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How Gratitude Can Save Us

How Gratitude Can Save Us

By Pat Matuszak

If you can still remember a time from your past when a parent or teacher taught you how to write thank-you notes, there’s more than one reason to be grateful for them today. According to recent studies, the act of showing gratitude is beneficial to your health, both mental and physical, and to society as a whole. A note, a tweet, a journal entry or a simple word of thanks said aloud can improve more than your outlook — it can enhance your health and your brain.

Thankful woman blue skies

Gratitude is an important element in social bonding at all levels of relationship. By expressing it, we show others that we are not “freeloaders” when they do things for our benefit, and we are likely to reciprocate, according to a study by psychologists at the University of Southern California.1 Brain scanning technology advances are allowing researchers to view which parts of the brain are the most active when people experience different emotions. The part of the brain that processes empathy has been found to be the most active when people are feeling gratitude. Empathy, or the ability to put ourselves in another person’s place, is considered one of the highest-level cognitive activities we can achieve.2

One of the most interesting conclusions found is that the part of our brain that experiences empathy actually strengthens when we complete an act of gratitude. In one particular study, half of the participants were asked to write thank-you notes, while the other half were not. Brain scans were taken of the two groups, and three months later, they were asked to perform a new task. The new activity was to imagine they were going to be given a sum of money and could donate part of it to a charity or person. The participants who had written thank-you notes were more likely to feel gratitude after they received the money when compared to the group that had not written notes. The research team studied brain scans of the groups and concluded that this part of the brain that causes us to empathize with others had become more active — it had gained strength like a muscle that has been exercised.3

This is an exciting topic because, if these preliminary findings are correct, society could reap amazing results by adding gratitude elements to school curriculum. Journaling about gratitude could be included in writing assignments to exercise the empathy sector of students’ brains. It’s easy to imagine that a generation of citizens who have more empathy would be a huge improvement in society in general. Instead of developing a mindset of entitlement, a whole generation would learn the value of a simple act of gratitude when they are helped by others.

The benefits of a mindset of gratitude don’t stop there either, according to one psychotherapist who authored a book that deals with the subject. Amy Morin wrote the book 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do after experiencing a tragic personal loss. Her philosophy is that strong people avoid self-pity by embracing gratitude, and she identifies seven key benefits of performing acts of gratitude.4 Here are seven things you can do to apply gratitude to your own attitude to strengthen your mental, physical and social health:

  1. Studies show acts of gratitude build long-term friendships. Keep this in mind and intentionally thank new friends by sending a note, an email or giving them verbal thanks.
  1. If you are feeling a little run down, try listing things you are grateful for or send some thank-you notes to people who have encouraged you. Acts of gratitude can actually enhance your physical health.
  1. Thankful acts such as giving a gift to show appreciation can pull your psyche out of depression, envy or regret and into happiness. Gratitude is like an inoculation against negativity.
  1. Count your blessings when you are stuck in traffic, waiting in line or on hold. The time passes more quickly, and your grateful thoughts will exercise the empathy area in your brain and help you respond more sympathetically to those around you.
  1. When you can’t sleep, write an entry or two in a gratitude journal. Just a few minutes of putting grateful thoughts in writing after a long day may help you sleep soundly.
  1. When you’ve had a difficult day, your self-esteem can take a tumble. Finding reasons to be grateful will boost your appreciation for what is good your life. Look through photo albums and remind yourself of celebrations, accomplishments and people you are thankful for.
  1. If you find your mind replaying traumatic experiences, flip the switch mentally and think about experiences you are grateful for and the people who played a part in them. Call someone just to thank them for their support and presence in your life.


1 Fox, Glen; Kaplan, Jonas; Damasio, Hanna; Damasio, Antonio. Frontiers in Psychology: “Neural correlates of gratitude.”, Department of Psychology, Brain and Creativity Institute, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA, USA, September 30, 2015.

2 Editors. “The Psychology of Emotional and Cognitive Empathy.”, 2017.

3 Jarrett, Christian. “How Expressing Gratitude Might Change Your Brain.”, 2017.

4 Morin, Amy. “7 Scientifically Proven Benefits of Gratitude.”, April 3, 2015.