The Neuroscience of Gratitude + A Gratitude Guide

“Acknowledging the good that you already have in your life is the foundation for all abundance.” 
― Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose

The Brain on Gratitude

Nurturing a gratitude practice empowers health and happiness. The neuroscience of gratitude shows that the blessing of a gratitude practice begins in the brain by altering the brain’s molecular structure. Gratitude affects us on a psychological and neurobiological level. The neuroscience of gratitude shows that it is a practice of peace, soothing the central nervous system and stimulating happiness. The boon of gratitude can be felt in all areas of life and is especially powerful for inciting an inspired family.

This journey can begin as a way to effectively address challenging behavior or as a way to simply skyrocket your child and family’s ability to thrive. Gratitude is the perfect opportunity for caregivers to work as partners in learning with a child. Developing a gratitude practice can begin as a family and will reward everyone. Once you begin your practice your heart will feel more open and attuned to the possibility of gratitude. You will create a free flow of happiness rooted in gratitude.

These benefits have been studied by various scientists who have formed a picture of the neuroscience of gratitude.

Gratitude boosts dopamine and serotonin in the brain.  

Gratitude is associated with:

  • Well-being
  • Cardiovascular health
  • Immune health
  • Resiliency to trauma
  • Enhancement to social relationships and social bonding
  • Motivation for prosocial behavior
  • General affective processing/ social processing
  • Perspective-taking

In a study published in NeuroImage, Kini Prathik, the leading scientist, found that subjects who practiced a simple writing task centered on gratitude showed an increase in behavioral expressions of gratitude three months after the task. In addition, these individuals displayed more gratitude-minded neural activity on brain scanners three months later. In alignment with this idea, the researchers noted that the anterior cingulate cortex and the medial prefrontal cortex in the brain, centers designed to predict how your actions will affect others, became more sensitive after the gratitude task. The researchers of this study imply that cultivating an awareness of gratitude becomes a perpetual practice.

You and your child have a gratitude muscle in the brain that will become increasingly stronger with use. As you cultivate your gratitude muscle, the more those feelings will come naturally to you in the future.

Strengthening your gratitude muscle will also help to fortify gratitude-based neural connections in the brain, sparking an even more spontaneous and automatic attitude of gratitude.

A Gratitude Mind-Set and Behavior

Prathik asserts that as you strengthen your gratitude muscle and your brain adapts to a gratitude-based mind-set these feelings will blossom into your actions. This can be very helpful for children who are still learning how to identify and express emotions. Many negative emotions such as aggression, frustration, and sadness can often be expressed through challenging behavior. While some children have a tenaciously sunny outlook on life, for many this is a skill that needs to be practiced. Despite even the cheeriest of moods, every child will feel negative emotions at some time. In order for a child to appropriately feel, express, and mindfully act within the realm of this emotion he or she needs to have a neurobiological foundation and a coping strategy that enables movement from negativity to positivity. A brain built on gratitude will look for constructive themes in life and deny destructive themes. By gracing the mind with gratitude our brain learns to lean towards positivity.

Mental Shift 

When we think of gratitude what floats to the forefront of our mind is the good things we have in life. Many children are grateful for the toys they are given or for extra time to play. That’s o.k. but there is so much more to be grateful for. Everything we have experienced, whether good or bad, has led us to where we are now. Everything that comes our way is a gift in one way or another. What falls to the wayside are the events in our life that were challenging or uncomfortable, that pushed us to find new growth. We need to learn to be grateful for these moments as well. If we shift our thinking to look for the meaning behind what occurs, we may see how something we thought to be “bad” actually lead to something great. We can look past the negative sensations of a moment to see the truth.

Just to offer up a small example…One day I had a child fall down and get badly hurt and startled. He cried, he screamed, and he made the statement, “This is the worst day of my life.” His friends came to his side to give him hugs, to check on him, and to try and cheer him up. They were clearly concerned for his well-being and wanted him to feel better. I saw that even though the child was stuck in a struggle with pain and emotion he was grateful to have his friends there. I explained this to the child and he cheered up immediately. He let one of his friends tell him a joke and then ran off to play, brandishing his scrape like a victory wound.

When we are in a moment where strong emotions are being experienced it can be challenging to focus on anything else. The mind becomes trapped in a never-ending loop of negativity. Choosing to focus on gratitude will free your mind and propel you towards positivity.

“Being grateful does not mean that everything is necessarily good. It just means that you can accept it as a gift.” 
― Roy T. Bennett

Gratitude Guide

Infancy

Model: Cultivating a gratitude practice can begin at birth. You can model gratitude by verbally saying what you are grateful for. You can do this throughout the day.

Age 2 and beyond

Gratitude Jar

Step 1: At the end of the day have each member of the family add at least one thing they are grateful to the jar.

  • Switch it up
    • Write it out! If your child is working on writing have him or her write what they are grateful for on a scrap of paper (make sure you ask them what they wrote and write it on the back, so you can read it later).
    • Be Creative! Brainstorm different ways to communicate gratitude. You can have your child act it out and take a picture to drop into the jar. Similarly, you can use Play-Doh or clay to create what you are grateful for. You can have your child create any type of art that expresses gratitude (painting, coloring, sketching, collaging etc.).
  • Add to the gratitude jar as often as you can! Once you begin doing this you will find yourself adding to it more and more frequently as your brain becomes trained in gratitude. Adding to the jar is a great way to model gratitude to your child.
  • Use verbal reminders to encourage your child to add to the jar.
  • If your child feels stuck and cannot think of something he or she can pull from the jar for inspiration.

Optional step 2: Pick a day at the end of the week when you can all be together as a family and read a few scraps out of the gratitude jar. You can choose to read them out loud or in private, whatever feels most comfortable to your family.

Step 3: When your child is expressing challenging behavior prompt him or her to pull from the gratitude jar as an invitation to optimism. Below is a list of challenging behaviors that may benefit from this practice.

  • Whining
  • Complaining
  • Negativity
  • Sadness
  • Waking up from a bad dream
  • Anxiety over change in schedule/routine
  • Anxiety/fear for a new event (like going to school or the birth of a new sibling)

Share 3 things you are grateful for in the morning

This can happen at any time in the morning. Ideally, you would start this when your child first wakes up but it will be just as effective at other times. Having this sharing conversation can be worked in to any part of the morning that aligns best with your family schedule

This is a tool that I want all family members to practice, not just the child. Either after or before asking your child to share, you can share as well. Alternatively, you can take turns sharing, which will provide your child an added opportunity to practice turn-taking, reciprocal communication, speech and language development, and social emotional skills.

Resources

The Neuroscience of Gratitude

Helping Your Two-Year-Old Express Gratitude

The Effects of Gratitude Expression on Neural Activity

Neural Correlates of Gratitude

How Expressing Gratitude Might Change Your Brain

The Neuroscience of Gratitude

Aimee Heaviside-Post