The Biochemical Basis for a Gratitude Practice (Rerun)

by Nina

In a Meadow by Melina Meza

 II.33 Upon being harassed by negative thoughts, one should cultivate counteracting thoughts. —translated by Edwin Bryant

For some time now, I’ve been intrigued by Facebook posts from certain friends that simply list things the person is grateful for. I particularly like the ones by my friend Liz because her lists include very simple things, mostly free and available to almost everyone.

Today’s good things:

  1. Walked six miles;
  2. Dog therapy on campus today, in particular the golden retriever puppy;
  3. Watching the bushtits (birds) flit in and out of the trees on campus;
  4. Got a lot of items off my ‘to do’ list at work, moving forward with several work projects and learning new things.

I also happen to know this gratitude practice is a very serious one for Liz, because she suffers from a serious, chronic illness that affects her quality of life and requires quite a bit of time spent in the hospital. She says, “It’s been bumpy, but I saw research that said gratitude practice helps. And I set intentions at the beginning of each day and have seen improvement.”


Today’s good things:
  1. Three mile walk at lunch, great watching the hawks circle;
  2. Very productive day at work, a lot of weeding and organizing;
  3. Ran into a lovely friend whom I haven’t seen in a while, always great to catch up;
  4. Gluten-free ice cream sandwiches

So I was very intrigued when I learned that neuroscientist Alex Korb’s book The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time actually provides a scientific explanation of why this practice works. Feelings of gratitude activate the part of the brain that produces dopamine, a messenger molecule that stimulates your brain’s reward and pleasure center, and stimulates your social dopamine circuits, which make your social interactions more pleasurable. It can also increase your serotonin levels, increasing your happiness.

“The benefits of gratitude start with the dopamine system, because feeling grateful activates the brain stem region that produces dopamine. Additionally, gratitude toward others increases activity in social dopamine circuits, which makes social interactions more enjoyable …”

“One powerful effect of gratitude is that it can boost serotonin. Trying to think of things you are grateful for forces you to focus on the positive aspects of your life. This simple act increases serotonin production in the anterior cingulate cortex.” —Dr. Korb

When I was thinking about how this practice related to yoga (haha, I figured it must!), I came back to this sutra by Patanjali about cultivating the opposite (pratipaksa-bhavanam).


II.33 Upon being harassed by negative thoughts, one should cultivate counteracting thoughts. —translated by Edwin Bryant

Bryant explains in his commentary on this sutra that the “negative thoughts” being referred to are those that counter the yamas and niyamas. So thoughts that are the opposite of contentment (the niyama santosha), such as dissatisfaction, displeasure, and unhappiness, would count as negative thoughts that you should counteract. And the practice of being grateful for what you have, which is cultivating contentment, is indeed the practice of cultivating thoughts that counteract dissatisfaction, displeasure, and unhappiness.

Of course, when you are being “harassed by negative thoughts,” it often isn’t easy to find and focus on things you are grateful for. But Korb says, the effort alone provides the benefits.

“It’s not finding gratitude that matters most; it’s remembering to look in the first place. Remembering to be grateful is a form of emotional intelligence. One study found that it actually affected neuron density in both the ventromedial and lateral prefrontal cortex. These density changes suggest that as emotional intelligence increases, the neurons in these areas become more efficient. With higher emotional intelligence, it simply takes less effort to be grateful.”

Fascinating, isn’t it? Just like strengthening a muscle, a regular gratitude practice makes you stronger at being grateful over time. So that means getting better as it as you age, and eventually more time spent in a state of contentment. And those brain density changes? That sounds to me like the gratitude practice is improving brain strength—always a good thing.


And by the way, thank you Liz for agreeing to share your story with us. I’m grateful for your friendship and your honesty.

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