Practicing Gratitude Can Have a Huge Impact on Your Well-being

October 18, 2019 Updated: April 14, 2020

In recent years, the stacked shelves of high street stores have reflected a growing trend in well-being paraphernalia: the “gratitude journal.” However, far from being just a passing fad, perhaps the gratitude movement is onto something that could have far-reaching benefits in our lives.

Researchers have, in fact, discovered that practicing gratitude can have a huge impact on a person’s well-being. Perhaps most interestingly, those people who take the time to be grateful have been found to be more generous, and are more able to relate to their fellow human beings. In addition, they even practice more altruistic behaviors.

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Illustration – Shutterstock | William Perugini

In recent years, a number of psychologists and neuroscientists have begun to make connections between gratitude and generosity, and their findings would make you want to reach out to your own journal.

But how exactly does being grateful relate to a person’s desire to help and give to others?

Explaining the Link Between Gratitude and Generosity

Christina Karns, a neuroscientist and psychologist at the University of Oregon, has devoted a great deal of attention to an identified shared neural pathway for gratitude and generosity in the human brain.

Karns conducted a 2017 study in which the expression of generosity, or “neural pure altruism,” in young female participants was ascertained via fMRI scans. Next, Karns addressed whether or not pure altruism could be increased through practicing gratitude.

Karns and her colleagues initially quizzed their participants in order to obtain an idea of how frequently they felt thankful and how much they were concerned with the well-being of others. They were relatively unsurprised by the results; the more grateful people also tended to be more altruistically minded.

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Next came the role of the fMRI scanner. Karns and her colleagues subjected their participants to a “giving” experiment; participants watched as a computer transferred real money either into their own bank account or into the bank account of a local food bank.

The neuroscientists recorded the activity of the brain’s ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFX) upon witnessing giving and receiving under the conditions of both voluntary and involuntary bank transfers.

The VMPFX is an instrumental part of the brain in the processing of risk and fear, as well as in the cognitive evaluation of morality. A stronger response in the VMPFX upon witnessing charitable donations, therefore, indicated that the participant felt good seeing the food bank gaining funds.

In other words, they were exhibiting higher “pure altruism.”

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Illustration – Shutterstock | Donna Beeler

Karns’s study progressed by randomly separating participants into a gratitude-journaling group and a neutral-writing control group in order to see whether gratitude journaling could boost participants’ “pure altruism” score.

It worked. Upon retesting, the gratitude-journaling group’s fMRI readings indicated that the participants’ ventromedial prefrontal cortexes had quite literally learned to assign a greater value to charitable giving than to receiving money compared to their peers in the control group.

How to Become a More Generous Person

The human brain is extraordinarily adaptable. This is the reason that people who suffer devastating accidents, illnesses, or the loss of a sense of faculty can recover or compensate so well.

In the same way, adults can voluntarily train their brains to learn new skills and enhance the quality of their lives exponentially.

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Illustration – Shutterstock | Kristina Kokhanova

Practicing gratitude could have numerous benefits, not only for the person engaged in the act but also for their friends, family, and community. According to Harvard Medical School, gratitude helps people engage with positive emotions more easily, deal with adversity, build strong relationships, remain optimistic, exercise more, and even pay fewer visits to the physician for physical complaints.

According to a 2012 psychological study, new habits start to become second-nature in as little as eight weeks, so integrating gratitude into your everyday life could be easier than it sounds.

But how exactly does a person cultivate gratitude? Below are some steps:

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Keep a journal: Just like in Karns’s study, keeping a daily written account of the things you are thankful for actually serves to perpetuate the impulse toward being grateful.

Experience, don’t accumulate: A 2016 study found that experiential purchases such as travel, eating out, or visiting the theater inspired more gratitude than material purchases such as clothing, jewelry, and furniture.

People, it seems, are more grateful for what they’ve done than for what they actually possess. Shifting spending toward experiential consumption could improve a person’s life as well as the lives of the people around them.

Adjust your language: According to UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, grateful people include grateful language in their vocabulary. Speaking daily of gifts, givers, fortune, and abundance will help a person to think of daily life in these terms.

Work with others less fortunate than yourself: People who pursue altruistic volunteer roles embrace a twofold opportunity. They are able to give back to their community, and they are exposed to limitless reasons to count their own blessings in the face of greater need.

Not to mention, the gratitude cultivated by behaving altruistically will become the motivation a person needs to continue helping others, way into the future.

It pays to be grateful—science says so—and it could very well change your life.