Given strong links between gratitude and giving behavior, and giving and health, scientists sought to determine if gratitude might benefit health through the same mechanisms as giving to others. They conducted a randomized controlled investigation for six weeks to look at whether gratitude activates “a neural ‘caregiving system’ (e.g., ventral striatum (VS), septal area (SA)), which can downregulate threat responding (e.g., amygdala) and possibly cellular inflammatory responses linked to health.”1
Subjects reported on support-giving behavior and provided blood samples to assess circulating plasma levels and stimulated monocytic production of tumor necrosis factor-α (TNF-α) and interleukin-6 (IL-6)). TNF- α is a cytokine needed in small amounts for much physiological function. Higher concentrations are central to innate immunity…but, if unchecked, this cytokine orchestrates much chronic and acute disease. Interleukin-6 is a proinflammatory cytokine.
Observed relationships suggested that “gratitude may benefit health (reducing inflammatory responses) through the threat-reducing effects of support-giving.”
More research shows lasting neural effects.
At the University of California Berkeley, researchers looked at the questions of gratitude benefits in a diverse group of people including those who had sought mental health counseling. They conducted a trial involving nearly 300 adults, mostly college students, and randomly assigned study participants into three groups. All three groups received counseling services; the first group was also instructed to write one letter of gratitude to another person each week for three weeks, while the second group was asked to write about their deepest thoughts and feelings about negative experiences. The third group did not do any writing activity at all.
The results? Compared with the participants who wrote about negative experiences or only received counseling, those who wrote the gratitude letters reported significantly better mental health four weeks and 12 weeks after their writing exercise ended. And while not definitive, the researchers found indications of how gratitude might actually work on our minds and bodies.
From this study came several insights including:
Certainly, the idea that practicing gratitude could offer our brains a welcome boost is one that warrants more studies. But think about your own experiences and how you feel if you take even a small amount of time to express gratitude, whether just to yourself or to someone else.
How to start a gratitude practice
Among several ideas offered in this piece from Mindful.org, consider starting a gratitude journal and take just a few minutes each day to write even if it’s just for yourself. Commit to practicing gratitude, if not daily then at least several times a week. Remind yourself of when things have been bad – and if you are currently experiencing a difficult period or event, try to focus on when things were better. It’s not easy, we understand. But even if you don’t really feel grateful, going through the motions can train your brain to trigger a sense of gratitude more often.
We’ve also written about the many ways you can help your brain destress and reduce the negative effects of excess cortisol – and practicing gratitude is an important part of the process. So be sure to review our blog archives and Medical Resources section for additional valuable information. Embracing gratitude can not only help your brain and overall wellbeing, but the impact can extend to all those whose lives you also touch. And you might find that gratitude really can be “contagious” in the very best possible way!
In hope and healing,
Dr. Suzanne Gazda
References and more reading:
1 Laura I. Hazlett, Mona Moieni, Michael R. Irwin, Kate E. Byrne Haltom, Ivana Jevtic, Meghan L. Meyer, Elizabeth C. Breen, Steven W. Cole, Naomi I. Eisenberger.
Exploring Neural Mechanisms of the Health Benefits of Gratitude in Women: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity. (2021) ISSN 0889-1591,
2 Y. Joel Wong, Jesse Owen, Nicole T. Gabana, Joshua W. Brown, Sydney McInnis, Paul Toth & Lynn Gilman (2018) Does gratitude writing improve the mental health of psychotherapy clients? Evidence from a randomized controlled trial, Psychotherapy Research, 28:2, 192-202, DOI: 10.1080/10503307.2016.1169332
A mantra for your brain, Suzanne Gazda MD
Sculpting the brain through prayer and meditation, guest articles, I.N. Rusk PhD
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Dr. Suzanne Gazda, Integrative Neurology