Gratitude Practice

Dr Thanh-Tam Pham - 01/01/2022

Gratitude is often conceived as a moral emotion and there is a growing interest that it can bring greater happiness and improvements in health, wellbeing, interpersonal relationships and increased resilience to trauma.

Gratitude is a positive emotion that can arise when one receives kindness or something of value from another person. A number of studies have shown that gratitude evolves to facilitate prosocial behaviour or behaviour intended to help others. It has been shown that prosocial behaviour (giving support to others) is associated with markers of physical health including lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure (Piferi & Lawler 2006), lower morbidity (Brown et al,2005) and reduced risk of mortality (Brown et al,2003). Moreover, evidence from randomized controlled trials suggests that interventions that increase prosocial behaviour can lead to improvements in inflammatory processes associated with health (Moieni et al, 2019).

Gratitude is an important aspect of human sociality and is valued by religious and moral philosophies.

Dr Huberman explains the neural circuit mechanism. The ratings of gratitude correlated with brain activity in the anterior cingulate cortex and medial prefrontal cortex. There is a moral cognition and positive emotion that accompany the experience of benefiting from the goodwill of others.

Individuals vary in how grateful they tend to be and those who are more grateful show enhanced psychological wellbeing (Wood et al, 2009).

The scale of gratitude is wide, it can be as small as the gratitude felt for someone holding a door for you or it can be overwhelming as in the case of life saving gifts such as organ donation or it can be broad and focused on spirituality and thankfulness for life in general.

Neurobiology of Gratitude:

         ●    The main neuromodulator associated with gratitude practice and prosocial behaviour is serotonin.

         ●    Two major brain areas are activated with gratitude:

                  - The medial prefrontal cortex sets the context, framing and provides the meaning of experiences for everything in life. For example, the context provided by the prefrontal cortex makes it tolerable to sit in an ice bath or cold plunge because of the perceived benefits shift our mindset and tolerance. Gratitude is a mindset that activates the prefrontal cortex and sets the context for experience. It is a myth that you can simply “lie to yourself and fake it till you make it” about whether an experience is good or not.

                  - The anterior cingulate cortex is involved in empathy pathways and circuitry.

In order to activate Gratitude, we need to put ourselves in the mindset of another or the emotional feeling directly linked to receive gratitude.

Gratitude practice is not simply about writing down or thinking about things you are grateful for. There must be a true emotion to arouse the autonomic nervous system for increased benefit, such as in state of heightened alertness, the intensity of emotion will enhance the effectiveness of gratitude practice.

Why consider a Gratitude Practice?

         ●    Having an effective Gratitude Practice can have large positive effects on physical and mental health, even with incorporating gratitude practice 1 to 3 times per week can have a long lasting impact on self-reported wellbeing. The problem is most gratitude practices (for example writing and reflecting on the good in our lives) don’t actually have the key component needed for the benefit.

         ●    Gratitude is a prosocial behaviour which means it allows us to be more effective in interactions with ourselves and others.

         ●    Our brains are in a seesaw between prosocial behaviour and defensive behaviour we use in an attempt to keep us safe. We have the capacity for happiness and great concern and sadness. When the right Gratitude Practice is performed repeatedly and consistently, you can shift prosocial circuits to dominate the mindset.

         ●    Some key benefits of proper Gratitude Practice:

                  Resilience to trauma from prior experience.

                  Inoculation from trauma later in life by shifting fear networks.

                  Enhance social relationships in personal and professional life

                  Shifts prosocial circuitry in the brain and activates circuits in heart and lungs associated with breathing.

                  Gratitude Practice decreases inflammatory cytokines such as tumour necrosis factor -alpha (TNF -alpha) and interleukin 6 (IL 6) almost immediately.

                  Unlike other practices (such as meditation or breathwork), the positive effects of Gratitude Practice are felt almost instantly (60-90 sec) making it sustainable to incorporate regularly.

Steps for a scientifically grounded Gratitude Practice:

The brain responds similarly to joy and gratitude. Gratitude must be genuine to get the benefits. Most gratitude practices of writing or thinking about things you are grateful for will not actually lead to any positive benefits or changes in brain circuitry. True gratitude practice is about associating or experiencing empathy for someone who received help whether help you gave or help you heard about given to someone you connect with.

                  Think about (or find from podcast or movie….) a story in which someone received help or you received thanks that you can emotionally connect with.

                  Write a few notes about the story such as what the struggle was, what the help was and how it made you feel

                  Repeatedly reflect on the story, really connect with it for a few minutes. The more you read and reflect on the notes or take in the story in your heart, the faster you will sink into gratitude and you can practice until the gratitude feeling is almost immediate (unlike meditation or similar practices). The main component of an ideal gratitude practice is you must genuinely and emotionally associate with the story, reflect on the story 1 to 5 min and practice it 3 times a week.


Dr Andrew Huberman podcast : The Science of Gratitude and How to build a Gratitude Practice.