Over Thanksgiving, between bites of turkey and sweet potato pie, many of us will wonder: What are we thankful for?
Taking a moment to practice gratitude like this is not an empty holiday tradition. It’s good for our mental and physical health. And here’s another thing: It can actually change our brains in ways that make us more selfless – just in time for Giving Tuesday.
The past two decades have seen a surge in gratitude research, starting in the early 2000s with a series of landmark articles by Robert Emmons, Michael McCullough, and other psychologists. In recent years we have learned through many scientist studies that there is a deep neural connection between gratitude and giving – they share a pathway in the brain – and that when we are grateful, our brain becomes more charitable.
Christina Karns, a neuroscientist at the University of Oregon, is one of the leading researchers in this area. In 2017, she wondered what goes on in the brain when you get a gift versus when you give one – and if the neural response differs depending on your character. So she put the study participants in a brain scan and had them watch while a computer transferred real money into their own account or gave it to a food bank instead.
Karns described what she learned:
It turns out that the neural connection between gratitude and giving runs very deep, both literally and figuratively. A region deep in the frontal lobe of the brain, called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, is essential to support both. Anatomically, this region is hardwired to be a hub for dealing with the value of risk and reward; it’s richly connected to even deeper brain regions that deliver a pleasurable neurochemical boost under the right circumstances.
The participants that I had identified as more grateful and more altruistic via a questionnaire [showed] a stronger response in those brain reward regions when they saw the charity make money. It was good for them to see the food bank work well.
Next, Karns wanted to know if by changing people’s level of gratitude she could change the way the brain responds to giving and getting. She therefore divided the participants into two groups. For three weeks, one group wrote a journal about the things they were grateful for, while the other group wrote a journal about other events (not specific to gratitude) in their life.
Members of the gratitude journalism contingent said they felt more gratitude. Additionally, the reward regions of their brains began to respond more to charitable donations than to earning money for themselves. As Karns writes:
Practicing gratitude changed the value of donation in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. It changed the exchange rate in the brain. Giving to charity has become more valuable than receiving money yourself. Once the brain calculates the exchange rate, you get paid in neural currency for the reward, the delivery of neurotransmitters that signal pleasure and goal achievement.
These are striking (although probably not permanent) effects. Of course we still need more research to fully understand the brain mechanisms that underlie gratitude, giving and their relationships. But for those of us who don’t always find resonating with the old adage that ‘it’s better to give than to receive’, Karns’ findings, if this is true, come up with a useful amendment: giving can really be better – if you do. You can proactively choose to retrain your brain so that it has more fun giving.
Here are some effective ways to cultivate gratitude
If increasing people’s gratitude is an effective way to increase their charitable character, then it may be worth making people cultivate more gratitude.
So far, we have at least one of those nudges in our calendar: Thanksgiving. Many religious traditions also include daily practices intended to encourage gratitude, and scientific studies have shown that some – like pray – really have that effect.
If the practice of gratitude is not yet part of your daily routine and you want to cultivate it throughout the year and not just on Thanksgiving, here are some practices that researchers have found to be effective in boosting gratitude.
Gratitude journaling: This simple practice – writing down the things you’re grateful for – has grown in popularity in recent years. But studies show that there is increasingly less effective means of doing so. Researchers say it’s better to write about one thing in detail, really savoring it, than making a cursory list of things. They recommend that you try to focus on the people you are grateful for, as this has more of an impact than focusing on things, and focusing on the events that surprised you, as they usually evoke feelings. stronger recognition.
The researchers also note that writing in a gratitude journal once or twice a week is better for your well-being than doing it every day. In one study, people who wrote once a week for six weeks reported increased happiness afterwards; people who wrote three times a week didn’t. This is because our brain has a boring habit called hedonic adaptation. “We adapt quickly to positive events, especially if we constantly focus on them,” Emmons Explain. “It sounds counterintuitive, but that’s how the mind works.”
Letters of gratitude and visits: Another practice is to write a letter of gratitude to someone. Research shows it dramatically increases your level of gratitude, even if you never actually send the letter. And the effects on the brain can last for months. In study, subjects who participated in writing a gratitude letter expressed more gratitude and showed more activity in their pregenual anterior cingulate cortex – an area involved in predicting the outcome of our actions – three months later .
Some psychologists, such as Martin Seligman, Sonja Lyubomirsky and Jeffrey Froh, studied a variation of the gratitude letter practice by having participants write a letter to someone they have never really thanked, then visit the person and read the letter aloud. A 2009 study led by Froh found that teens experienced a surge in positive emotions after paying a gratitude visit – even two months later.
Experiential consumption: There’s another way to foster gratitude and thwart the hedonic adaptation that seems especially relevant for the next gift-buying season: spend your money on experiences, not things. The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley abstract a major study on experiential consumption like this:
Across six experiments, this study found that people felt and expressed more gratitude after buying an experience (for example, concert tickets or eating out) than buying a good one. material (for example, clothing or jewelry). According to the researchers, these experiments suggest that “as a relatively adaptive naturalistic behavior, experiential consumption can be a particularly easy way to encourage the experience of gratitude.”
In other words, if you are going to buy something special this holiday season, consider making it an experience. The resulting gratitude is more likely to stay in the brain – and where gratitude abounds, altruism can follow.
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