Being Grateful Feels Good – And It Can Actually Change Your Brain

Turkey Day is approaching and this year we want you to forget about the effects of tryptophan (that amino acid in turkey that everyone claims makes you sleepy) on your body, or of pumpkin pie on your waistline, and focus on something more important to the season: the effects of thankfulness (hey, it’s right there in the name: Thanksgiving!), or gratitude, on your life, and yes, even your brain. 

Sure, this time of year can be stressful or even downright sad for some, but being grateful is one way to lift your spirits, feel connected, and see the goodness in your life – but that’s not all. Gratitude can also help you sleep better, exercise more, and generally be healthier and happier. And that’s not just our opinion: there is research being done on gratitude that is actually proving all of this, and showing us that regularly practicing gratitude can reshape your neural pathways, leading to lasting, positive effects in your life. 

The Brain’s Gratitude Cocktail

Before we get into the specific studies proving the neuroscientific benefits of gratitude, let’s take a quick look at what could be driving some of the changes happening in your brain when you get your thankful on. There are two main neurochemicals that get released when we’re feeling grateful:

  • Dopamine – Whether you’re feeling grateful about the things that are good in your life, or are expressing gratitude to another person, neural circuitry in your brain will release dopamine. And the great thing about dopamine? Not only does it make you feel good, but it leaves you wanting more, so you’ll be more likely to continue the practices that lead to the release of this chemical. Because of this, you’ll be able to harness the “neuroplasticity” of your brain, meaning you can retrain your brain the more you activate your gratitude circuits. serotonin molecular makeup
  • Serotonin – When you reflect on the good things in your life, your brain also releases serotonin, also known as the happy molecule. Serotonin enhances our mood, as well as our willpower and motivation, so again, you’ll be more likely to continue on with your gratitude practices once you begin. 

The Studies

There are psychologists out there whose life’s work is studying how gratitude affects people and their brains, and they’ve had some very interesting findings. For example, Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami, have done a number of studies, including the following two:

  • A group of young adults were asked to keep a daily journal of things they were grateful for, while other groups of young adults were asked to write about things that annoyed them or things they felt made them better off than other people. The young adults who kept gratitude journals showed greater increases in determination, attention, enthusiasm, and energy compared to the other groups. This led the researchers to conclude not only that gratitude is beneficial to the brain, but that gratitude is more than just realizing that you have it better than other people – you have to actively engage in feeling appreciation for what you have in your life. 
  • A group of adults of mixed ages were asked to keep a weekly journal about things they were grateful for that week, while two other groups wrote about either things that had displeased them, or just what had happened to them that week, with no emphasis on whether they were positive or negative. Those who kept the gratitude journals were not only more optimistic and positive at the end of 10 weeks, but surprisingly, they had also exercised more, had needed fewer trips to the doctor, and had experienced fewer aches and pains.

Emmons and McCullough aren’t the only ones who have found proof of the power of gratitude: a few different researchers have done studies using gratitude letters and have found similarly powerful results. For example:

  • Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, had 411 participants write and personally deliver letters of gratitude to someone who had never been properly thanked for their kindness. The participants immediately exhibited a huge increase in happiness scores, especially when compared with the impacts of other types of activities assigned to them. Not only that, but the benefits lasted for at least a month beyond the study.
  • Researchers at Berkeley found that when 300 participants, many of whom were seeking mental health treatment, wrote gratitude letters, they reported significantly better mental health 4 weeks and 12 weeks after their writing exercise ended when compared with the participants who wrote about negative experiences or only received counseling. 
woman's torso sitting down writing in a red journal
Studies show that people who write weekly in a gratitude journal show greater increases in determination, attention, enthusiasm, and energy

Perhaps most interestingly, three months after the study, the researchers gave the participants an fMRI after putting them in a situation in which they would feel grateful, and compared the brains of the participants with others who hadn’t written the letters. When they did, they found that the gratitude letter writers showed greater activation in the medial prefrontal cortex (which deals with memory and decision making). They concluded that simply expressing gratitude may have lasting effects on the brain. 

Other studies have also found that there are positive physical effects of gratitude. For example, a Chinese study found that higher levels of gratitude were not only associated with less anxiety and depression, but also better sleep. And why all of these positive physical and emotional benefits? Well, when researchers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) examined blood flow in various brain regions while subjects were feeling gratitude, they found that subjects who showed more gratitude overall had higher levels of activity in the hypothalamus.

Why is that important? Because the hypothalamus controls a whole lot of essential bodily functions, including eating, drinking and sleeping, and has a huge influence on your metabolism and stress levels, so it makes sense that feeling more gratitude could have such wide-ranging effects like increased exercise, improved sleep, decreased depression, and fewer aches and pains.

Adding More Gratitude Into Your Life

It turns out there is a lot to be thankful for when it comes to, well, feeling thankful. So how can you add more gratitude into your life all year round, and not just when you’re carving the turkey and spooning the whipped cream onto your pumpkin pie? Well, you can try some of the following strategies – and don’t worry if it feels a little forced at first: your brain will get the hang of it (as has been proven!), and it’ll begin to come more naturally to you. 

  • Write a thank-you note (or 2 or 3!) – While it’s ok – and totally encouraged – to write them to yourself, be sure to send the ones you write to others, or better yet: hand deliver them. Try to send at least one a month and be as clear and open as possible about how that person has impacted your life, even if it’s in little ways.
  • Keep a gratitude journalWe’ve already pointed out that many studies showing the powerful impact gratitude can have on your life have utilized gratitude journals, so it might be a good idea for you to keep one yourself. Try writing in it daily if you can, but add to it at least weekly so you can get the full benefits. back of a woman sitting in front of water meditating
  • Meditate – Take time out of your day to meditate mindfully, and focus on the present moment, including what you are grateful for right then.
  • Inspire gratitude in others – Try to include at least one act of kindness in your life each day, or volunteer in your community
  • Always say thank you – Don’t just thank the most important people in your life for the biggest things; also remember to thank everyone around you for even the little things they do. And when you do this, stop first to really think about what it is you’re thanking them for. 

As Thanksgiving rolls around again, don’t let this time of year pass by with you simply going through the motions of feeling grateful for the good things in life. After all, research now tells us that once you let your brain find things to be grateful for, it’ll start looking for more and more things to be grateful for – so take this time to really focus on what you’re thankful for. That way, you’ll release that cocktail of feel-good chemicals, start to rewire your brain in a more positive way, and get yourself on a path to greater health and happiness (and you might just make those around you feel good in the process, too)!

Can Yoga Be More Effective Than The Gym?

As you age, being fit is more important than ever in order to stay healthy, and enhance your overall quality of life. Going to the gym is beneficial in order to build muscle and hop on the treadmill to keep your body in motion. But what if you could become leaner, more flexible, and do cardio in the comfort of your home? This is possible with yoga! As you age, yoga can be more effective than going to the gym. 


Reduces Stresscaucasian woman sitting on floor with legs crossed and hand in front of her in praying position

The practice of yoga is to meditate, in order to give you a clear mind from all of the stressors of the day. When you do yoga, your mind blocks out all of the negative energies by reducing noises and distractions (that you experience in the gym).

Makes You More Lean

Stretching your muscles as you strengthen them will make your body more lean. During yoga, you will do different poses that will help strengthen your core, and build strength by holding your body weight.

Provides More Balance

Almost everything you do in yoga engages your core muscles, making it more muscular. You hold positions that engage your core, and when you move to different positions you engage it as well. Strengthening your core helps your body balance more. Improving your balance will help prevent you from falling and getting injured.

Older man with white hair in the park bending over with hands behind back
Yoga provides you with more balance, and can be done anywhere!

 

You Can Do It Anywhere

Yoga can be done anywhere! You can do it at home, in the office,and even in the park. As long as you have the time and need to meditate, you can do some yoga poses almost anywhere that is quiet and peaceful. You can tune out distractions, but it is not as easily done at the gym with all the loud noises from music, TV’s, and people talking. 

No Waiting

Unlike at the gym where you have to wait for a person, or group of people to be done with a machine, you can do yoga on your own. Yoga is done at your own pace, without waiting for others to get out of the way or be done with something.

Good For You Internally

Twisting, stretching, and folding your muscles and body during yoga are good for the digestive system, the circulatory system, and more. It’s a great way to detox the body and can improve your cardiovascular system.

Easier On Your Body

There are different classes such as hot yoga, and intense yoga classes. But there are ones that are easier on your joints such as chair yoga. Yoga works your muscles without lifting weights. Lifting weight takes a toll on your joints and can be painful. It helps build good posture, flexibility, and balance without straining your joints.

Yoga slowly stretches muscles and increases flexibility. The increased flexibility keeps muscles and joints lubricated

pink piggy bank with a coin being thrown in
No gym membership is required to do yoga!

and healthy. Weights and treadmills at the gym can cause strain which leads to soreness and injuries.

Saves You Money

Yoga does not cost a thing. You do not need a gym membership because as you stay, you can do it anywhere! You can wear any clothing that allows you to move, and you don’t need a mat. You can do yoga in the grass, or on a carpet.

Meditation, Why It’s a Good Idea?

People talk about meditation benefits all the time. We see it in the news, on our feeds, and from journals of alternative medicine, but where do they get these ideas from?

 We live in a time where stress, anxiety, depression, and a ridiculous amount of information comes pouring at us from all sides. Our brains, or “monkey minds” as some industry experts call them, are put under more stress than ever. Why is meditation a good idea? Because it’s giving both mental and physical faculties a break. How does that work though, and what are the results? This is the time we need meditation benefits the most.

Lower Stress

person meditating in a wheat field
This can happen wherever you feel safe. If you need to take a moment for self-care, you should.

Studies conducted show meditation both reduces stress and helps us cope with it. These are all types of meditation from transcendental meditation to mindfulness-based or MBSR. Stress is terrible for your body. If you don’t meditate and take care of it, stress can lead to dangers like:

  • Early aging
  • Muscle tension
  • A compromised immune system 
  • High blood pressure

People who practiced even guided meditation see an overall positive change in their lives, simply because their stress is being actively managed. If you practice, the meditation benefits will come.

monk meditating underneath a lamp
People have been using this tool for thousands of years. Time to jump on board.

Self-Awareness

This is a less popular meditation benefit. We’re taught about stress and mental disorders, but not usually about self-image. If you think about yourself, it leads to selfishness, or so we think. However, we need self-care now more than ever. A healthy sense of self leads to feelings of confidence and a sense of trust. Self-reliance is a key trait needed to operate well in the world. With a meditative practice like tai chi or yoga, you can build this skill. 

Emotional Stability

Studies showed that anxiety plagues about one-fifth of the U.S. population. It’s the most common mental disorder, and one treatment is meditation. The practice teaches you to push your worries and concerns aside by living in the present moment. With focused attention, you learn to recognize which thoughts are helpful and which are not. Sound like a great meditation benefit? More likely than not, the worries and concerns we have are overblown. 

A Physically Fit Brain

Your brain will thank you because a regular practice will reap additional health benefits such as:

  • More Blood– the practice increases blood flow to key areas. Blood is what keeps your brain going.
  • Thicker Matter– You want a thick brain. With this physiological change, you’ll see an increase in memory and attention span.
  • Less Cortisol –  The stress chemical continues to sit in your brain. If you don’t rid yourself of it, it can cause feelings of anxiety for no apparent reason
  • More Serotonin -Serotonin is an important chemical relating to healthy mood, sexual desire, and others to keep balanced behavior.

While meditation won’t heal your existing medical conditions, it does provide alternative and complementary boosts to your wellness. I don’t think anyone would turn down the meditation benefits associated with a well-rounded life. It’s easy to start too. Just put yourself in a comfortable seat, close your eyes, and narrow your focus to just your breathing. Doing this for 15-20 minutes per day, with any form of meditation, will provide you with these advantages.

Person meditating near a tree with flowers
Picture yourself with a clearer mind, healthier physiology, and a better outlook on life.