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The Grateful Brain: How gratitude changes your brain. And your life.

What a fitting time of year to talk about gratefulness!

Thanksgiving is the season when we’re all paying a little more attention to what it is we each have to be grateful for.

But did you know that gratitude actually changes our brain? And consequently, the quality of our lives?

We’ve all experienced the warm feelings that come from being on both the giving and receiving ends of sincere appreciation, but science suggests there are deep and profound benefits and changes experienced as the result of cultivating a practice, and consequently, a heart of gratitude.

According to UCLA’s Mindfulness Awareness Research Center, regularly expressing gratitude (defined in their study as the quality of being thankful and readiness to show appreciation) literally changes the molecular structure of the brain. It keeps our brain functioning and makes us healthier and happier.

In another study using MRI technology (specifically fMRI, which measures brain activity by detecting the changes in blood oxygenation and flow that occur in response to neural activity in different areas of the brain), researchers discovered that gratitude lights up the brain’s reward pathways.

In a study by the National Institutes of Health, subjects who showed more gratitude also had a higher-functioning hypothalamus — the brain’s center for managing stress, metabolism function, and sleep.

What’s more, a team out of the University of Indiana conducted research, again using fMRI, to examine the condition of individuals with anxiety and depression, using pre and post images as they related to a gratitude practice. At the end of three months, the images showed marked improvement in brain activity and what appeared to be a residual effect, meaning they continued to show additional improvements over time. Participants also self-reported an improvement in their overall quality of life.

But, why a residual effect?

Because as people engaged in a gratitude practice every day, they developed new networks in the brain designated specifically to recognizing things to be grateful for, and then expressing that gratitude. The brain adapted to a way of life that exuded appreciation in and response to that appreciation. You might say they developed a “gratitude muscle”.

Still, the implications of a gratitude practice are even farther reaching. Some smaller, but no less significant, studies show that gratitude practices have a positive effect on manners, our ability to build and engage in healthy relationships and improve sleep.

Lastly, a study done as early as 2003 determined a practice of acknowledging and expressing gratitude resulted in a marked improvement in people with chronic physical ailments and pain, resulting in fewer episodes and/or less severity (Emmerson & McCullough).

These findings are no surprise when you consider that gratitude releases neurotransmitters and hormones like serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin which have a restorative and protective effect on the brain and nervous system.

Further, while cultivating the art of noticing things to be grateful for is important, additional benefits are achieved by intentionally expressing that gratitude in word and deed. This enhanced practice boasts tremendous benefits for giver and receiver alike.

With all of this science, it’s difficult to argue with the significant benefits of incorporating a gratitude practice in our lives. But you know what’s really cool?

All this science lines up with what God has shown us in His word all along:

Gratitude is essential to our overall well-being.

If you think about it, you’d be hard-pressed to find a religion or spiritual practice that doesn’t include an emphasis on gratitude. I would propose that’s because all practices recognize that our hearts and minds are designed to function best when influenced by an attitude of gratitude. Even if all religions can’t agree on who our “Designer” actually is.

What we’re talking about goes far beyond the simplicity of positive psychology. At the core of it, we’re really talking about developing a practice that is foundational to the healthy and whole life we're created to live.

So, as we enter this Thanksgiving holiday, I’d like to share a part of the foundation that my gratitude practice is built upon.

"Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him; bless his name! For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.” Psalm 100:4-5

From my home to yours, Happy Thanksgiving. This season I’m thanking God for each and every one of you!

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