Neuroscience explains why gratitude is good for our health

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Today is Thanksgiving, a day that was founded as an explicitly Christian holiday to thank God for the many blessings He’s bestowed on America.

Have you noticed that what God counsels us to do is good for us?

Take gratitude as an example.

Being thankful benefits us in at least seven scientifically-proven ways:

(1) Gratitude is good for our physical healthGrateful people experience fewer aches and pains and they report feeling healthier than other people, according to a 2012 study published in Personality and Individual Differences. Grateful people are also more likely to take care of their health — they exercise more often and are more likely to get regular check-ups.

(2) Gratitude is good for our psychological health: Gratitude reduces a multitude of toxic emotions, ranging from envy and resentment to frustration and regret. Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., a leading gratitude researcher, found that gratitude increases happiness and reduces depression.

(3) Gratitude reduces stress and makes us more resilient: For years, research has shown gratitude not only reduces stress, but it may also play a major role in overcoming trauma by making us more resilient:

  • A 2006 study published in Behavior Research and Therapy found that Vietnam War veterans with higher levels of gratitude experienced lower rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
  • Recognizing all you have to be thankful for – even during the worst times of your life – also fosters resilience, enabling you to better withstand trauma and stress. A 2003 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that gratitude was a major contributor to resilience following the 9/11 attacks.

(4) Grateful people sleep better: Writing in a gratitude journal improves sleep, according to a 2011 study published in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being. Jotting down a few grateful sentiments before bed helps you sleep better and longer.

(5) Gratitude opens the door to friendship: Showing appreciation to other people can help you win new friends, according to a 2014 study published in Emotion. The study found that thanking a new acquaintance makes them more likely to seek an ongoing relationship.

(6) Gratitude improves self-esteem:

  • A 2014 study published in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology found that gratitude increased athletes’ self-esteem, which is an essential component to optimal performance.
  • Other studies have shown that gratitude makes us better able to appreciate other people’s accomplishments, and reduces the toxic social comparisons that makes us resentful toward people who seem to have more — money, beauty, better jobs, better health, more friends — than we have.

(7) Gratitude is good for society by enhancing empathy and reducing aggression: Grateful people are more likely to behave in a pro-social manner according to a 2012 study by the University of Kentucky. Study participants who ranked higher on gratitude scales were sensitive and empathic toward other people; less vengeful; and less likely to retaliate against others, even when given negative feedback.

And now, we know how and why being thankful is good for us, from neuroscience.

Glenn Fox writes for Greater Good Magazine that “New research is exploring the brain regions linked to gratitude—and it helps explain gratitude’s many benefits”:

Gratitude is celebrated throughout philosophy and religion; recent scientific studies suggest it carries significant benefits for our mental and physical health. But very little is known about what actually happens in our brain and body when we experience it….

Since I’m a neuroscientist…I thought that understanding what happens in the brain when we feel gratitude could tell us more about the mind-body connection—namely, how feeling positive emotion can improve bodily functions….

[O]ur [research] results revealed that when participants reported those grateful feelings, their brains showed activity in a set of regions located in the medial pre-frontal cortex, an area in the frontal lobes of the brain where the two hemispheres meet. This area of the brain is associated with understanding other people’s perspectives, empathy, and feelings of relief. This is also an area of the brain that is massively connected to the systems in the body and brain that regulate emotion and support the process of stress relief.

The regions associated with gratitude are part of the neural networks that light up when we socialize and experience pleasure. These regions are also heavily connected to the parts of the brain that control basic emotion regulation, such as heart rate and arousal levels, and are associated with stress relief and thus pain reduction.

In other words, our data suggest that because gratitude relies on the brain networks associated with social bonding and stress relief, this may explain in part how grateful feelings lead to health benefits over time. Feeling grateful and recognizing help from others creates a more relaxed body state and allows the subsequent benefits of lowered stress to wash over us. (We recently published a scientific paper elaborating on these ideas.)

Perhaps even more encouraging, researcher Prathik Kini and colleagues at Indiana University performed a subsequent study examining how practicing gratitude can alter brain function in depressed individuals. They found evidence that gratitude may induce structural changes in the very same parts of the brain that we found active in our experiment. Such a result, in complement to our own, tells a story of how the mental practice of gratitude may even be able to change and re-wire the brain. (For more on Kini’s research, read this Greater Good article by his co-authors Joel Wong and Joshua Brown.)

To conclude, neuroscience shows that being thankful is good us by regulating heart rate, lowering stress, reducing pain, and combat depression by altering brain function.

God is good!

1 Thessalonians 5:18

In all circumstances, give thanks,
for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.


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Gracie Storvika
Gracie Storvika
2 years ago

What a profoundly wonderful article. The idea that by merely being “grateful” and feeling the feeling of thankfulness even in trying circumstances will actually benefit us. Our God knew from the beginning that experiencing “thankfulness” would inevitably be a supreme blessing to each of us.

Thank you so much Dr E for bringing us this timely scientific article. I have no doubt that we can and will benefit greatly from following this God given mandate.

Love to all the old FOTM family . . . may the Blessings of this time of year be abundantly spread among each of your families and to you personally.

2 years ago

I have seen that people who always see the glass as half empty, end up in a downward spiral where they cannot enjoy their lives no matter how much material wealth they possess. I tended to blame them but this science shows they knew not what they were doing to themselves. Focus on the Lord and He will lead you out of the Valley

2 years ago

Thank you Dr.E for this uplifting post! Gratitude is also the heart of humility, for we acknowledge God’s gifts in all things and in all His ways.