Monday Mornings with Madison

Having an Attitude of Gratitude Even in Tough Times – part 1

Word Count: 1,415
Estimated Read Time: 6 min.

What Gratitude Does to Your Brain

Is it possible to get through a single day right now without hearing about at least a dozen calamities, crises and catastrophes?  Having tried it, it seems an impossibility.  The news is disheartening.  Weather disasters abound with fires raging in one place while hurricanes flood others.  An epic public health emergency is unfolding in real time.   The fallout from the pandemic is inflicting serious economic pain on so many.  Businesses are suffering or closing.  Uncertainty abounds in schools.  Lockdowns are imposed and lifted and imposed again.  It can be downright depressing.

Some might think that, at a time such as this, counting ones blessings is trite and perhaps even phony.  They may even wonder if there is anything for which to be grateful.   Some may see their list of blessings getting smaller with each passing day.  But, it is precisely because times are tough that it is the right time – nay the perfect time – to count blessings and have an attitude of gratitude.  And we’re not just talking about putting a good face on a bad situation.  It’s not about positivity in the face of adversity.  It is about being genuinely grateful for where you are and what you have.  Why?  Well, simply put, gratitude is good for you… and certainly most would agree that this is a time when we need every good thing.

Understanding Gratitude

Let’s start by understanding what gratitude is.  Gratitude is not the same as positivity.  Let’s define gratitude in the words of one of the world’s leading scientific experts on gratitude,  Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, and the founding Editor-in-Chief of The Journal of Positive Psychology. He is also the author of numerous books on gratitude.  Emmons explains that gratitude has two key components.  First, gratitude contains an affirmation of goodness.   We affirm that there are good things in the world; gifts and benefits we have received and/or are receiving.  Second, we recognize that the sources of this goodness come from outside of ourselves.  These many gifts, big and small, help us achieve goodness in our lives.

The Measurable, Scientific Effect of Gratitude on the Brain

So what effect does it have to affirm that there is goodness and recognize that it is a product of gifts and benefits provided to us?  Well, it turns out that demonstrating gratitude is highly beneficial not just to the one receiving the gratitude – yes thanking a family member for gifts makes the family member feel appreciates and valued — but also highly beneficial to the one giving gratitude.  Numerous scientific studies have found that being grateful makes a grateful person happier and more mentally strong.  This is not junk science. It is measurable and has been documented.  And yet gratitude is the crucial component of happiness that is often overlooked.

The first major scientific study on the subject of gratitude — which starts with a basic feeling of contentment or ‘wanting what we have’ — was conducted by Emmons and showed that a systematic cultivation of this under-examined emotion could measurably change people’s lives for the better.  Three groups were asked to write in a journal once a week for ten weeks. The groups had to briefly describe in a single sentence:

Group 1 – Gratitude condition: five things they were grateful for

Group 2 – Hassle condition: five things they were displeased about

Group 3 – Events condition: five neutral events

At the end of the ten weeks, differences between the three groups were examined on all of the well-being outcomes that were measured at the outset of the study.  Participants in the gratitude condition felt better about their lives as a whole and were more optimistic about the future than participants in the other two control groups.

People who regularly practiced grateful thinking were able to increase their set-point* for happiness by as much as 25 percent.  (* A person’s set point is the predetermined point that a person’s mind/body will try to maintain to stay at optimal health.) And such increases in feeling happy could be sustained over a period of months.

This was a key research, dispelling the previously held notion that set-points for happiness were locked-in at birth; ie, happy people were born happy and despondent/gloomy people were destined to always be that way.  But the study showed that simply was not true.   There was a deep connection in the brain between gratitude and happiness.  Increasing gratitude increased happiness.

Another study published in Scientific Reports also found that a sense of gratitude was a powerful and positive factor that promoted a happier life, whereas resentment was associated with life dissatisfaction.  Gratitude was also found to be a relationship-strengthening emotion.  To explore the effects of gratitude and resentment on mental well-being, the researchers acquired functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and heart rate (HR) data before, during, and after the gratitude and resentment interventions.  Functional connectivity (FC) analysis was conducted to identify the effect of gratitude on the emotion and reward-motivation networks. What they found is that “the average HR was significantly lower during the gratitude intervention than during the resentment intervention. Temporostriatal FC showed a positive correlation with HR during the gratitude intervention, but not during the resentment intervention. Temporostriatal resting-state FC was significantly decreased after the gratitude intervention compared to the resentment intervention. After the gratitude intervention, resting-state FC of the amygdala with the right dorsomedial prefrontal cortex and left dorsal anterior cingulate cortex were positively correlated with anxiety scale and depression scale, respectively.”  When all of this was combined, their findings clearly demonstrated a positive effect of gratitude on a person’s mental well-being and neural network.  It also increased functional connectivity and it positively affected brain-heart coupling.  The researchers concluded that it could be used as a way to improve an individual’s emotion regulation and self-motivation.

And another study led by Glenn Fox, a postdoctoral researcher at USC, and his team aimed to shed light on the neural nuts and bolts of gratitude.  They were looking for insights into the complexity of this social emotion and how it relates to other cognitive processes.  Specifically, they designed the experiment to see what aspects of brain function are common to both small feelings of appreciation and large feelings of gratitude.  In their experiment, they scanned participants’ brains while they were feeling grateful to see where gratitude showed up.

In order for the scans to be effective, they had to induce gratitude. At USC’s Shoah Foundation, which houses the world’s largest collection of Holocaust testimonies, they poured over hundreds of hours of footage to identify compelling stories of survivors who received help from others.  According to Fox, “Many of the survivors talked about receiving life-saving help from other people—from being given a new pair of shoes during a wintertime march to being hidden by strangers during the middle of the Nazi manhunt.  And they also talked about less significant gifts, such as bread or a bed at night.”  These first-person accounts were turned into 48 brief vignettes.

Experiment participants were then asked to read these vignettes while lying in a brain scanner.  For example, one vignette said, “A woman at the immigration agency stamps your passport so you can flee to England.” For each one, participants were asked to immerse themselves in the context of the Holocaust, imagine how they would feel if they were in the same situation, and then rate how grateful they felt—all while the fMRI machine recorded their brain activity.  They found that grateful brains showed enhanced activity in two primary regions:  the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC). These areas of the brain are associated with emotional processing, interpersonal bonding and rewarding social interactions, moral judgment, and the ability to understand the mental states of others.  It wasn’t just triggering brain activity in the reward center of the brain, which reflects the simple emotion of receiving a nice thing.  There was also extensive brain activity in part of the brain that handles the complex social emotions surrounding how others seek to benefit us, such as morality, connecting with others, and empathy… taking their perspective.  Gratitude activated other socially-enhancing areas of the brain.  This may explain why gratitude helps people be more successful in life.  That ability to connect and bond with others increases when the person practices more gratitude.

Next post, we’ll look at how gratitude affects the body and benefits a person’s life.  Stay tuned!

Quote of the Week

“When a person doesn’t have gratitude, something is missing in his or her humanity. A person can almost be defined by his or her attitude toward gratitude.” Elie Wiesel


© 2020, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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