Brain Health: Gratitude: The Science Behind the Gift of Thanksgiving

by: Jenna Renfroe 

“Count your blessings.”  This is an age-old adage, and yet perhaps more relevant than ever in an era of instant gratification where the next best thing is constantly at one’s fingertips – quite literally, with the development of online shopping and mobile devices.  And yet, gratitude continues to be extremely important on an emotional, philosophical, and moral level – so much so, that “practicing” gratitude or thanksgiving is an integral part of most religions and spiritual practices.

When we forget to slow down and appreciate the special moments and people filling up our lives, we can get caught in the trap of “the next best thing.” We are constantly looking towards the future, another achievement, relationship, object or prize that is going to bring us some form of self-satisfaction and inherent feeling of pleasure or reward. Some researchers and psychologists have coined this tendency as the “hedonic treadmill” – hedonic, referring to the pursuit of pleasure, and treadmill – referring to the constant cycle of walking, moving forward and searching, without ever reaching a destination.  

Gratitude can be conceptualized as the antithesis of the hedonic treadmill.  It is the opposite of the constant searching, wanting, desiring, that our pesky little brains can fall prey to so easily.  

We have a whole neurocircuit devoted to wanting, desiring, and reward, involving the dopamine pathways of the brain. Gratitude is the antidote to the hedonic treadmill because it is all about focusing on what is here, right now, that brings us joy, fulfillment, and thankfulness – when there could be endless alternatives.  

We celebrate Thanksgiving once a year, which is in this exact spirit of gratitude and giving thanks, but what about the other 364 days of the year? Is the practice of slowing down to give thanks so rare and difficult to do on a routine basis, amidst the hustle and bustle, that we need holiday just to remind us?  

Likely the reason that the expression “count your blessings” has stood the test of time and is inherent to so many spiritual practices is because of the very real psychological and social benefits that come along with it. Gratitude can be conceptualized in a variety of ways – a discrete emotional experience, an individual trait, a response to another’s actions or gift-giving, or even an action.        

There seems to be a relationship between age and the experience of gratitude. In fact, older adults report that gratitude is among the top three positive emotions that they experience.  

Individuals who are more grateful seem to have higher subjective sense of well-being, less depressed mood, and more resilience. Resilience refers to a person’s ability to endure hardship with less of a psychological toll, modern day “grit” if you will.  

While it is true that some people seem to be inherently more “grateful” than others, gratitude is also a skill that can be practiced.  The effect of practicing gratitude has been studied scientifically. An experiment compared the difference between when people “count their blessings” or “count their hassles.” Individuals who practiced regular gratitude felt better about their lives as a whole and were more optimistic. Interestingly, they also reported fewer health complaints and spent more time exercising than the other groups. The act of being grateful, it seems, could have positive effect on one’s physical health.  Even spouses of individuals practicing gratitude described their partners as having higher subjective well-being than when their spouses were not practicing gratitude.  

Practicing gratitude actually seems to foster “prosocial” behavior.  Researchers described gratitude as a potential “moral motivator.” The art of gratitude seems to strengthen social ties and foster relationships. One study showed that gift-giving and the subsequent gratitude experienced by the receiver predicted the future quality and longevity of the relationship.  

As we gather around tables nationwide for Thanksgiving this year, may we keep in mind the very real, concrete effects that gratitude and thanksgiving can have on well-being, positive affect, and interpersonal relationships. 

Consider expressing your gratitude towards a loved one or family member at this year’s gathering, or even showing your appreciation for the relationship with a small gift or gesture. It may create a lasting effect in strengthening the relationship you have with that person.   

Implement a regular gratitude practice to optimize well-being and social motivation. Write down 5 things you are grateful for every day. It can be as specific or broad as you like – but also keep track of little daily occurrences that illicit feelings of gratitude. This will not only make you more mindful and appreciative in the day-to-day moments, but can have positive effects on your well-being, mood, and relationships in the long-run.    

Dr. Jenna Renfroe is the newest neuropsychologist
to join Pinehurst Neuropsychology. She is taking new
patients. 910-420-8041.
www.pinehurstneuropsychology.com