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  • Writer's picturePatricia Faust

The Attitude of Gratitude - How It Impacts Our Brain

Thanksgiving is next week. Those of us in the US set aside a day to express gratitude for all that life brings us. How can you find that ‘attitude of gratitude’ if everything around you sucks? Everything is easier if you are in the ‘flow’ of life. It is something we all want. But life is also about learning and experiencing and there will be times that nothing seems to be working. Even in good times – our brain is always looking for something that will be a threat to us – and that keeps us on the negative side of things. Let’s take a look at our brain and gratitude.

The Stress Response

The stress response seems to be the norm for everyday function of our brain. Life is fast and it waits for no one. So we respond with the stress response which happens automatically due to the hardwiring in our brains that has been passed on to us from our primitive ancestors. Our brain is always on alert to threat and is more predisposed to look at the negative side of life. There are many things that happen to us every day that are positive but we don’t notice them because we are always looking for the next threat to us. This is negativity bias because we are drawn to pay attention to bad things because they could be a threat to us. Now these actions are below our level of awareness but once we are aware of negativity bias we can make a point to override this primitive function. It takes some concerted effort to get our brain to move to the positive side of life. There are always positive things happening in our life and that is where paying attention and expressing gratitude plays a role in establishing that positive mindset.

When I started counting my blessings, my whole life turned around. – Willie Nelson

The Neurochemical Effects of Gratitude

Expressing gratitude has a number of neurochemical effects on the brain. Here are some surprising neurochemical changes: Do you know what the antidepressant Wellbutrin does? It boosts the neurotransmitter dopamine. Gratitude does the same thing. “The benefits of gratitude start with the dopamine system, because feeling grateful activates the brain stem region that produces dopamine” ( Sept. 26, 2015). Do you know what Prozac does? It boosts the neurotransmitter serotonin. And guess what? So does gratitude. Trying to think of things you are grateful for forces you to focus on the positive aspects of your life. But what if you are in that low spot in your life where you can’t find anything to be grateful about? Actually, it doesn’t matter – it is the searching that counts. Remembering to be grateful is a sign of emotional intelligence. One study found that remembering to be grateful affected neuron density in both the ventromedial and lateral prefrontal cortex. The density changes indicated that emotional intelligence increases, the neurons in these areas become more efficient. With greater emotional intelligence, it takes less effort to be grateful.

Practice Feeling Gratitude

So start small. If things are really awful, don’t try to fake gratitude. Instead look for even the tiniest hint of something to be grateful for. It could be daylight after a long night, a favorite pet trying to get your attention, a baby giggling. Allow yourself to feel the emotion of this moment and simply say “thank you”. The more you practice expressing gratitude, it will be easier to find and feel more things that make you feel thankful. When you are in the flow, write down three things you are grateful for. You can keep your gratitude journal by you bed and write a few things in the morning to start your day off right and then a few things in the evening to help you sleep. Don’t write for the sake of filling your journal. Feel the emotion behind the gratitude statement. As it becomes a habit, you will find your mindset and mood start to change. Your life will start to turn around.

When your life sucks and everything is falling apart, gratitude will be the major vibe-shifting force that really works. You will attract more into your life to be grateful for and you will learn to feel grateful for all of the good things you already have. Just maybe, this Thanksgiving you will embrace the power of gratitude.

When you are grateful, fear disappears and abundance appears – Anthony Robbins


Barker, E. (September 26, 2015). A neuroscience researcher reveals 4 rituals that will make you happier. Retrieved November 15, 2016 from

Castillo,S. (November 13, 2014). The science of gratitude: it really is the little things. Retrieved November 18, 2015 from

Thompson, N. How to feel grateful when everything sucks. Retrieved November 15, 2016 from

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