The science behind the health benefits of a daily gratitude practice

Health isn’t just about what goes into your body—it’s about what goes into your mind, too.
Health isn’t just about what goes into your body—it’s about what goes into your mind, too.
Image: AP Photo/Mahesh Kumar A.
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As the holidays approach, it’s time to think about “being grateful.” Gratitude may be a built-in part of many traditions—from Thanksgiving to Christmas and Hanukkah—but it’s actually more wired-in than woo-woo.

What you put in your body determines what you get out of it. That’s true for food and exercise, and it’s also true for your thoughts. During this celebratory, gluttonous time of year where we’re hyper aware of what we should (and shouldn’t) be eating and drinking, we should also consider what we’re thinking, too.

There is real science behind the power and benefits of practicing gratitude. Society, religion, and therapy often teach us to “be grateful,” but it can feel generic. This kind of gratitude normally takes the form of appreciating the good things in our life with the concession that “things could be worse.” However, this is a remedial approach to what makes gratitude so vital to our daily cognitive process.

What is gratitude, anyway?

Gratitude as an emotion is complex. It can be a blend of joy, contentment, happiness, and other seemingly unrelated states of mind, like relief. But the real power of gratitude is turning off a very unproductive emotion: fear. And it can be done at a cellular level.

Our lives are filled with sources of stress. Polarizing political climates could be making you fret. It could be something more personal, like household finances affected by rising student-loan debt. Or your anxiety might be coming from the changing dynamics of being a parent in an age of omnipresent digital technology.

When you live in a state of fear—such us in the fight or flight mode—the brain secretes two steroid hormones: cortisol and adrenaline. This leads you to always being hyped up and prevents you from accessing the ecstatic, blissful state where you can actually be creative and dream the future into being.

When your brain is riddled with stress hormones, it activates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. When the HPA axis is turned on, it is dedicated to the fear hormones and triggers the pituitary gland to keep manufacturing more and more stress hormones. When you are not in a state of fight or flight, however, the pituitary gland can transform neurotransmitters such as serotonin into dimethyltryptamine (DMT), which is a molecule that occurs naturally in many plants and animals. If you look at the world from a perspective of gratitude, looking to see joy and happiness, the brain will translate that joy and happiness into chemistry, such as a dopamine release from feeling pleasure.

The science of gratitude

The National Institute of Health performed a study using MRIs to show that subjects who focused on gratitude had an increase in blood flow to the hypothalamus, which is the almond-size part of your brain just above your brainstem that controls stress and sleep. Enhanced activity in this part of the brain can also help inhibit cortisol, a stress hormone known to increase heart rate and blood pressure. So every time you focus on gratitude, you’re helping combat depression and anxiety by minimizing your cortisol production.

Then there’s polyvagal theory. It was proposed by Steven Porges of Indiana University’s Trauma Research Center at the Kinsey Institute, and can help explain why gratitude makes us feel so content.

The ‘-vagal’ in Porges’s theory finds its origins in the vagus nerve, otherwise known as the “wandering nerve,” which starts at your brainstem and wanders throughout the body. Our vagal nerve lays out a decision process of sorts that determines whether fight or flight mode is activated. According to Porges, practicing gratitude is one way that you can help condition your vagus nerve, giving your nervous system cues of safety.

The primary function of the vagus nerve is to monitor what is occurring in your body and report that activity back to your brain. The nerve is a major part of the body’s parasympathetic nervous system, which is the part of our autonomic nervous system that helps us calm down and find homeostasis.

Depending on what state the body is in, the parasympathetic system slows (or calms) our heartbeats, dilates blood vessels, decreases pupil size, increases digestive functions, and relaxes muscles in the gastrointestinal tract. Your brain and organs depend on your vagal pathways to regulate things like hunger hormones and food intake, inflammation, and how our immune system responds.

Scientists call the strength of the vagus nerve activity your “vagal tone.” Having a high vagal tone means you’re able to relax faster, lower inflammation, and improve your immune system. A low vagal tone, on the other hand, means you can find yourself in an ongoing state of anxiety—the fight or flight mode—in response to moments of stress. Porges says that practicing gratitude activates our vagal nerve, thus helping to protect ourselves from these negative states.

Everyday stresses can lead to fear—and one of the best ways to manage that stress is to actively practice gratitude. Even when something terrible happens in our lives, if we look deeply enough, we can find a positive impact from that event, and that can lead to feelings of gratitude. Professor Barbara Fredrickson from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill suggests that positivity helps produce emotions such as joy, amusement, happiness, serenity, inspiration—and gratitude.

The more you practice gratitude, the more you default to positivity instead of negativity.­­ Harvard Medical School found that gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships. In as little as two weeks, a daily gratitude practice can make you happier and more optimistic.

How to practice gratitude

According to a study out of Indiana University, simple gratitude exercises, like keeping a journal or sharing daily wins with your friends or family, can make you happier and more positive. It may feel forced at first, but the act of practicing gratitude is like anything else you practice regularly: As you get better and better at it, it becomes easier, more necessary, and more fulfilling over time. After a while, seeing the bright side of things becomes second nature.

Here is a simple exercise to help you foster gratitude: Sit down before bed tonight and write out three things you’re grateful for. It’s easy to get caught up in looking ahead and striving for the next thing. Take a moment to appreciate what you have. According to the American Psychological Associated, gratitude builds mental resilience—when you’re in a positive mindset, stressors and challenges become far easier to handle.

One study found a daily gratitude journal made participants 15% more optimistic and improved their sleep quality by 25%. It also made them 10% happier, which is the same boost to happiness you’d get from doubling your income. Doubling your income takes a lot of time and effort— gratitude takes five minutes each night. (And if journaling isn’t your style, here are 10 other ways to practice gratitude.)

So appreciate the good in your day. Maybe it’s something big, like a promotion at work, or maybe it’s as simple as taking a hot shower this morning. Whatever it is, there’s always something to be grateful for.

Asprey’s upcoming book Game Changers (Harper Collins, December 2018) is available to pre-order now.