In today’s article you’re going to learn everything you need to know about how gratitude changes your brain.
More and more research is beginning to discover the extraordinary effects of gratitude on our bodies and minds. They also allow you to see the benefits that gratitude can give you for your psyche, physical health, and even your relationships with other people.
However, the power of gratitude extends much further. Two studies [The effects of gratitude expression on neural activity], [The Cultivation of Pure Altruism via Gratitude: A Functional MRI Study of Change with Gratitude Practice] have shown that increasing your brain levels literally changes your brain, and with it – you and certain trends.
However, even how gratitude changes your brain is a small matter, and how YOU have to change to feel it at its highest level. But more on that soon. Let’s start with the brain scans.
In the first study, the brains of participants who performed an exercise with a gratitude letter were scanned  ,[Does gratitude writing improve the mental health of psychotherapy clients? Evidence from a randomized controlled trial].
They found that when they were given money, the regions of the brain responsible for feeling grateful were more active in them than in people who had not done the letter-writing exercise before.
In other words, doing gratitude-lifting exercises (such as writing a thank-you letter) changes our brains to be more sensitive to gratitude.
So when you work on your level of gratitude, in identical situations you will feel more grateful yourself than people who do not train it. A stronger feeling is also greater benefits, among others health.
The second study  found that when we see someone else experiencing some good, the brains of people who work on their level of gratitude are more active in the so-called reward areas. So these types of situations give them more satisfaction and pleasure.
Thus, people with increased levels of gratitude naturally also become greater altruists. Not as a result of any resolutions or decisions, but only because greater gratitude changes their brains so that the good of others simply gives them more satisfaction than before.
Who knows what the next research will find. We already have enough evidence [Expressing optimism and gratitude: a longitudinal investigation of cognitive strategies to increase well-being], [Counting blessings in early adolescents: an experimental study of gratitude and subjective well-being], [Gratitude uniquely predicts satisfaction with life: incremental validity above the domains and facets of the five factor model], [Gratitude influences sleep through the mechanism of pre-sleep cognitions] that raising your level of gratitude changes you for the better in many ways, and there is no upper limit here.
In a sense, you can’t be “too thankful.” Of course, you can make strange decisions under the influence of all emotions, but if we are talking about gratitude-trait (it was raised in research and we are constantly talking about it here), the conclusion is simple: the higher the level of the gratitude trait in you, the better. [„Gratitude is with me all the time”: how gratitude relates to wisdom]
So there is NO reason why you should be satisfied with an average or above average score on the gratitude test. You should aim to constantly earn the maximum number of points in it.
When you manage to achieve this, much more will change in you …
The maximum level means that all of you, your whole everyday life, is saturated with gratitude, and it is not a feeling that comes from time to time when things go your way, but becomes the default state of your mind.
Feeling it is as natural to you as breathing. It appears almost spontaneously and practically constantly.
At the same time, it is impossible to reach this state by using only positive psychology exercises, such as a gratitude journal or a thank you letter.
Here you need an additional strategy and learning about gratitude on a much deeper level.
How Gratitude Changes Your Brain
The recipe for the highest level of gratitude
The gratitude exercises developed by scientists can increase your gratitude level, but not to the maximum.
They were supposed to produce measurable results, and they do. However, they were not designed to raise appreciation as much as possible.
If this is our goal, then we need to know the conditions that must be met for the feeling of gratitude to appear at all, and then each of these conditions can be 100% fulfilled.
There are 3 of these conditions: the right object of appreciation, the right focus, and the right beliefs. Let us discuss them one by one.
1. A suitable object of appreciation
The object of gratitude is what you feel grateful for.
It’s easy to be grateful when someone gives you a nice surprise – only that won’t happen all the time. So you can’t greatly increase your gratitude level each day.
To do this, you must learn to feel grateful for the things that you have around you all the time.
Here we can try to be grateful for what happened, what we experienced, how things turned out or what we currently have, what we have built, achieved, accumulated, etc.
These are the things that can inspire gratitude in us over and over again every day, not only during the holidays.
However, focusing on them can raise something else in some situations – fears like “What if I lose it?”
These feelings will “pollute” our experience of gratitude. So this strategy is also not a recipe for its maximum development.
The ultimate solution here is to develop the skill of being grateful not for the state of possession, not for the past, but for the present experiences.
So for all the pleasures that you are experiencing right now, and for not feeling all the potential unpleasantness that you might be experiencing right now.
Developing gratitude for what you are experiencing today (without thinking back to the past, future, or possession) is more difficult, but if you master the skill, you have fulfilled the first condition for gratitude to become your default state of mind.
With the object of gratitude set up in this way (pleasant sensations and no unpleasant sensations), when your attention is not urgently needed here and now in some place, try to:
a) Whenever you experience something pleasant, e.g. you see a beautiful view, eat something tasty, have a good time – pay attention to it, feel into yourself, how pleasant it is and feel grateful for this moment, for this experience.
b) Whenever you currently experience something unpleasant or feel just neutral – remember the previously established broader point of reference and from the perspective of this point, feel grateful for not having much worse experiences at the moment.
A broader point of reference is a specific situation that you have experienced or that you are able to well imagine or recall (based on e.g. stories, books, films) and that will help you appreciate “ordinary things” or the absence of unpleasantness that you could / could experience now.
Important – the broader point of reference is not about the situation of other people at the moment. It is not about comparing yourself with others and thanking you that you are better than them.
It is about becoming aware of the whole range of possible human experiences. Becoming aware of other tragic situations in which you could theoretically be and what you could or might not be experiencing right now.
So even if all people on Earth were very happy, with this technique you will still be able to appreciate “ordinary things”, because it is not about what others are feeling at the moment, but about the theoretical situation in which you could find yourself.
At the moment, looking for such situations and looking at everyday life from their perspective may seem a bit artificial. However, this approach is much closer to the truth than you think. It will be easier to feel if we discuss the topic of beliefs below and start working on them.
What is additionally important with the technique of a broader point of reference is that you ALWAYS (i.e. in a moment) choose a few situations that, if you lived or would find yourself in some, now you would feel HUGE gratitude for what you are experiencing now.
It is about such situations that any inconvenience you are having right now seems ridiculous.
If you were only born in the wrong time and place, it would be almost irrelevant to your choices, characteristics, work, it could be your everyday life, just like tens of millions of other people. So there is no merit in your being that this is not what your life is now. This is a real gift from fate.
Due to the fact that we often don’t have such personal experiences, we don’t think about it and this perspective escapes.
Having such an image in front of your eyes changes your scale from “What to eat here? Wish I had an X in my fridge? ” to “Oh mother! How lucky I can eat anything! ”.
It changes perspective, doesn’t it?
2. Adequate directing of attention
We already know what to learn to be grateful for, so that the level of your gratitude is not hindered and can grow to the maximum.
Another element necessary for this to succeed is managing your attention.
Gratitude is not like pain that can arise directly from a stimulus, no matter what your focus is at the moment.
Gratitude needs your attention to exist. Without it, it will not appear irrespective of what will happen around you.
Even if someone just gave their life for you, and you do not consciously register it, because your attention will be fully elsewhere – gratitude will not appear.
In order for gratitude to saturate your daily life, you need to regularly notice or become aware of what we talked about in the above point – the appropriate objects of gratitude.
So the solution is to implement habits that will direct your attention to them every day.
The greater the number of these habits, the more times you focus on gratitude, the stronger the priming effect and these brain changes will be.
As a result – also outside of these habits – your mind will, by itself, more and more often direct your attention so that you can see things that will arouse gratitude.
Thanks to this, when the concentration of these habits is sufficient, their impact “spills over” on your entire everyday life and your entire life, and not only when you do them.
This is how gratitude-increasing exercises work, which are known to work well on days when they’re not done. [Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life], [Does gratitude writing improve the mental health of psychotherapy clients?]
For this “concentration” of habits to be sufficient, create two to three habits that will activate almost every day.
Each habit has two parts: [Making health habitual: the psychology of ‚habit-formation’ and general practice]
1. A specific context in which it activates (i.e. when, where, under what circumstances you do something).
2. What you do when you find yourself in the context.
The second element is already taken care of – each habit should focus you first on the pleasant experiences you are experiencing at the moment, so that you can feel grateful for them.
However, if you find that these pleasurable experiences are weak or absent today, then secondly recall your broader point of reference and view the present situation from its perspective.
Regarding the context of a habit, here’s a list of ideas for when your habits can become active:
- On the way to / from somewhere (e.g. store, work)
- Walking somewhere (e.g. with a dog)
- After you wake up in the morning
- Going to bed in the evening
- During showering, toilet, brushing teeth
- Every time you pass a given door frame (e.g. to / from the living room or bathroom)
- Every time you look at your wristwatch
- Every time you sit down to eat
- Every time you sit down in front of the TV
- In response to negative feelings, i.e. every time you feel stressed, overwhelmed or depressed, you will have the impression that nothing is working, that it is difficult
Develop at least two or three of these types of habits and make the intention that apart from them, you can also notice more things for which you can be grateful, and you will start to observe how gradually your way of thinking changes, and gratitude begins to accompany you more and more often .
3) Relevant beliefs
In our experience, for most people, satisfying the condition of appropriate belief is the most difficult and time-consuming.
It is about correcting things that you have mistakenly or subconsciously found to be true. Of course, not all misconceptions block gratitude. However, there are 4 categories of misconception that will do this over and over again.
It is not possible to fully feel pure gratitude with one of them.
Unfortunately, these beliefs are close to your so-called pillar beliefs – that is, the main beliefs-lenses through which you look and interpret every event, word, other people or yourself.
Therefore, changing them is difficult and often requires a deeper “digestion” and many other things in your head.
Even just reading these blocking beliefs below may already raise some rebellion in some people. They seem so natural, so necessary, so tightly woven into our thoughts, goals, culture and other beliefs that pointing them out as something untrue is easy to perceive as almost an attack on your whole person.
It’s not an attack, and it’s not you – it’s just your beliefs. You were not born with any of them, no child has them. So they are not part of our nature.
99% of them were not reached intellectually, as a result of reflection, contemplation, philosophy, gaining knowledge, critical thinking and seeking truth.
In 99% of them, each of them installed in you subconsciously, apart from your intellect, only because of the imperfections of the socialization process – that is, at the stage of upbringing, education, communing with culture, media and other people.
Please read them calmly, to the end (even if they will seem nonsense to you), because further in the article (in the “To do” section) there will be additional explanations.
The 4 categories of (at least some level) wrong beliefs that block gratitude are:
a) “It should be different” – that is, all beliefs that make you feel that someone or something important in your life should be different at this point (because, for example, other people have it, or maybe they did not deserve it or you tried, but you don’t have it, etc.).
It should be fairer, fairer, go differently, some person or institution, the government should behave differently, react differently, etc.
These beliefs are the opposite of accepting reality. Whenever you feel something like this and think something like “It shouldn’t be like this”, so many times you do not perceive the situation through its causes and effects or through the prism of “how to improve the current situation” (both approaches are very good), you only have your subjective reference point in the form of “this should or should not be,” and you filter reality against it.
This subjective point becomes your measure. And reality does not have to coincide with it – it just is as it is.
Likewise, other people have never and will never behave as you think they should. Each person behaves and makes decisions in accordance with his current experiences, desires, thoughts, current knowledge, beliefs, skills, sources of influence (e.g. pressure from the environment), psychological effects that affect him and a whole host of other factors.
And not according to what you think “should” or “should not.”
However, whenever the reality does not match your measure of “It should or shouldn’t be,” you will feel disappointment, resentment, injustice and injustice.
These feelings are on the opposite side of gratitude. Gratitude is a feeling in which you notice, appreciate and enjoy the fact that some good happened to you that you did not have your full influence on.
In turn, the feeling of resentment, injustice, harm, etc. arise in the opposite situation – when you believe that something bad happened to you, some kind of harm and you did not have full influence on it, but what had (a specific person, other people, fate, God, government, politicians, system, world, rich, banks, etc.), could and should have saved you somehow.
b) “I deserve it” – this is a frequent variation of the belief above, so we have listed it separately. You feel it when you have the impression that you deserve something, something should be given to you for who you are or what you have done. It could be respect, merit, a raise, free speech, money, welfare, support, healthcare, help, etc.
If you feel that you are owed something and you don’t have it – how can you be grateful?
c) “It must have happened like this” – gratitude comes from noticing that you are experiencing something good or not experiencing something bad now, at least in part because of things for which:
- you do not have full influence (e.g. weather, decisions of other people, coincidences, your date and place of birth, etc.)
- and which could have gone differently.
If any of these elements is missing – that is, you assume, for example, that everything that happened must have happened this way and it was certain that you would be able to live as you live now – what is there to be grateful for?
It’s all a logical consequence and the usual cause and effect sequences of events. There is nothing “uncertain” here to thank for.
This belief completely ignores the butterfly effect and how small, insignificant, and near random events affect your life enormously.
You must – truthfully – remember that everything you observe and know could look and go completely different.
d) “It is only my merit” – as we said above, “gratitude comes from noticing that you are experiencing something good or not experiencing bad now, at least in part because of things that you do not have your full control of and that may have happened differently”.
If you attribute to yourself full influence, that is, full credit for an outcome, you also block gratitude. What is there to be grateful for, since the experience is only the result of your work and efforts? In such a situation, you can only be grateful to yourself, and that is not true gratitude.
Gratitude, by definition, is an outward feeling. You can be pleased with yourself, proud, etc. but not truly grateful to yourself.
It is easy to believe that what you have been trying to do for years is solely your merit. However, the truth is that there are many additional factors in every situation that were beyond your control, such as your health, genes, and the place and time you were born.
You could have the same talents as you do now, put in the same amount of work, effort and systematic work, but it is enough if you would be born in an unsuitable Syrian family during the ongoing civil war, and your everyday life would be violence and rape, instead of achievements .
Also, the fact that you were born without, for example, Down’s syndrome is also not your merit, nor even your parents’ merit.
Even if your mother gave birth to you at the age of 20 (the younger the mother’s age, the smaller the chance of Down’s syndrome in a child), you had 1 in about 1500 that you would be born with Down’s syndrome.
Pure coincidence, the throw of a huge 1500-wall dice decided you don’t have one. The result of this one throw decided your whole life and all the chances you currently have, before you made any decisions.
Even something like the month of your birth makes a difference and has made a difference in your life.
Let’s gather all the recommendations in one place. Based on our 3 conditions of gratitude, we came up with the following roadmap to take them to the maximum level:
1. Establish one or more broader points of reference, ie situations that you have experienced or that you can imagine well (or recall from a book or movie, for example) that will help you appreciate “ordinary things” or the absence of unpleasantness.
2. Establish and start building 2-3 habits each day that will help you focus on things for which you can be thankful (remember the appropriate object of appreciation here).
3. Work on your beliefs.
Working on beliefs is, on the one hand, the area with the greatest potential for large personal transformations, but on the other – the most complex. As a result, it cannot be covered well enough in even a series of articles.
The two fastest ways you can get started are:
a) Intellectual consent – think that you can get rid of these four types of beliefs. You can live without them, you can make fully optimal decisions and not look like a freak.
Allow this thought and ponder what it might look like for you. You will probably have doubts, such as: “What if someone robs me? Then I shouldn’t / should feel that I deserve what he stole from me, or justice? ” or “If I have to renounce the feeling that it is not as it should be with me and in my life, what will motivate me to act or develop? Should I just sit down, do nothing and enjoy the way it is? ”
These are just examples. Many more questions of this type may arise in you. Consider them. Look for new, healthier principles and beliefs that you can act on. There are such.
Getting to some of them may require knowledge that you don’t have yet, so do research. Seek wisdom, broaden your horizons, and approach the truth with your beliefs more and more.
b) Examine your feelings – Whenever you feel any of the feelings that block your gratitude listed in the beliefs, notice them and ask yourself, “What do I have to believe that I felt this?
So try to dig into the belief that this feeling gave rise to in you. Then attack them intellectually – is what you believe is absolutely true, or is it just something that you believed or interpreted it in this way?
Would it be perceived in the same way by every other person on Earth, e.g. a member of some tribe untouched by civilization in the Amazon, or someone from a completely different culture or faith? Where did this belief come from?
Dig, challenge, and cleanse yourself of any misconceptions. As these become weaker and weaker and there are fewer and fewer of them, the natural and immense gratitude will appear more and more in you.
This is how gratitude not only changes you, but you must first change the whole of yourself in order to experience it.
You know where to start – good luck!
I want to thank you for taking the time to read my article about how gratitude changes your brain. I sincerely hope its contents have been a good help to you.