The Amazing Effects of Gratitude
Back in Ancient Rome, the philosopher Cicero described gratitude as the mother of all virtues.
This concept of being thankful has been stressed in religion and philosophy for a long time.
Back in 1820 Scottish philosopher Thomas Brown defined gratitude as “that delightful emotion of love to him who has conferred a kindness on us.”
But scientifically, gratitude doesn’t qualify as a basic emotion like joy, sadness or anger.
There’s no universal facial expression for it. As an emotion, gratitude is a little hard to define.
Today the Oxford Dictionary defines gratitude as “the quality or condition of being thankful; the appreciation of an inclination to return kindness.” And we’ve only really started to study gratitude scientifically in the past 30 years.
In a 2015 study, participants were asked to imagine how they would feel if a complete stranger saved their life. I mean, how would you feel? The participants had to rate how grateful they were to strangers who provided them with gifts of food and clothing – all while they had their brain scanned in an fMRI machine.
Researchers found their ratings of gratitude positively correlated with activity in brain areas associated with fairness and value judgements. It makes sense because gratitude is often thought of as a moral emotion.
There are even benefits in just noting how grateful you are. Another study asked people to write down three things that went well that day and why for one week. At the end of the week people were slightly happier than at the beginning, and over time, their happiness scores kept improving. After one month they were 5% happier and after six months they were 9% happier. Just from one week of writing a journal.
A similar study with participants with heart disease found that keeping a gratitude journal increased their heart health and quality of sleep, perhaps because it reduces stress. “Counting your blessings” quite literally makes people happier and healthier.
And some people are even hardwired to be more thankful. In a recent study of 77 couples, those with a particular genetic variation that affects the secretion of oxytocin expressed more gratitude towards their partners. Oxytocin is thought to play a big role in promoting close social bonds, so gratitude is part of the glue that keeps these relationships together.
So if you think it’s the thought that counts, think again. Science shows there are some pretty amazing benefits to our mind, body and relationships when we say those two small words – thank you.