Gratitude & How it Impacts the Brain

Nov 10, 2023

Written by WonderCow co-founder Erica Diepersloot

Grand Canyon

Thoughts on how the brain works… imagine the Grand Canyon

The brain has a mind of its own. Maybe that sounds inaccurate or cyclical or maybe it just makes you think. I don’t think it’s a real phrase or anything special, but what I mean is that the brain truly is fascinating. The fact that it is a muscle that releases neurons that tell messages to other parts of our bodies: helpful messages like “that stove is hot; lift your hand away” or “to keep your eyes moist, blink” or “lift right leg, lean forward, straighten knee, press down foot, lift left leg” – all to just take one step.

Another fascinating part of the brain is that it can be trained. It is a muscle that can be shaped and molded, based on how we use it. Consider each of your thoughts to be a trickle of water flowing down a path. The more often you think that one particular thought, that water will form a deeper path. If you think that thought every day, then the path is going to carve a miniature Grand Canyon in the folds of your brain. The result of this is that your mind becomes so accustomed to flowing along this Grand Canyon that you will continue to think that particular thought even more frequently because the path is so deep and established.

If you think that thought every day, then the path is going to carve a miniature Grand Canyon in the folds of your brain.

Another visual for you (and I’m not just giving you this one because we live on a farm, but you’re welcome for being “on-brand” 🙂) is to imagine a cow grazing in a pasture. There is a large tree where she always rests in the shade, and her water trough is just down the hill. She makes the walk from the shady tree to the water trough and back several times a day, and she tends to walk relatively close along the same route. The grass where she walks will be compressed and eventually it will be tread down into a flattened path. The natural phenomenon is that she will continue to utilize her well-worn path because now it has become easier for her to walk along.

A path trodden in a green meadow

How the way we think impacts our overall wellbeing

In the same way, we can consciously choose what thoughts are repeated in our minds in order to create healthy “pathways” for the neurons to travel, at least to a certain extent. This is especially evident in studies done about gratitude. The more often that a person thinks about what he is grateful for, his mind will create a pathway for grateful thoughts, and he will think these thoughts more frequently as the pathway is more established. 

When you realize the impact that gratitude has on our lives, you realize how influential this can be!

Gratitude is a powerful emotion that can have a huge, positive impact on our mental health and wellbeing, so it can affect so many parts of our lives. This might seem like common sense, but there is even scientific evidence explaining how gratitude can actually rewire our brains in a positive way.

How gratitude can affect our brain:

  • Releases dopamine (the “feel good” hormone)
  • Lights up the brain’s natural reward system, which can lead to overall improved mental health
  • Increases activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is responsible for managing negative emotions like guilt, shame, and violence
  • Helps manage the autonomic nervous system functions and reduces the release of cortisol (the “stress hormone”), so gratitude can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety
  • Activates the hypothalamus, which controls bodily mechanisms such as sleep

Chart showing how gratitude impacts the brain - positive psychology

So we can see how gratitude can reduce the symptoms of depression and anxiety, improve our mental health, and promote better sleep quality. And now we know that we can train our brain to focus on particular thoughts. So that means we have the power to choose to carve a Grand Canyon of gratitude in our brains and in effect, improve our overall wellness.

How inspiring to consider how much we as parents can affect the neural pathways that are being established in our children’s brains. Rob and I try to be consciously thankful in general, not only because we are called to be grateful (see 1 Thessalonians 5:18), but also for our own wellbeing, for the way it affects each other and those around us, and we encourage our kids to see the good also. Sometimes it might seem like some kids might naturally have neural pathways to see the bad – so we want to encourage the grateful thoughts as much as we can in order to carve a Grand Canyon of gratitude in their little brains.

Girls playing in sand on a calf ranch

5 ways our family focuses on gratitude

Gratitude journal

  • In the mornings, Rob and I sit down before the kids wake up and we read and reflect on a bit of God’s Word, then we write down 3 tangible things that we are thankful for.
  • So far, we haven’t taught our kids to write what they’re thankful for (we do envision that at some point), but for now, they come downstairs when they wake up and see us with our gratitude journals. I’m hoping/assuming that knowing that gratitude is important to their mom and dad is having a positive effect on them, even if it’s subconscious for now. I think even their tender young hearts can understand that taking time to spend with Jesus is something that we value.

After a tantrum

  • I read a book* that compared a child’s brain with their fist: The fist is closed over their thumb when their mind is at ease, but it’s an open fist when their emotions flare up (ie: a tantrum). It has been helpful to have a visual that is always at hand 😉. Showing them how to physically close their fist by putting a finger down over their thumb one at a time, gives them a visual tool to calm down–and we say one thing that we are thankful for with each finger. It really has been a handy (😉) tool for us to calm down.

Dinnertime

  • Beginning our family prayer by giving thanks for our day.

Pausing in nature

young girls climbing on rocks in a national park with tall trees

  • For our little family, a hummingbird always reminds us of Mimi (that’s my mom, who went to heaven in 2021 at the age of 55). Seeing a hummingbird always reminds us of the amazing woman that she is, but also of the incredible gift of heaven – focusing on the gift of eternity together with Jesus fills us with thankfulness. 
  • For one of my sisters, sunsets have the same effect. For one of my daughters, it’s dolphins.
  • A friend of mine mentioned what triggers her to think of heaven in nature is butterflies because they remind her of her grandmother. For another friend, it’s baseball.
  • Whatever it is for you, take the moment to stand in the beauty of what you see, enjoy the gift of the peace it brings, and let it fill you with gratitude for what is yet to come.

Bedtime

  • Asking what they are thankful for. For some kids, it’s beneficial to repeat the same question each night. Others benefit from variety, so here are a few different ways to phrase the question to catch the attention of your kids:
    • “What was your favorite part of your day?”
    • “Tell me what you liked about your day.”
    • “What is something that you enjoyed doing today?”
    • “Did you see anything that made you smile today?”
  • Their answers are sweet and I love hearing them…

Q: What are you thankful for?
A: Mommy & Daddy, Mimi & Grandpa, Opa & Oma.
Q: What was your favorite part of your day?
A: Right now.

How our kids respond to gratitude practices (so far)

Our kids are at young ages so at this point, their brains don’t necessarily divide out the events of this particular day in the same way that an adult’s brain does. I think you can expect the answers to get more specific to the day as your kids’ brains develop with age to actually process short-term and long-term memory differently. Outside of that, I’m not sure of the psychology behind the repeated answers yet, but regardless, I love hearing that they are thankful for their parents and grandparents, and that they live so much in the present that this particular moment is their favorite part of their day. 🙂

As we spend time reflecting on what we are thankful for, we are encouraging our minds to see the good – which will have a positive effect on our overall selves.

You might notice that you notice more of the good and the beauty in this life.

Hummingbird flying next to a plant

How the brain responds to being rewarded

Also in relation to habits and the brain: The human brain likes to be told “good job!” So a tiny life hack when you are trying to break or form a habit is to actually take two seconds to give yourself affirmation when you do something right. For example, say I am trying to break the habit of overeating cookies (just hypothetically speaking of course…😉) If I find myself reaching into the cookie jar but resist the temptation, I should take a moment to mentally say “good job for not taking another cookie.” The brain releases a tiny bit of dopamine (the hormone that makes us feel good) when you give it affirmation, and it wants to do that again to get more dopamine. It’s like your body’s own natural reward system.

So the more I follow the habits that I want to form, and the more I tell myself “good job”, the more that my brain will encourage me to continue following those habits.

In conclusion, gratitude is a practice, meaning we have to consciously choose to be grateful each day. But I hope what you discover is that gratitude is like a magnet for more joy in our lives. My dad used to say that “love is one of those gifts that the more you give, the more you’ll get”– and I think that’s true of gratitude as well. The more that we find to be grateful for in our day, the more that we notice the good things all around. It allows us to appreciate the present, and there is a lot of beauty and joy there. 🙂

Read more & wonder with us

References:

*Book: Whole Brain Child
Positivepsychology.com: The Neuroscience of Gratitude and Effects on the Brain

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