress management tool - one that helps you be more resilient, happier, and better equipped to handle life's challenges. 

The Mental Health Benefits of Gratitude 

The connection between gratitude and mental health is undeniable. Here are some of the mental health benefits of practicing gratitude, especially during the holidays: 

  • Improved Emotional Well-Being: Regularly expressing gratitude can lead to increased feelings of happiness, contentment, and life satisfaction. 
  • Enhanced Resilience: Gratitude can help you develop resilience in the face of adversity. By intentionally shifting your attention towards what you have rather than what you lack, you can better cope with challenging situations. 
  • Stronger Relationships: Expressing gratitude to your loved ones strengthens your connections and fosters a sense of belonging and support. 
  • Reduced Stress: Gratitude can lower cortisol levels, reducing stress and anxiety. 
  • Better Sleep: Gratitude can improve the quality of your sleep, which is crucial for maintaining good mental health. 

Practical Ways to Practice Gratitude 

Building a mindset of gratitude is a practice, and like any skill, you can develop it over time. Here are some practical ways to incorporate gratitude into your daily life, both during the holidays and throughout the year! 

  • Create a Gratitude Jar: Throughout the holiday season, encourage family and friends to write down what they're thankful for on small pieces of paper and place them in a jar. On New Year's Eve, read these notes together, celebrating the year's blessings and setting a positive tone for the year ahead. 
  • Gratitude Time Capsule: Take the concept of a gratitude jar a step further and create a gratitude time capsule. Find a small container and periodically add notes or items that represent special moments of gratitude. This could be a photo, a written note, or a small item that has sentimental value. Seal the container and set a date in the future when you'll open it. When that day comes, relive the moments and experiences that made you feel grateful, and appreciate how you've grown and evolved over time. 
  • Gratitude Walks: Combine the benefits of physical activity and gratitude by taking gratitude walks. While strolling in your favorite park, neighborhood or trail, focus your thoughts on the things you're thankful for. Let the beauty of your surroundings and the rhythm of your steps help you feel calm, present and connected. As you walk, mentally acknowledge and appreciate the sights, sounds, and experiences along the way. 
  • Gratitude Art Journal: If you’ve got a creative side or creative kiddos on your hands, try a gratitude journal! Instead of writing, express your appreciation through drawings, sketches, or paintings. Use colors and images to represent the things you're grateful for. This visual representation can be a fun and unique way to connect with your gratitude while tapping into your creative flow. 
  • Mindful Gratitude Meditation: Incorporate gratitude into your mindfulness meditation practice. During your meditation, focus on things you're grateful for and the physical sensations associated with gratitude. This can help you cultivate a deeper sense of appreciation for the present moment. 

Gratitude In The Season of Giving 

We all know that gratitude is important – but only when we understand the ways it profoundly impacts our minds and bodies do we realize its true power.  

Beyond the science, gratitude is a skill—a practice that can be cultivated. Embracing this practice can help you navigate this season (and your life) with a more positive outlook, reduced stress, and an increased ability to cherish the precious moments with your loved ones. Whatever gratitude practice speaks to your life and your family, let this be your call to incorporate it into your everyday moments. 

Looking to get started on some family-friendly gratitude activities? Download this guide! 


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