The psychology of gratitude

Humans are good at detecting threat and focusing on negativity, but it's bad for our health.

Vanessa Hrvatin 4 minute read October 8, 2021
image of face with thank you words

When you have negative emotions like fear or anger, your focus and attention shrink. GETTY

This holiday weekend many Canadians will take time to reflect on what they’re thankful for. And while this might not always be easy, it turns out feeling grateful can be good for our health.

Here’s what we know about the science and psychology of gratitude.

What does gratitude do to our brain?
The idea that gratitude is good for us goes back to research from the 1990s, when psychologist Dr. Barbara Fredrickson developed the broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions.

“This theory basically says that when you have negative emotions like fear or anger, your focus and attention shrink, and you might only see one or two solutions to the problem you’re having,” explains Dr. Gloria González-Morales, associate professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate University in California. “What Dr. Fredrickson suggests is that the opposite happens with positive emotions. When you have positive emotions like gratitude, you can focus on other solutions, and it allows you to build your repertoire of behaviours and resources.”

Research in the field of positive psychology has continued to grow over the last couple of decades. In the early 2000s, psychologist Dr. Robert Emmons found people who “count their blessings versus burdens” on a daily or weekly basis were happier, had generally better health and exercised more. Other research suggests practicing gratitude can improve relationships and make people more supportive of others. There is also evidence of a link between gratitude and altruism — one study found participants who identified as more grateful after filling out a questionnaire had a stronger response in the reward regions of the brain when they watched a computer transfer money to a food bank versus when they saw money being transferred to their own account.

Research also suggests gratitude can make good feelings last longer.

In an interview with Maclean’s, neuroscientist Dr. Adam Anderson says reflecting on a positive experience that sparks feelings of gratitude can trigger a neural circuit which is linked to memories. As a person develops a reserve of positive memories through feelings of gratitude, it’s easier for them to see the bright side of things because they’ve essentially rewired their brain.

But the process of quieting negative emotions and encouraging positive ones is easier said than done.

“Humans have a negativity bias, which means we’re good at detecting threat and being ready to identify negative things that are happening because evolutionarily that protected us and helped us evolve,” says Cecelia Dotzler, a PhD student in González-Morales’ Worker Wellbeing lab. “That’s why it’s important for us to focus and try to shift to more positive emotions, because that’s not what we do automatically.”

Dotzler adds that focusing on positive emotions requires practice — rather than just being grateful on Thanksgiving, it’s better to try and cultivate gratitude on a regular basis.

Is practicing gratitude good for everyone?
The short answer: probably not.

Whether or not practicing gratitude is helpful depends on the person, says González-Morale. People who struggle with empathy or those experiencing mental health issues might not reap benefits from reflecting on what they’re thankful for. There has also been some conflicting research on the subject. A 2019 research review found gratitude interventions might not be as beneficial as once thought, concluding there is “little evidence for unique beneficial effects of gratitude on physical health and bodily functions.”

González-Morale says this doesn’t dismiss the positive effect being grateful can have; it simply means not everyone is willing or capable of partaking in gratitude exercises, nor should these practices be a substitute for medical interventions.

How do you cultivate gratitude?
There are many ways to practice gratitude, including keeping a gratitude journal and writing thank-you letters to people who have had a positive impact on your life.

González-Morales says a common misconception is that we should only be grateful for things that cost money, take time, or require effort from people. But this isn’t the case — you can feel grateful for nature, humanity or even a higher being. She adds there is no right or wrong way to feel grateful — it might mean taking an extra five minutes to lay in bed with your partner or savouring an experience by focusing all your attention on it.

“I might try to think about things I’m grateful for every time I do meditation or breathing exercises throughout the day instead of making it a practice where every night I feel the need to write it my gratitude journal,” says González-Morales. “These exercises can become a burden for some people, especially if it’s not an exercise that fits well with their personality or tendencies, so it’s important to do whatever works for you.”