How gratitude changes our brains (and why it's great for sleep!)
Looking for more focus and a better night's sleep? It might be time to take out that gratitude journal you were gifted. In multiple studies, practicing gratitude is proven to result in higher levels of personal well being, less stress and psychological distress, and a better night’s rest.
Gratitude and the Brain
Our minds naturally fall victim to negativity bias. As written about extensively by Rick Hanson (Hardwiring Happiness), negativity bias is our brain’s natural home base. We are more prone to remember “bad” events and feedback over our highlight reels and successes. That structuring was originally created in order to protect us. After all, if we couldn't remember which berries are poisonous and which aren’t, our lives are on the line.
But now living in the modern era, we have the opportunity to rewire our brains through gratitude to soak up the positive and help us to live happier lives. As covered in The New York Times, “gratitude stimulates the hypothalamus (a key part of the brain that regulates stress) and the ventral tegmental area (part of our “reward circuitry” that produces the sensation of pleasure).” Forbes covered the top seven scientifically validated benefits of gratitude, citing that it improves mental and physical health.
Rewiring the Brain
The magnitude of the effects that gratitude can have may seem surprising, but a direct look at the brain activity during gratitude gives us some insight. The first study we’ll touch on comes from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). NIH researchers examined blood flow in various brain regions while subjects summoned up feelings of gratitude (Zahn et al, 2009). They found that subjects who showed more gratitude overall had higher levels of activity in the hypothalamus. This is important because the hypothalamus controls a huge array of essential bodily functions, including eating, drinking and sleeping. It also has a huge influence on your metabolism and stress levels. From this evidence on brain activity it starts to become clear how improvements in gratitude could have such wide-ranging effects from increased exercise, and improved sleep to decreased depression and fewer aches and pains.
Gratitude can have such a powerful impact on your life because it helps us to disrupt negative thought cycles, and engage in positive mental patterns. Your brain only has so much power to focus its attention. It cannot easily focus on both positive and negative stimuli. It is like a small child: easily distracted. "Oh your tummy hurts? Here’s a lollipop. So you lost your job? Isn’t it wonderful we’re having KFC for dinner?" On top of that your brain loves to fall for the confirmation bias, that is it looks for things that prove what it already believes to be true. And the dopamine reinforces that as well. So once you start seeing things to be grateful for, your brain starts looking for more things to be grateful for. That’s how the virtuous cycle gets created.
Focus + Determination
One study by a couple of American researchers assigned young adults to keep a daily journal of things they were grateful for (Emmons and McCullough, 2003). They assigned other groups to journal about things that annoyed them, or reasons why they were better off than others. The young adults assigned to keep gratitude journals showed greater increases in determination, attention, enthusiasm and energy compared to the other groups.
Less Aches & Pains
The effect of gratitude is not just limited to young adults. In addition, even less frequent moments of gratitude can have an effect. The same researchers conducted a separate study on adults, which showed that even a weekly gratitude journal was beneficial. Subjects assigned to journal weekly on gratitude showed greater improvements in optimism. That makes sense. But that’s not all; it also influenced their behaviors. Keeping a gratitude journal also caused greater improvements in exercise patterns. Lastly, it also caused a reduction in physical ailments, so these subjects had fewer aches and pains.
A third study from earlier this year did not require a gratitude journal, but simply looked at the amount of gratitude people tended to show in their daily lives (Ng et al, 2012). In this study, a group of Chinese researchers looked at the combined effects of gratitude and sleep quality on symptoms of anxiety and depression. They found that higher levels of gratitude were associated with better sleep, and with lower anxiety and depression. This begged the question, is the level of gratitude improving these symptoms or is it the fact that the patients are getting better sleep? These researchers ran some analyses controlling for the amount of sleep and revealed some interesting links.
They found that after controlling for the amount of sleep people got, gratitude still had an effect on lower depression scores. This means that regardless of their levels of insomnia, people who showed more gratitude were less depressed. With anxiety they found a different result. After controlling for sleep, gratitude showed no effect on anxiety. So while higher gratitude led to less anxiety originally, this is simply because it helped people sleep better, and sleeping better improved their anxiety. So gratitude had a direct effect on depression symptoms (the more gratitude, the less depression) and an indirect effect on anxiety (increased gratitude led to improved sleep, which led to lower anxiety). Whatever your motivation, it's exciting to see how gratitude can help us to live more centered, positive, and focused lives.
This post was originally published on Moonlit Skincare’s Pillow Talk Blog.
Moonlit Skincare is dedicated to overnight skincare and sleep wellness. Burnt out, exhausted, overwhelmed with screens and stressed-out skin, co-founders (and former college roommates) Kriszta and Stephy sought out to create a brand that embraced rest, because we all know sleep is the root of great skin. With silk pillowcases, silk eye masks, nighttime formulas, beauty sleep teas, and more, we bring nighttime front and center. Applauded by VOGUE, Into The Gloss, People, WWD, POPSUGAR, Brit+Co, Marie Claire, Buzzfeed, Martha Stewart Living, and shortlisted by CEW’s “Indie Brands to Watch,” Moonlit is making night moves.