Inside a Grateful Brain

Recent neuroscience now identifies how the daily practice of gratitude not only affects our mood and emotional well-being, but it also has a significant impact on brain activity and physical health. Researchers at the National Institutes of Health examined the neural activity and blood flow in various regions of the brain when people experienced gratitude.

They found that greater levels of gratitude generated increased activity in the hypothalamus – the brain region responsible for some pretty important body functions such as body temperature, hunger, thirst, sleeping, metabolic activity and managing stress.

In addition, feelings of gratitude directly activate the limbic system and trigger a release of dopamine. Dopamine is the reward and pleasure chemical, but it is also responsible for initiating the action to get that good feeling again. It’s your brain saying, “Oh… that felt good! Do that again!”

In addition to dopamine, your brain also produces oxytocin when you experience gratitude. Oxytocin – often called the “cuddle drug” – is a neurotransmitter known for its effects on pro-social behaviors, like trust, empathy, and affection. It’s involved in all kinds of human social interactions, but here’s the key: the body’s natural baseline for oxytocin is almost zero. We don’t automatically produce it; we need a stimulus. A study published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience indicates that gratitude is a powerful trigger for the production of oxytocin.

We produce more oxytocin when we express gratitude than we receive it from someone else.

Those good chemicals send your brain into what neuroscientists call the virtuous cycle. As complex as the human brain is, it has a one-track mind. It likes to focus on either positive stimuli or negative stimuli but not both at the same time. When the brain is focused on positive events, the natural tendency is to stay in that positive loop until a negative experience ultimately intervenes and breaks the cycle

Research shows that including a gratitude journal into your daily routine is one of the most effective ways to stay in the virtuous cycle. 

Conversely, the brain can also get stuck in a negative loop called a vicious cycle. This is what I like to call WMS or “Why Me Syndrome.” When the brain gets trapped in the vicious cycle, it only sees the negatives. “The traffic made me late for work, someone took my parking place, I spilled my coffee, it’s raining, and I forgot my umbrella, my boss is a jerk, this has been the worst day ever…” There may be many positive things going on, but the brain is too focused on the negatives to notice them.

The brain also has a natural tendency to look for things that prove what it believes to be true. It’s called confirmation bias, and it can be both friend and foe. For example, if you get up in the morning and believe that you’re going to have a miserable day, your brain will search for evidence to prove you right. Likewise, if you start your day with the belief that life is good, your brain will search for evidence to confirm that worldview. The outlook you choose determines whether you’ll get stuck in the virtuous cycle or the vicious cycle. The only way to get out of the vicious cycle is to intentionally point your brain in the other direction.

Just like in our personal lives, a sense of gratitude can improve self-esteem, optimism, a sense of unity, and overall well-being at work. When we extend expressions of gratitude with our colleagues, we create a “pay it forward” chain of positivity that impacts productivity, creativity and the overall culture of the organization.

It’s called emotional contagion, and it’s far more compelling than incentives or contests.

Beyond all of the feel-good chemicals your brain produces when you practice gratitude, being grateful is a form of emotional intelligence. Studies show that people with increased emotional intelligence have a more neural-dense prefrontal cortex. What does that mean? As we make gratitude a daily habit, we build emotional intelligence, and as an added bonus, the part of the brain that handles all of the higher-level executive functions becomes more efficient.

So, on those days that are particularly tough, writing a simple thank you note to someone else or acknowledging the things in your life for which you are grateful is the best way to put your brain in a healthy self-perpetuating cycle. Smarter and happier? Yes, please!  


Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Dr. Melissa Hughes is a neuroscience geek, keynote speaker, and author. Her latest book, Happier Hour with Einstein: Another Round explores fascinating research about how the brain works and how to make it work better for greater happiness, well-being, and success. Having worked with learners from the classroom to the boardroom, she incorporates brain-based research, humor, and practical strategies to illuminate the powerful forces that influence how we think, learn, communicate and collaborate. Through a practical application of neuroscience in our everyday lives, Melissa shares productive ways to harness the skills, innovation and creativity within each of us in order to contribute the intellectual capital that empowers organizations to succeed with social, financial and cultural health.

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  1. I love your writing, Melissa and, truth be told, I would probably love reading your grocery list. You always make our inner workings so understandable. To that point, I read recently – I should really write down my sources…. – of the power of recognition at work. This fits right in with your point about emotional intelligence. We want to be seen. We want to be seen as contributing to something larger than ourselves. We want our efforts to be noted. Organizations could save themselves hundreds of thousands of dollars on leadership development if they simply taught this simple point: see your staff members as people first. Let them know that they exist. Legendary corporate executive and executive coach Bill Campbell was said to have never started a Monday meeting without first exploring how people’s weekends went. He made a point of remembering family member names and exploring how people were doing at home. THEN, he got to the meeting agenda.

    • Yes, Jeff! I’m finishing an ebook on Gratitude in the Workplace and I have included several case studies of companies that have successfully incorporated gratitude into their culture. It starts at the top.

      BTW… I feel the same way about your writing! Thank you for your kind words and support!

  2. Good to see that science is finally ‘discovering’ what the heart has always known – gratitude is the path to real happiness, rather than the other way round. Why do you think that the heart is the most vital organ in our body?

    Ingratitude is ‘sharper than a serpent’s tooth’ as Shakespeare so accurately asserts. For it is not just the pain of a tooth tearing flesh but also spewing venom and venom that kills.

    One final comment, I’d like to make is why do so many people find it hard to say ‘thank you’?

    Thank you, Melissa, for sharing.

    • I’m so glad you found value in this one, Noemi. One thing about struggling to say thank you that I found fascinating: Recent statistics show that gratitude in the workplace appears to be a pretty rare thing, with just 10 percent of those surveyed saying that they regularly show their colleagues gratitude. It costs nothing, has huge rewards, and yet….
      Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

  3. Love, love, love this Melissa! Expressing gratitude is something priceless! So many people feel invisible and as Joel indicated, a thank you can make all of the difference in the world. I touched on this in a recent speech. Add a smile to your gratitude and the response I beyond words! Thank you for this amazing reminder. As always, you take science and explain it brilliantly with your fabulous neuro nuggets.?

    • Nothing beats a heartfelt thank you and a smile, Darlene! I’m so glad this one resonates with you and I’m grateful you took the time to read and respond. Thank you!

  4. It’s great to know the power of gratitude, Melissa!

    As an adopted kid, I was much different from my adoptive mother, who fared badly in her youth and couldn’t find a whole lot to be grateful for, even though she had a terrific life with my dad. He had grown up in a healthier environment, and he clearly loved life and all the bounty he observed. I luckily had the inner wiring to allow me to follow his lead, and to this day, I’m grateful for everything I’ve had in this life so far!

    And I love Joel Elveson’s mention of that bus driver; I am sure Joel and his wife cut through a lot of pain and gave that driver a way to manage a little longer, feeling appreciated by at least two people!

    Keep these articles coming, Melissa! And happy Thanksgiving!

    • It’s so funny that you would share this personal story about your childhood, Susan. I just sent a “be grateful” message to the foster kids I work with. Sometimes, it is so easy to focus on what we don’t have and we can’t see all that we do have. This brings to mind a great quote by Oprah Winfrey: “Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough.”

      Thank you for making me smarter and enriching my life, Susan. I appreciate you!

  5. Bravo for your work today and explaining from a neurological sense what is occurring, Melissa. So many incredible comments presented today that I am absolutely in-line with. I just feel that living in emotional intelligence with gratitude and kindness at the forefront of my days is where it feels the most satisfying as a person. That is the person I want to be. I want to validate and extend that pay forward feeling going. In fact, I will share I just reached out to someone at a distance in my life that twenty years ago when I was travelling was extremely kind to me, I had years ago sent a gift to them that unfortunately was ransacked in the mail and the very sentimental gift was stolen. I have never forgotten what a warm and giving person this friend was to me. So last night I sent them something that was maybe of more value to her right now in her journey. A gift. A gesture. An appreciation of who she is. Even though we are thousands of miles apart I felt that unity with her. I perhaps produced more oxytocin in the moment – but as you wrote, beyond that – it was just the best thing I could do and my emotional contagion of spreading goodness and gratitude was quenched. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving and your insights continue to bring joy to my world!

    • What a wonderful story! You could have shrugged at the disappointing behavior of someone who interfered with your kindness. Instead, you chose to reach out again with a meaningful gesture. I’m so grateful that you shared this experience as I know that many of us can relate. Thank you!

  6. I love this article Melissa, especially the part in which gratitude is a form of emotional intelligence. I have often found that paying someone a compliment, no matter who it may be, is just as personally rewarding as it is to the recipient. As stated, a small dose of dopamine is released into the brain. In some ways, not much different than training a puppy, you reward them with love and nourishment, perhaps a treat when the animal has done well… In turn the canine will always seek out an opportunity to do good in the eyes of its master… This is not unlike basic Christian principles. We all want to be rewarded with a promise to enter heaven, thus our days are filled with random acts of kindness and compassion… At least our faith gives us the will to try being good whenever we are mindful of the situation. I would suggest the spiritual and scientific acts of kindness are no less married than they’d like to admit, a chemical compound if you will, it all works together or not at all. You give love, you feel happy. You give anger, you feel like dog poo… a pretty simple formula…

    • The “simple formula” that you describe is spot on, Aaron! The physical and psychological benefits we get from practicing gratitude are widely accepted. For me, understanding the cognitive benefits makes it that much more powerful. It’s a good reminder for me to extend the attitude of gratitude beyond the season. My brain deserves to work better even if it’s not Thanksgiving! Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this one.

  7. Melissa, your article on the virtuous and vicious cycle is insightful. Thank you for sharing the research. Also, virtuous and vicious sound much fancier than positive and negative thoughts! I understand a bit better now why the vicious cycle can be so hard to change. It makes sense that it takes daily practices of gratitude to retrain the brain. It’s a lifestyle change for the brain. I often talk about how my lifestyle change a few years ago helped me create a healthier path for myself. It took daily intent to do this – exercise, diet, mindset – so, logically, it would work the same way with the virtuous and vicious cycles.

    Please keep feeding us this food for thought. It’s stimulating!

  8. There are days I feel bombarded with messages about positivity. I’ve come to realize those are welcomed inspirations but not necessarily long lasting for a true change of mindset. For me this article supports why this is true. The change of perspective is more sustainable when it comes from intentional and diligent work to manage our brains. Thanks for sharing concise explanation of the science for those of us who like data.

    • I’m thrilled you found value in this piece, Susan. I love how Laura phrased it below: “It’s a lifestyle change for the brain.” Thanks for taking the time to read and share your thoughts!

  9. Melissa, as a rule of thumb I put no stock or validity into research studies. However, the power of showing gratitude to another person is immense. I was once on a bus that was stuck in heavy traffic. There was little the driver could do but was nonetheless yelled at and berated. When my wife and I exited the bus I thanked him for his service to the city and that we knew how hard his job is and can be. He smiled broadly. We obviously by our expressions of gratitude made a positive difference (at least until the next passenger would give him a hard time) in his day. I always than Police Officers, Firefighters, and Soldiers for their service. Beyond that saying thank you to anybody who helps us or gives our service is given a thank you. Most of all and most important I say thank you to G-d the minute I wake up in the morning before my feet touch the ground. Without G-d nothing else would be,

    • It’s true that there is a wealth of research surrounding the benefits of gratitude. I’m so glad that you’ve been able to incorporate it into your daily routine. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts!