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Yesterday was my birthday! And—yes—I am one of those people who are annually resolutely thrilled to celebrate the day their lives began. A birthday is one of the few days of the year that require no pretense for thorough reflection and gratitude (perhaps the others are New Year’s Day or Thanksgiving). Some perceive their birthdays as a thankless reminder of yet another year closer to death (yikes), while others regard it as the day they came into and began their lifelong engagement with the world; and every year, on that day, they get to feel and express gratitude from and for their loved ones. Though I have long conceptualized gratitude as one of the trite commodities of the giddy “live, laugh, love” aesthetic, there is socially and scientifically much more to this feeling.
Gratitude encourages helping others and well-being
Gratitude is a positive emotion generated by gifts that are received with perceived genuine effort from the giver and are valuable (i.e., fulfill important needs for the recipient). Psychologists theorize that this emotion evolved to facilitate behavior for helping others, or prosocial behavior. Indeed, research studies have suggested that the function of this emotion is to strengthen supportive social relationships. As an emotional response to another person’s kindness, gratitude plays an important role in forming and maintaining relationships, has a strong influence on prosocial behavior, and increases effortful acts of kindness. Regarding health, feeling gratitude could benefit subjective well-being and increase resilience to trauma. People vary in how grateful they feel and those who are more grateful have shown enhanced psychological well-being (e.g., higher feelings of control, personal growth, positive relationships, purpose in life, and self-acceptance).
The grateful brain
Gratitude is associated with the release of neurotransmitters associated with bonding, mood, and pleasurable reward or motivation (oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine), emphasizing gratitude’s importance in social bonding. Thanks to these neurotransmitters, the act of giving and prosocial behavior can even become addictive.
One functional magnetic resonance imaging study asked participants to place themselves in the context of the Holocaust and imagine how they would feel if a stranger gave them shelter, food, clothing, or emotional support (scenarios based on real Holocaust survivor testimonies). Higher ratings of gratitude correlated with more brain activation in areas that are important for reward and emotional processing, and social experience (i.e., anterior cingulate cortex and medial prefrontal cortex). Other studies have also found a relationship between gratitude and regions known for processing social reward and interpersonal bonding in the brain.
Although we have much left to discover about gratitude in the brain, these results give us a sneak peek into the neuroscience accompanying the experience of benefitting from the goodwill of others. So don’t be shy to tell those special people in your life that you’re grateful for them. As social beings, it’s important for us to feel cared about, appreciated, or even celebrated. Give your loved ones an opportunity to express it—and let yourself hear and feel it.