How Gratitude Impacts The Brain And Body

Published on April 8th, 2021

Updated on January 3rd, 2024

How Gratitude Impacts The Brain And Body

Gratitude seems to be a buzz word these days.  But gratitude is not just a part of some passing craze (or at least it shouldn’t be), as it has been scientifically proven to have positive effects on the brain and body.

Gratitude is being aware of the good things your life.  It is a quality of being thankful and the readiness to express appreciation.  Gratitude can be both an emotional state and personality trait; you can be a grateful person and/or experience a moment of gratitude.  But the benefits of gratitude extend beyond experiencing the nice feeling of being thankful.  After 15 years of research gratitude has been shown to have significant impact on the brain and body.

Gratitude and the Brain

Expressing gratitude regularly changes the molecular structure of the brain, which can have lasting beneficial effects.

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Gratitude leads to increased serotonin production.  Serotonin is sometimes referred to as the “happiness chemical” as it contributes to mood stability, relaxation, and feelings of wellbeing.

Practicing gratitude impacts the amygdala (the area of the brain that experiences emotion).  In general, the amygdala focuses on the negative emotions more than the positive.

Incorporating a gratitude practice each day, we can shift the focus of the amygdala to the positive.  Gratitude also activates the brain’s reward-system region and increases activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, which is the area of the brain linked to learning and decision-making.  Overall, gratitude helps our brains to regulate emotions, leading to a greater ability to experience positive emotions and an overall sense of well-being.

Gratitude and the Body

Not only does gratitude show significant positive effects on our brain, but also to our bodies.  The National Institute of Health (NIH) conducted a study that showed those who practiced gratitude had higher levels of activity in the hypothalamus.  The hypothalamus controls a wide range of bodily functions, including sleep, which is essential to good health.

The hypothalamus also influences the body’s metabolism rate, which helps manage weight.  Gratitude has also been shown to decrease the risk of cardiac diseases through lowering and regulating heart rate variability.  Some studies even show daily gratitude practice can slow the effects of neurodegeneration, which occurs with aging.

With the benefits being so clear, gratitude is something we probably all want to practice. Yet, for many people, it does not come naturally.  This is because so many things can get in the way of our feelings of gratitude, such as negative self-talk, comparing to others, worrying about the future, or having a lot of stress.  Thankfully, gratitude is something that can be cultivated through various practices.

Regularly give thanks

In order to reap the benefits of gratitude, we first have to be thankful. This means setting aside a time each day and reflecting on what you feel thankful for.  This can be anything at all from getting a raise to finding a good parking spot.  We can also recognize things we are thankful for within ourselves, such as being in good health.

Create a mantra

Picking out a mantra or affirmation to say to ourselves each day can be helpful in cultivating gratitude. For example, each morning you might look in the mirror and say, “I am blessed.”  This may feel silly at first, but repeating this mantra is a positive start the day, and overtime, a way to train your brain towards gratitude.

Keep a gratitude journal

Writing down the things you feel grateful for is another way to cultivate a greater sense of gratitude. You can keep a running list in a notebook or your phone.  There are no requirements as to how many things you can note you feel thankful for, as well as no requirements about what you note you feel thankful for.  If you are having a tough week, you may find you write the same few things down each day (i.e. – my dog, my home, etc.), and that is OK.


When we meditate we are focused on the present moment. We are not thinking about the past or worrying about the future.  Being present and mindful helps quiet the mind; and with a quiet mind we are better able to identify the things we are grateful for in our lives.

Express it to others

Next time you are with a friend or loved one, tell them what you like or appreciate about them. Expressing gratitude to others not only benefits our own gratitude practice, but also can strengthen our relationships.

Use your five senses

Through our senses – our ability to touch, see, smell, taste, and hear – we can notice more of what we appreciate about our current experience.

Go through the motions

Grateful “motions” like smiling or saying thank you can trigger the emotion of gratitude more often. And the more often we trigger the emotion of gratitude, the more likely we are to experience it overall.

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