Neuroscience lessons to enhance gratitude practices

Our individual experience of wellbeing is influenced by two seemingly bizarre mental models. First, despite major positive (or negative) experiences, like winning the lottery, we have a tendency to quickly return to a baseline level of happiness. 

Second, we are constantly evaluating our experiences in terms of relatives — not absolutes. This feature is what nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman (author of Thinking fast and slow) refers to as a “reference point”. Reference points can be observed in situations where the bronze medalist is happier than the silver medalist.

Credit: KEVORK DJANSEXIAN (Getty Images)

Studies from psychologist Victoria Medvec and co-authors discuss this pattern where silver medalists compare themselves to the gold medalists as the reference point. But bronze medalists tend to be happier as they hold others who did not make it in the podium as the reference point. They are grateful to just be there with the top two places.

The science of gratitude and wellbeing

In the viral course on The Science of Well-Being, Laurie Santos (Professor of Psychology at Yale University) outlines how a gratitude practice can mitigate these mental models of “hedonic adaptation” and “reference point”.

Gratitude is the quality of being thankful and a tendency to show appreciation for what one has — Laurie Santos (Professor of Psychology at Yale University)

Famous experiments by Emmons and McCullough (2003) showed that those who kept gratitude journals exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic about the upcoming week compared to those who recorded hassles or neutral life events. 

What does neuroscience teach us about gratitude practices ?

A regular practice makes anxiety and fear circuits less active, and circuits of wellbeing and motivation more active. As neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Huberman explains in the Huberman Lab podcast, neuroplasticity allows us to change our minds and body in response to experience. With each subsequent repeat of a gratitude practice, the pro-social neural circuits become more easily activated. An effective practice goes beyond activating circuits in our brain , but also activation of particular circuits in our heart shifting the body's physiology into a more relaxed state.

#1. Be present when expressing gratitude

Insight. Most gratitude practices involve writing about three, five or ten things that we are grateful for. This may be followed by thinking deeply about the emotions associated with the people, places or things on our list. The intensity of our emotions can be enhanced when we are more present in the moment. Heightened states of alertness shifts our neurocircuitry and somatic circuitry (brain and body detectors) towards enabling our pro-social circuits.

Application. Try intense breathwork, a cold swim, or a short run, during or before your gratitude practice. This allows you to savour the little details with more clarity and have a richer emotional experience.

#2. Stories of gratitude

Insights. The human brain is oriented towards story, from the time we are young to when we are old. In a scientific study, participants watch survivors of a genocide recall stories where people help them during their struggles. Crucially, the stories convey feelings of gratitude when they received this help. While watching these stories, the neural circuits associated with gratitude became active and shifted the physiology of participants in the study.

Application. Find an inspiring narrative from a movie, podcast or book where a kind human helps someone else in need. Observing someone else getting help and their emotional response allows us to experience a visceral feeling of gratitude.

#3. Receiving gratitude vs giving gratitude

Insight. In a neuroscience study , co-workers wrote a letter of thanks to another co-worker. Using NIRS techniques, researchers imaged brain activity when the letter was being read by one co-worker and received by the other. The results revealed that receiving gratitude created a far more positive shift in pro-social circuits in the brain than giving gratitude.

Application. Think or write about someone who was grateful for you, the details of this interaction with this person and your own emotional response when receiving their feedback.

“I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”
Oliver Sacks, Gratitude

Grateful for the cover photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

Vishal George is the Chief Behavioural Scientist at Behavioural by Design and hosts the Wellington and Auckland Behavioural Economics Network.

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