How Gratitude Changes Your Brain

Researcher explore how appreciation affects our well-being.


Does an attitude of gratitude have the power to transform your life?

Scientific studies show that actively practicing gratitude is linked to improved mental, physical and emotional well-being.

Consider the findings of a study published last year by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.

Nearly 300 college students seeking mental health counseling at one university participated in a study where they were randomly assigned to one of three groups.

The first group wrote a letter of gratitude to another person each week for three weeks. The second group recorded their thoughts and feelings about negative experiences. The third group did not engage in any writing activity.

The results indicated that those in the first group, which focused on appreciation, reported significantly improved mental health (such as lowering depression and anxiety) compared to their counterparts, both at the four-week mark as well as 12 weeks after their writing exercises had ended. Researchers gave a possible explanation for the mental health gap between the gratitude vs. negative writing groups: shifting one’s attention away from toxic emotions, such as resentment and envy, can improve well-being.

Researchers then dug deeper to better understand the workings of gratitude on the brain. Using an MRI scanner, they found that the brain activity of participants in the gratitude vs. negative writing groups differed. Three months after the writing activities, the first group showed greater activation in the medial prefrontal cortex, an area in the brain associated with learning and decision-making. This indicates that simply expressing gratitude may have lasting effects on the brain.

The findings also suggest that practicing gratitude may help train the brain to be more aware of experiences surrounding gratitude, and this could in turn contribute to improved mental health over time.

The origins of SGI Nichiren Buddhism, too, began with Nichiren Daishonin’s appreciation. He launched his great struggle to enable all people to attain enlightenment in order to repay his debt of gratitude to his mother, who gave him life. Nichiren writes: “Since I have realized that only the Lotus Sutra teaches the attainment of Buddhahood by women, and that only the Lotus is the sutra of true requital for repaying the kindness of our mother, in order to repay my debt to my mother, I have vowed to enable all women to chant the daimoku of this sutra” (“The Sutra of True Requital,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 931).

It was Nichiren’s appreciation—based on his vow to advance kosen-rufu for the happiness of all people—that gave him the strength to overcome all the hardships and persecutions he faced in his battle to spread the Mystic Law.

SGI President Ikeda writes: “None of us can exist in isolation. Our lives and existence are supported by others in seen and unseen ways, be it by parents, mentors or society at large. To be aware of these connections, to feel appreciation for them, and to strive to give something back to society in a spirit of gratitude is the proper way for human beings to live” (The Victorious Teen, p. 71).

The UC Berkeley study stressed that expressing gratitude positively affected people who were struggling with anxiety and depression. So what lesson can we learn from this point? That, perhaps, gratitude is not something to practice only when we are surrounded by fortunate circumstances, but something to practice at all times as a way of life.

To that end, President Ikeda emphasizes:

“Thank you” is the essence of nonviolence. It contains respect for the other person, humility and a profound affirmation of life. It possesses a positive, upbeat optimism. It has strength. A person who can sincerely say thank you has a healthy, vital spirit; and each time we say it our hearts sparkle and our life force rises up powerfully from the depths of our being. (April 2015 Living Buddhism, p. 16)

So what are you grateful for each day?

Quiz: Are You Practicing Gratitude?

1. I see my problems as:

a. disasters
b. setbacks
c. opportunities

The important thing is to keep moving forward. If each of you uses your sadness as a source of growth, you will become a person of greater depth and breadth—an even more wonderful you. This is the harvest of your pain and suffering. (SGI President Ikeda, Discussions on Youth, new edition, p. 69)

2. I take the time to appreciate the things going right in my life.

a. daily
b. monthly
c. umm…

Those who always live positively and filled with enthusiasm, who possess a cheerful and sunny disposition that lifts the spirits and brightens the hearts of all they meet are not only happy themselves but are a source of hope and inspiration for others. (President Ikeda, My Dear Friends in America, third edition, pp. 481)

3. I say “thank you” to those around me.

a. often
b. sometimes
c. never

Appreciation is what makes people truly human. The Japanese word for thankful [arigatai] originally indicated a rare or unusual condition, and later came to denote a sense of joyful appreciation at an uncommon occurrence. Having a spirit of appreciation for someone from whose actions we benefit, a sense that “this is the rarest and noblest thing,” produces in our hearts a feeling of pride and self-esteem: “I am worthy of receiving such goodness.” It provides us with spiritual support to go on living. (President Ikeda, Faith Into Action, pp. 7–8)