It’s been 3 years since I last looked at the science of gratitude, but I am happy to see that it is still a subject of escalating attention. For some time it’s been known that expressing gratitude measurably benefits both the giver and the recipient in terms of physical and emotional health. We are better people when we express thankfulness, and new evidence shows one of the ways it keeps us in the pink. A recent study from the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA documented lower levels of markers of inflammation after a 6-week “support-giving” exercise that included exercises in writing on topics intended to induce gratitude. I hope writing this blog post counts! Did I mention how thankful I am for the opportunity to do what I love and make a living at it? I truly am grateful.
In Gratitudology Part 2, I reported some interesting work from a group at University College Cork in Ireland and it appears that they are still at it. This September they reported that the positive effect of gratitude on physical health was significantly mediated by lower reported levels of stress, concluding that these findings are “important evidence that gratitude can be cultivated, and may serve to buffer against stress.” If all this sounds like a bit of a stretch, it may be that we misunderstand how it works. Our “egocentric bias,” according to researchers at the University of Chicago, “may lead expressers to systematically undervalue its positive impact on recipients in a way that could keep people from expressing gratitude more often in everyday life.” In a series of experiments they showed that people expressing gratitude “significantly underestimated how surprised recipients would be about why expressers were grateful” while at the same time underestimating how positive recipients would feel. People like to be thanked much more than we think!
Another documented effect of expressing gratitude is an increase in what is called “economic patience,” meaning that individuals induced to experience heightened gratitude are more willing to choose delayed larger rewards over immediate smaller rewards. By monitoring a specific type of brain wave activity called P3 latency, researchers at Wesleyan University mapped the neurophysiologic coordinates of gratitude using an economic patience simulation. They recorded a spike in P3 latency, “indicating “motivated information processing” providing “evidence of gratitude-induced changes in electrophysiological activity.” In other words they could sort of see the brain’s circuitry reacting to gratitude and bringing focus to long term goals. Functional MRI scans, which show brain activity in real time, paint an even clearer picture, placing “neural pure altruism” in the prefrontal cortex and an inner brain processor called the nucleus accumbens. “Gratitude journaling” measurably heightens activity in these areas. Apparently heartfelt thanks is felt in the brain.
So as we enter another season of Thanksgiving, I for one am going to start listing all that I am grateful for. It’s going to be a long list, so I better get started! Thanks for reading . . .
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 Kumar A, Epley N. Undervaluing Gratitude: Expressers Misunderstand the Consequences of Showing Appreciation. Psychol Sci. 2018 Sep;29(9):1423-1435.
 Patalano AL, Lolli SL, Sanislow CA. Gratitude intervention modulates P3 amplitude in a temporal discounting task.
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 Karns CM, Moore WE 3rd, Mayr U. The Cultivation of Pure Altruism via Gratitude: A Functional MRI Study of Change with Gratitude Practice. Front Hum Neurosci. 2017 Dec 12;11:599.