English poet John Milton once said, “Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.”
While proverbial sayings have regarded gratefulness as key to happiness, researchers have further established the science behind the association. Simply put, neuroscientists have tried explaining the science between gratitude and happiness.
Researchers R. A. Emmons and M. E. McCullough examined the effects of having a grateful outlook on psychological and physical wellbeing by studying two groups—the first group was asked to keep a daily journals of things they were grateful for while the second group was asked to log things that annoyed them or the reasons why they were better off than others in a daily journal.
Results of the study revealed that the first group demonstrated greater increase in determination, attention, enthusiasm, and energy compared with the second group. The similar research designed was adapted to a second study group composed of individuals with neuromuscular disease. The result revealed that the gratitude-outlook group displayed heightened wellbeing. These results suggest that gratefulness or a conscious focus on blessings might have emotional and interpersonal benefits.
Another study also suggests that gratitude can help in overcoming materialism. It is worth noting that happiness from materialism is short-lived due to hedonic adaptation. The study of researchers Nathaniel M. Lambert et al revealed that experimentally induced gratitude resulted in higher satisfaction with life and lower materialism in a high gratitude condition compared to an envy or low gratitude condition.
The two-part longitudinal study of Alex M. Wood et al further revealed that gratitude led to higher levels of perceived social support, and lower levels of stress and depression. They concluded that gratitude seems to directly foster social support, and to protect people from stress and depression, which has implications for clinical interventions.
There is a neural basis for gratitude and happiness. Researchers Roland Zahn et al examined blood flow in various brain regions of participants who were asked to recall experiences or feelings related to gratefulness. A functional MRI scan revealed that participants who demonstrated more gratitude had higher levels of activity in the hypothalamus.
It is important to note that the hypothalamus controls several bodily functions, including sleep and stress. Thus, activation of this area of the brain results in improved sleeping pattern and reduced stress levels that in turn, can help in improving or managing anxiety and depression.
Neuroscience researcher Alex Korb, PhD further explained the relationship between gratitude and happiness. In his book, he said feelings of gratitude activate the regions in the brain associated with the release of dopamine—a neurotransmitter that plays in the reward-motivation system. The release of this chemical accordingly promotes initiative and enjoyable social interactions.
Furthermore, the same feelings of gratitude increase serotonin production in the anterior cingulate cortex of the brain. Serotonin is another neurotransmitter associated the regulation of mood, appetite, and sleep. High serotonin levels result in improving mood as well an overall sense of wellbeing. Take note that antidepressant drugs such as Prozac boost the production of serotonin.
Korb put emphasis on the fact that gratitude or a conscious effort to be thankful by focusing on blessings engages the brain in a virtuous cycle. Because gratefulness promotes the production and release of dopamine and serotonin, the human brain starts to look for more things to be grateful for.
The link between gratitude and happiness has nonetheless strong scientific basis. In a nutshell, these studies support another proverbial that says, “It is not happy people who are thankful, it is thankful people who are happy.”
Further details of the study Emmons and McCullough are in the article “Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective wellbeing in daily life” published in 2003 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Details of the study of Zahn et al are in the article “The neural basis of human social values: Evidence from functional MRI” published in 2009 in the journal Cerebral Cortex.
More details of the study of Lambert et al are in the article “More gratitude, less materialism: The mediating role of life satisfaction” published in 2009 in the Journal of Positive Psychology. Details of the study of Wood et al are in the article “The role of gratitude in the development of social support, stress, and depression: Two longitudinal studies” published in 2008 in the Journal of Research in Personality
Details of the study and investigation of Korb are in his book The upward spiral: Using neuroscience to reverse the course of depression, one small change at a time published in 2015 by New Harbinger Publications.