Gratitude Boosts Brain Health

The holiday season signals giving and gratitude. Since President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the first Thanksgiving holiday in 1863, we’ve gathered ‘round a feast of plenty celebrating bountiful harvests and living in America. Today, science has added delicious dressing to the meat of history by fleshing out what we know about the power of thankfulness.

We’ve learned that expressing gratitude can be good for your mental, physical, social, and economic health. When gratitude is put into words, it can be good for the giver, the receiver, and for your brain! Expressing gratitude makes people feel valued; it helps us form and maintain relationships; and it builds strong communities.

Since thankfulness boosts positive emotions, it improves healthy brain chemistry. Grateful people take better care of themselves, too. Focusing on gratitude leads to more happiness, better sleep, less stress and depression, improved self-esteem, increased generosity, and more loving feelings between people. Grateful people are even more likely to reach their goals. So to help keep your brain healthy, express gratitude!

My decades of devouring evolving neuroscience convince me that we have more reasons for optimism than ever before. Some of these new research findings are exhilarating! For example, Richard Davidson, founder of the Center for Healthy Minds at University of Wisconsin-Madison, found that meditation is associated with increased thickness in the left prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain associated with happy emotions. In his book Authentic Happiness, psychologist Martin Seligman describes the positive effects of a gratitude exercise carried out by Steve Toepfer, associate professor in Human Development and Family Studies at Kent State University. Toepfer found that large increases in happiness endured as long as a month for people who made a “gratitude visit” that included writing, delivering, and reading a personal letter of thanks.

That research moved me because a gift from my brother decades earlier changed my entire life. Visiting home from the Navy, my brother Charles asked about my school applications. When I told him I hadn’t applied because I had no money, he said, “Tell me how much it will cost for the three years of training and I will send the money.” His generosity paved a path that helped me earn several degrees, circle the globe, and pursue my mission to empower the gifted who have a track record of service above self. Many years later, reading the laminated copy of my gratitude letter to him still brings tears of thankfulness.

Expressing gratitude might be the best gift you give yourself and others. Make regular gratitude visits, and you could create an endless cycle of happiness for brain health.

Gratitude Visit

  1. List individuals that you want to thank for what they’ve done.
  2. Write a letter to one of them about their helpfulness. Invoke all your emotions.
  3. Without telling them why, ask the person out for coffee or tea.
  4. Then read your letter to them with full expression of all your feelings.
  5. Accept all their emotions in response.
  6. Leave your Gratitude Letter with them.

Dr. Joyce Shaffer is founder and managing partner in Ideal Aging and a clinical associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington. As a psychologist and nurse, she has served as an expert for court systems since 1982, and she is the author of several books on her passion for enhancing brain power. Nothing in her column is intended as health care advice.

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