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The Neurological and Emotional Power of Gratitude

Thank you card expressing gratitude after Thanksgiving and during the holidays

As we gather with loved ones this holiday season, let’s remember to reflect on all that we are grateful for and to express that gratitude whenever possible. Gratitude often has a positive impact on our mood and mental health, with a neurological basis. Studies have shown that expression of gratitude activates the prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex, which are partially responsible for managing and regulating emotions. Emotional regulation, in turn, can foster emotional well-being and improve our ability to cope with stress. These benefits can last up to three months following a relatively brief gratitude practice (not as brief as a 30-second speech at the dinner table once a year, on Thanksgiving, but brief and feasible all the same).

Researchers who study gratitude often distinguish between the experience of gratitude (our thoughts and feelings about that which we are grateful for) and its expression. Most of the benefit seems to come from expression, although it can be personal or private. Gratitude-journaling is an excellent way to thoughtfully express our thankfulness for things and people, and is likely to improve our mood and our emotional regulation immediately and long-term. Neuroplasticity researchers have studied journaling and proposed it as a powerful tool for rewiring the brain to focus on and nurture positive emotions.

Interpersonal expression of gratitude is likely to be powerful as well, and the neural underpinnings of gratitude overlap with altruism and empathy. Instead of (or in addition to) journaling, consider writing individualized, detailed, and thoughtful thank-you notes to holiday hosts and gift-givers. Research suggests that just three 20-minute gratitude-expressing activities over the course of a few weeks would enhance your emotional regulation for three months. Put another way, 20 minutes of writing thank-you notes or gratitude letters after Thanksgiving and holiday get-togethers throughout December could boost your mood during the dreary mid-winter months. And the recipients of your thank-you notes are likely to get their own emotional boost, thanks to the increased availability of dopamine and serotonin and the activation of the brain’s reward system, initiated by your expression of gratitude.

Let’s all take our thanksgiving a few steps further this season. By actively cultivating gratitude, we promote our emotional regulation and well-being at the neural level. By thoughtfully expressing gratitude, we prolong this well-being and foster it in our loved ones.


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