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How Does Gratitude Change The Brain

Merriam-Webster defines gratitude as “the state of being grateful”. The Harvard Medical School describes gratitude as “a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives…As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals – whether to other people, nature, or a higher power”.
The challenge is to experience gratitude whether we are forging our way through a global pandemic or just muddling through the mundaneness of daily life. Gratitude is quiet – easy to overlook. Reflecting on what you are thankful for does more than allow you to consider yourself less self-centered, but I’ve got other things on my mind. My husband has added meat to his growing list of items to hoard during the COVID-19 pandemic (adding to our stockpile of canned and paper goods, a complete line of sanitization products, and tubs of freeze-dried meals with a 25-year shelf life). Our freezer, stocked to last through 2021, stopped working this morning. My fourteen-year old has logged more hours on the X-Box and fewer hours completing online school assignments than I will acknowledge. My older son left the state one month ago for a Spring Break trip to meet his girlfriend’s parents and has been unable to return, and my daughter, in quarantine across town, stopped by to pick up her own survival pack made by her father, who insisted she remain outside, on the driveway, while I spoke to her through my facemask, maintaining appropriate social distance.
Taking the time to be grateful right now can feel like we are taking our attention off more urgent matters, but here’s the thing: When we express gratitude, our brain releases a surge of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that plays a role in many important functions, including pleasure, reward, motivation, attention, and bodily movements. This surge of dopamine produces a natural high, creating good feelings that motivate us to repeat specific behaviors, including expressing gratitude more. Dopamine allows us to experience positive emotions more intensely. And, when we feel good, we are more likely to spread that to others. Showing gratitude towards others invites more positive behaviors, the kind of behaviors that endear us to others and moves us to act for the greater good rather than only for our own benefit. Gratitude is also associated with increased serotonin production. Serotonin is often called the happiness chemical because it contributes to feelings of well-being, stabilizes our mood, and helps us feel more relaxed. Isn’t this exactly what we need more of, right now?
Our physiology encourages us to go one step further: Sharing our gratitude with another. Research has shown that practicing gratitude activates a part of the human brain—the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC)—associated with what is described as neural pure altruism, which means that our brain craves the experience of giving. This part of our brain can be activated by writing in a journal about experiences of gratitude. But it is the expression of gratitude, sharing what we are grateful for with another, that results in even greater activation of the VMPFC and neural pure altruism. In sharing, we become more likely to want to connect with others by giving again in the future. Gratitude directly contributes to the greater good.
I prefer neither freeze-dried (astronaut) food nor the pressure and hassle of making sure surfaces, handles and doorknobs are continually cleaned, and supplies of every type are stocked and restocked.  I am grateful that my husband is unwavering in his determination to make sure we are taken care of. Sure, I prefer that my 14-year-old take more of an interest (any interest!) in writing and sharing English essays over the details of a successful GTA casino heist, but, he’s here with me, we are together, and he is safe. I am grateful to the family who has given my oldest son a place to stay during this crazy time and for every single hug I’ve shared with my daughter.
Anonymous writer-Therapist at Elliant Counseling Services, PC