Be grateful for everything

I am following a routine of writing a daily journal for a nutrition group as part of a drive to health for 2017. The purpose of the journal is to keep participants honest and accountable for everything they eat, to heighten awareness, understand triggers and change habits. Interestingly the first part of the structure requires that I list at least three things I can identify as "wins" for the day and at least three I am grateful for - in the whole day, not just around food. There is good neuroscientific evidence for this approach - and there are powerful reasons for making gratitude a way of life, not just as a journal in a learning event.

We can all feel gratitude, it can hit us in the moment or we can consciously remind ourselves of the good things around us. The important thing is that it doesn't depend on our life circumstances. You can be in debt, yet still be grateful for a walk along a country lane or be grateful that despite your debts, you have a roof over your head.

Gratitude can help to alleviate worry and anxiety - both of which occur in the future and have unknown outcomes! In 2013 researchers Ng and Wong found that as the brain can only focus on a few things at once, when you are grateful for potentially good events that may occur, gratitude can replace worrying feelings. On top of that, grateful people show more drive to do something about poor health, most likely due to an increase in serotonin production in the anterior cingulate cortex1. Recalling times we are grateful for delivers a double benefit - the increase in serotonin already mentioned and the fact that it also indirectly keeps the mind away from negative memories2.

Feeling grateful also activates the brain stem region that produces dopamine. Zahn and Moll found that gratitude towards others increases activity in social dopamine circuits, enabling more enjoyable social interactions3.

Other states related to gratitude

In 2009, Antonio Demasio and colleagues looked at brain activities associated with admiration and compassion4. They found activation in the hypothalamus, insula and ventral anterior cingulate. Their conclusions included that activation of the insula is likely to create a sense of empathy and the involvement of the hypothalamus creates increased emotional arousal.

Nature magazine reports fMRI experiments showing that optimism is mediated in the ventral anterior circulate - and you don't need certainty that a positive event will happen, just that there is a possibility that it could. In the optimistic state of mind, we are grateful for the chance that some good will occur and we will weather any storm around the event5.

In 2009 Lambert and Fincham made a good point around gratitude - that it is showing real appreciation for what we have. It doesn't matter what is happening with others, what they have or don't have. Gratitude increases our perception of the value of what we have which has a positive effect on our overall happiness and satisfaction6. Beware comparisons with others as this may not always result in gratitude - perhaps in envy or negative thoughts in some circumstances. In another study in 2010 researchers found that, during an interactive game of chance, the ventral striatum plays a role in mediating the emotional consequences of social comparison7.

Gratitude can powerfully erase negativity, improving mood, sleep, decreasing stress and helping with depression. The author Alex Korb, in his book "The Upward Spiral" summarises this area elegantly, telling us that remembering to be grateful is a form of emotional intelligence and as our emotional intelligence increases, the neurons in these areas become more efficient. Simply put, with higher emotional intelligence, it takes less effort to be grateful.

There certainly is a lot to be grateful for in this world, and perhaps we can start by being grateful for our amazing brains.

1 The differential effects of gratitude and sleep on psychological distress in patients with chronic pain. Ng and Wong, 2013, Journal of Health Psychology, 18

2 In vivo measurements of brain trapping of C-labelled alpha-methyl-L-tryptophan during acute changes in mood states. Perreau-Linck and Beauregard, 2007, Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, 32

3 The neural basis of human social values: evidence from functional MRI, Cerebral Cortex, 19. Zahn and Moll, 2009,

4 Neural correlates of admiration and compassion. Demasio et al, 2009, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the US, 106, 19

5 Neural mechanisms mediating optimism bias. Sharot, Riccardi et al, 2007, Nature 450 (7166)

6 More gratitude, less materialism: the mediating role of life satisfaction. Lambert and Fincham, 2009, Journal of Positive Psychology, 4

7 The envious brain: the neural basis of social comparison. Dvash et al, University of Haifa, Human Brain Mapping, 2010 Nov 31,11

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