How gratitude changes the brain

How gratitude changes the brain KNOW YOURSELF

Like thanks changes the brain

Keep a Gratitude Diary is a popular recommendation from Help Yourself. How does this spiritual practice work and is it really as useful as is commonly believed? Psychologists Joel Wong and Joshua Brown conducted a study and found a scientific answer to this question.

Many studies of the last ten years indicate the benefits of gratitude: when people consciously remember good things, they become happier. But we could not rely on the results of experiments – most of them were carried out on prosperous people. We decided to find out if gratitude helps people with psychological problems.

300 people took part in our study, most of them were students who encountered psychological problems and signed up for psychotherapy sessions. The experiment started before the start of their therapeutic sessions: many participants suffered from depressive or anxiety disorder and, on average, showed low levels of psychological health.

We randomly divided people into three groups, the participants of each of them went to sessions with a psychotherapist. The difference was an additional task. The participants of the first group once a week wrote a letter of thanks to some person. Participants in the second described their thoughts and feelings caused by unpleasant situations in their lives. Participants in the third group did not write anything. The experiment lasted three weeks.

A few weeks after the end of the experiment, we evaluated the psychological health of the participants. In the first group, it improved significantly; in the other two, there were no changes. This means that gratitude also helps those struggling with psychological problems. We carefully analyzed the research data to understand how gratitude affects the brain and the body.

Gratitude saves from destructive emotions

We compared the fractions of words with a positive and negative emotional assessment, which were used in the texts by the participants of two writing groups. Those who wrote letters of appreciation used more positively colored words and fewer words with negative emotional coloring in comparison with the second group.

The act of writing a letter in itself will help shift the focus of attention from negative thoughts and feelings.

However, positive words do not guarantee peace of mind. Only participants who used fewer negative words subsequently improved their condition. The absence of negative statements caused the difference in mental state between the two groups.

A letter of thanks shifts attention from emotions like resentment and envy. When you write how grateful you are to others and how much good people have brought into your life, it’s hard to get stuck in thoughts of bad things.

Gratitude helps, even if it is kept secret

We explained to the participants that letters of gratitude need not be sent to the recipients. And although only 23% of the participants decided to send the writing, all the other members of the group also improved their condition, although the letters remained with them. So the actual transfer of gratitude does not play a key role.

Suppose you want to write someone a letter of gratitude, but do not dare. Write it anyway. Then decide whether to send or not. The act of writing a letter in itself will help shift the focus of attention from negative thoughts and feelings.

The positive effect of letters of appreciation does not occur instantly. In our study, it accumulated over time. A week after the end of the written practices, we did not notice a difference in mental state between the participants of the three groups.

However, four weeks later, the first group, which wrote letters of thanks, showed an improvement over the other two groups. 12 weeks after the end of the experiment, the difference became even more noticeable.

In other similar studies, the beneficial effect has declined over time. In our case, the opposite happened. Perhaps the participants discussed their letters, which increased the psychological impact of writing letters.

If you are writing a thank you note, do not expect immediate improvement. Be patient. Gratitude takes time to act.

How gratitude changes our brains

The habit of being thankful improves health

Three months after the start of the psychotherapy session, we compared the condition of several people who wrote letters of thanks to those who did not write anything. I wanted to know if their brain began to process information differently.

To do this, we asked participants to perform the “pay another” exercise and used a tomograph in the process to evaluate their brain activity. During the exercise, the “benefactor” gives everyone a small amount of money and asks him to transfer it to another person if he feels gratitude. Then the participants decide whether to transfer the money for a good cause, and determine the amount.

We wanted to separate donations motivated by a sense of gratitude from donations based on other feelings, such as duty or guilt. For this, they asked participants to note how grateful they are to the “benefactor,” how much they want to participate in charity, and how guilty they will feel if they do not. Participants also filled out questionnaires, which allowed to determine how much they are grateful in general in life.

People who were generally more grateful gave more money for a good deed and showed higher neural sensitivity in the medial prefrontal cortex – this area is responsible for training and decision-making. It can be assumed that more grateful people care more about how to express their gratitude.

Constant practice trains the brain, and it becomes more sensitive to experiencing gratitude in the future

We also compared the brain activity of participants who wrote letters of appreciation with those of those who did not, and noticed a difference. The former showed more marked activity in the medial prefrontal cortex.

We found this effect three months after the start of the experiment. This means that appreciation has a long-term impact: constant practice trains the brain, and it becomes more sensitive to experiencing gratitude in the future. In the long run, this strengthens mental health.

It doesn’t matter if you are in difficulty right now, try writing a letter of thanks. Most of the time and effort we spend on the pursuit of what we do not have. Gratitude draws our attention to the people who are already with us, as well as to the things that we already possess.

About the Authors: Joshua Brown – Psychologist, works at Indiana University; Joel Wong is a psychologist who works at Indiana University.
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