The science of gratitude (and effect on the brain)

When you think of gratitude and the science behind it, what springs to mind? Perhaps you think of people, teachers or experiences you’re grateful for. Maybe you think of the life lessons your parents taught you – to be thankful for the things you have, when so many go without.

Few people spend too much time thinking about gratitude. What we do know is that practising it brings major benefits. Here are just a few:

– It makes you happier (according to a US study on teens and adults)

– It reduces frustration, aggression, and regret (from the same study)

– It makes you more productive in and outside of the office

Science of Gratitude

The fascinating thing about this gratitude practice is that it doesn’t have to be for the big things in life. Thankfulness for a great lunch is every bit as valid as thankfulness for a new car. The smaller things in life mean just as much and trigger just as many emotions. Don’t just take our word for it, here’s what Harvard Medical School has to say about it:

“In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.”

– Harvard Health Publishing

Notice the words ‘strongly’ and ‘consistently’. And there are the keys, strong, consistent practice. Whichever study you read, it all comes down to consistency. Spending time journaling or thinking about things or people you’re grateful for is what makes the difference.

And it’s worth noting that it’s gratitude that makes you happy, not the other way around. Mind-blowing stuff.

Drawing From Experience

If there’s one man who can tell you about the science of gratitude and its effect on the brain, it’s Glenn Fox.

In 2013 Fox lost his mother to cancer. His grief and despair coincided with the end of his neuroscience PhD – a study into the neural bases of gratitude.

Fox realised the only way he’d deal with his loss, was by putting into practise some of what he’d learned during his studies. And what he’d experienced talking to his mother about the subject during her treatment.

Through his research into social psychology, Fox and his mother talked about cancer patients and studies into gratitude connected to their treatment and wellbeing.

The pair came up with the idea of daily journaling, a habit Fox’s mother continued right up to the end of her life.

Her son believes it went a long way in helping her through the darker times.

“I mean, she was dying, and yet she would still write down things that she was grateful for,” he said. “It might be simple things like being able to eat a piece of chocolate, right? Or it might be profound like a blood transfusion.”


And this ability to be grateful helped Fox’s mother stay in the moment. Able to enjoy the time she had left.

We may not be facing the same challenges, but we will all face hard times at various points during our lives. This ability to use gratitude to stay in the moment is key to bolstering our resilience, motivation and handling pain in a positive way.

The Practical Part

It’s one thing recognising the need to practice gratitude, quite another to get started. And yet, it’s easy. Not only easy but enjoyable! Let’s look at some practical steps to take and then talk about the changes you can expect to see:

  • Keep a gratitude journal – start by writing between one and three things you’re grateful for every day. Increase or record your feelings as you get used to the idea.
  • Write a note of things as they cross your mind – could be in a notebook or in your phone, that way you won’t forget.
  • Be deliberate – look for things to be grateful for. You’ll be amazed what you notice.
  • Make a choice – expressing gratitude is a choice, and it needs making every single day.
  • Be consistent – look back in a week or a month, and you’ll be amazed at what you’ve noticed and how you feel.

And what can you expect to feel?

We’ve covered some physical and emotional benefits in brief, but let’s take a deep dive.

It’s helpful to divide these advantages up into five categories and explore them individually:

1 Emotional Benefits

We’re talking about simply feeling happier. An emotion none of us should underestimate. But there’s more. Our self-esteem can also earn a well-earned boost from practising gratitude.

2 Social Benefits

Relationships across the board are strengthened when we are more positive and grateful. That includes friendships as well as with romantic partners.

3 Personality Benefits

When we realise how fortunate we are, we’re way more likely to be kinder to others. We look outwards rather than inwards and become more giving in the process.

4 Work Benefits

You’ll become a better manager, a more productive employee and experience less job-induced stress symptoms.

5 Health Benefits

Better sleep, more energy and even lower blood pressure in some cases. Regular gratitude practice can also help motivate you more to take exercise and feel less tense.

We know it’s a challenge to find gratitude daily. It’s a commitment and it feels like another drain on our precious time, but the benefits far outweigh any negatives. Let us challenge you today to start a daily gratitude journal.

If you feel daunted don’t worry. We can help you get started and encourage you along the way with our amazing mindset mixes, positive affirmations and self-empowerment courses.

Good luck and tell us how you’re getting on. We’d love to hear from you.