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The neuroscience of how gratitude makes you a happier person

We often hear about the power of gratitude for creating a more positive and happy mental state. But did you know that regularly expressing gratitude may make you a happier person?

The reason is simple:

When you feel happiness, the central nervous system is affected. You are more peaceful, less reactive, and less resistant. And gratitude is the most effective practice for stimulating feelings of happiness.

In this article we’ll share some of the research suggesting that gratitude makes you happier, followed by some practical steps you can take to more regularly express gratitude in your life.

Finally, we’ll offer an alternative perspective about why gratitude needs to arise spontaneously as opposed to being forced.

Studies of gratitude making you happier

effects of gratitude on the brain

In one study of gratitude, conducted by Robert A. Emmons at the University of California at Davis and his colleague Mike McCullough at the University of Miami, randomly assigned participants were given one of three tasks. The participants kept a journal each week, with one group describing things they were grateful for, another group describing what was hassling them and the other keeping track of neutral events. After ten weeks, the participants in the gratitude group felt 25 percent better than the other groups and had exercised an average of 1.5 hours more.

In a later study by Emmons with a similar setup, participants completing gratitude exercises each day offered other people in their lives more emotional support than those in other groups.

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effects of gratitude on the brain

Another study on gratitude was conducted with adults suffering from congenital and adult-onset neuromuscular disorders (NMDs), with the majority of people having post-polio syndrome (PPS). Compared to those not jotting down what they’re grateful for every night, participants that did express gratitude felt more refreshed each day upon awakening. They also felt more connected with others than did participants in the group not expressing gratitude.

A fourth study didn’t require a gratitude journal, but looked at the amount of gratitude people showed in their daily lives. In this study, a group of Chinese researchers found that higher levels of gratitude were associated with better sleep, and also with lower levels of anxiety and depression.

Better sleep, with less anxiety and depression. Some compelling reasons to express gratitude more regularly.

(The daily application of mindfulness lead to greater success in all areas of your life – including your personal relationships and emotional resilience. Check out our practical guide to living a more mindful life here).

Three simple steps to becoming more grateful

effects of gratitude on the brain

If you’ve only got time to say one prayer today, make it the simple words of “thank you.”

This is worth keeping in mind as you go about figuring out your daily practices and routines.

Here are three practical steps you can take to infusing routines of gratitude into your life.


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1) Keep a daily journal of three things you are thankful for. This works well first thing in the morning, or just before you go to bed.

2) Make it a practice to tell a spouse, partner or friend something you appreciate about them every day.

3) Look in the mirror when you are brushing your teeth, and think about something you have done well recently or something you like about yourself.

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An alternative perspective on gratitude

In an interview with the shaman Rudá Iandê, I asked him about the power of gratitude. He told me that it is indeed a powerful emotion, but it needs to be expressed spontaneously.

Here’s what he said:

“Yes, gratitude is such a powerful emotion! Although we risk being insincere if we start trying to feel it. It should come to us naturally.

“Many times, before we can feel real gratitude, we must access our frustration and our anger towards ourselves, life and God. Because we hear so much that we must be grateful, life is sacred and our creator is pure love, we end up closing the door to fully accessing our resentment.

“My main disagreement with both the current religions and the new age movements is the way they place God beyond any sin and make us believe we are wrong for not being as pure and perfect as we “should be”.

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“Actually, we were born in this crazy world without a manual. We must suffer greatly before achieving some wisdom in life. Usually, when we finally start understanding how life works, it’s too late. We are too old to do anything with our wisdom.

“We are destined to live our lives investing in relationships, knowledge and material possession. And we are also destined to die and leave behind everything we fought for so fiercely.

“How can you not feel resentful about this?

“If you want to live in gratitude, you first must bring up all your frustration, resentment and anger. You must embrace these emotions and have a good argument with whichever God you believe in. Only after doing this you can really make peace with life and start enjoying all the pleasure and pain of being alive. Then you can find real gratitude.”

Read the full interview with Rudá Iandê here.

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Notable replies

  1. Can antidepressants induce gratitude? It’s hard to feel grateful if things are not going your way in your life.

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Written by Justin Brown

I'm the CEO and co-founder of Ideapod, a platform for people to connect around ideas. I'm passionate about people thinking for themselves, especially in an age of information overload.

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