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Gratitude Can Literally Change Your Heart & The Molecular Structure Of Your Brain
Gratitude is a funny thing. In some parts of the world, somebody who gets a clean drink of water, some food, or a worn out pair of shoes can be extremely grateful. Meanwhile, somebody else who has all the necessities they need to live can be found complaining about something.
What we have today is what we once wanted before, but there is a lingering belief out there that obtaining material possessions is the key to happiness - especially in the Western world. This may be true for some to an extent, but that happiness is temporary. The truth is that true happiness is an inside job.
It’s a matter of perspective, and in a world where we are constantly made to feel like we are lacking and always wanting more, it can be difficult to achieve or experience actual happiness. Many of us are always looking toward external factors to experience joy and happiness, without ever doing or thinking about the inner work that is required.
This is something science is just starting to grasp as well, as shown by research coming out of UCLA’s Mindfulness Awareness Research Center. According to them:
Having an attitude of gratitude changes the molecular structure of the brain, keeps gray matter functioning, and makes us healthier and happier. When you feel happiness, the central nervous system is affected. You are more peaceful, less reactive and less resistant. Now that’s a really cool way of taking care of your well-being.
There are many studies showing that people who count their blessings tend to be far happier and experience less depression. In one study from the University of California, Berkeley, researchers recruited people with mental health difficulties, including people suffering from anxiety and depression. The study involved nearly 300 adults who were randomly divided into three groups.
All groups received counselling services, but the first group was instructed to write one letter of gratitude to another person every week for three weeks, whereas the second group was asked to write about their deepest thoughts and feelings about negative experiences. The third group did not do any writing activity.
Researchers found that compared to the participants who wrote about negative experiences or only received counselling, those who wrote gratitude letters reported significantly better mental health for up to 12 weeks after the writing exercise ended.
This suggests that gratitude writing can be beneficial not just for healthy, well-adjusted individuals, but also for those who struggle with mental health concerns. In fact, it seems, practicing gratitude on top of receiving psychological counseling carries greater benefits than counseling alone, even when that gratitude practice is brief.
Previously, a study on gratitude conducted by Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D. at the University of California, Davis and his colleague Mike McCullough at the University of Miami, randomly assigned participants to be given one of three tasks.
Each week, participants kept a short journal. One group described five things they were grateful for that had occurred in the past week, another group recorded daily troubles from the previous week that displeased them, and the neutral group was asked to list five events or circumstances that affected them, but they were not told whether to focus on what they consider positive or the negative.
Ten weeks later, participants in the gratitude group felt better about their lives as a whole and were a full 25 percent happier than the troubled group. They reported fewer health complaints and exercised an average of 1.5 hours more.
How Does Gratitude Benefit Us?
Researchers from Berkeley identified how gratitude might actually work on our minds and bodies. They provided four insights from their research suggesting what causes the psychological benefits of gratitude.
Gratitude unshackles us from toxic emotions
Gratitude helps even if you don’t share it
Gratitude’s benefits take time & practice. You might not feel it right away.
Gratitude has lasting effects on the brain
The brain part is very interesting. The researchers at Berkeley used an fMRI scanner to measure brain activity while people from each group did a “pay it forward” task. During the task, the participants were given money by a “nice person.” This person’s only request was that they pass on the money to someone if they felt grateful.
They did this because they wanted to distinguish between actions motivated by gratitude and actions driven by other motivations like obligation, guilt, or what other people think. This is important because you can’t fake gratitude, you actually have to feel it. If you don’t feel grateful or practice feeling grateful, you may not experience as much joy and happiness.
In a world where emotions aren’t really taught in school and the importance is put on striving for high grades, it’s not abnormal to have difficulty feeling grateful. This is especially understandable if you’ve been brought up in the Western world, which is full of consumerism and competition. A world where culture is inviting us to feel we are lacking so we need to strive for more, that we need to compete instead of cooperate.
Following the Pay It Forward study, participants were asked to rate how grateful they felt toward the person giving them the money and how much they wanted to pay it forward to a charitable cause as well as how guilty they thought they would feel if they didn’t help. They were also given questionnaires to measure how grateful they felt in general. Researchers said,
We found that across the participants, when people felt more grateful, their brain activity was distinct from brain activity related to guilt and the desire to help a cause. More specifically, we found that when people who are generally more grateful gave more money to a cause, they showed greater neural sensitivity in the medial prefrontal cortex, a brain area associated with learning and decision making. This suggests that people who are more grateful are also more attentive to how they express gratitude.
Most interestingly, when we compared those who wrote the gratitude letters with those who didn’t, the gratitude letter writers showed greater activation in the medial prefrontal cortex when they experienced gratitude in the fMRI scanner. This is striking as this effect was found three months after the letter writing began. This indicates that simply expressing gratitude may have lasting effects on the brain. While not conclusive, this finding suggests that practicing gratitude may help train the brain to be more sensitive to the experience of gratitude down the line, and this could contribute to improved mental health over time.
It’s also interesting to note that a 2018 study discovered a brain network that “gives rise to feelings of gratitude. The study could spur future investigations into how these ‘building blocks’ transform social information into complex emotions.”
What About The Heart?
The work and research above is great, but where do we actually experience these feelings? They are clearly not a product of our brain, they are products of our consciousness, and when we feel them the brain responds. Researchers are now discovering that the heart also responds during these experience, and that it might actually be the heart that’s responsible for sending these signals to the brain.
A group of prestigious and internationally recognized leaders in physics, biophysics, astrophysics, education, mathematics, engineering, cardiology, biofeedback, and psychology (among other disciplines) have been doing some brilliant work over at the Institute of HeartMath.
Their work, among many others, has shown that when a person is feeling emotions like gratitude, love, or appreciation, the heart beats out a different message, which determines what kind of signals are sent to the brain.
Not only that, but because the heart beats out the largest electromagnetic field produced in the body, the Institute has been able to gather a significant amount of data.
According to Rollin McCraty, Ph.D, and Director of Research at Heartmath,
“Emotional information is actually coded and modulated into these fields. By learning to shift our emotions, we are changing the information coded into the magnetic fields that are radiated by the heart, and that can impact those around us. We are fundamentally and deeply connected with each other and the planet itself.”
Another great point made below by HeartMath:
“One important way the heart can speak to and influence the brain is when the heart is coherent – experiencing stable, sine-wavelike pattern in its rhythms. When the heart is coherent, the body, including the brain, begins to experience all sorts of benefits, among them are greater mental clarity and ability, including better decision making.”
In fact, the heart actually sends more signals to the brain than the brain sends in return. What’s even more incredible is the fact that these heart signals (from heart to brain) actually have a significant effect on brain function.
Research findings have shown that as we practice heart coherence and radiate love and compassion, our heart generates a coherent electromagnetic wave into the local field environment that facilitates social coherence, whether in the home, workplace, classroom or sitting around a table. As more individuals radiate heart coherence, it builds an energetic field that makes it easier for others to connect with their heart. So, theoretically it is possible that enough people building individual and social coherence could actually contribute to an unfolding global coherence.
So far, the researchers have discovered that the heart communicates with the brain and body in four ways: neurological communication (nervous system), biophysical communication (pulse wave), biochemical communication (hormones), and energetic communication (electromagnetic fields).
HeartMath research has demonstrated that different patterns of heart activity (which accompany different emotional states) have distinct effects on cognitive and emotional function. During stress and negative emotions, when the heart rhythm pattern is erratic and disordered, the corresponding pattern of neural signals traveling from the heart to the brain inhibits higher cognitive function. This limits our ability to think clearly, remember, learn, reason, and make effective decisions. In contrast, the more ordered and stable pattern of the heart’s input to the brain during positive emotional states has the opposite effect. It facilitates cognitive function and reinforces positive feelings and emotional stability
Feelings Have The Power To Create Change
So what do we make of this? Why is this research important and ca it make our world better? Here's what HeartMath's researchers feel with regards to these questions:
Every individual’s energy affects the collective field environment. The means each person’s emotions and intentions generate an energy that affects the field. A first step in diffusing societal stress in the global field is for each of us to take personal responsibility for our own energies. We can do this by increasing our personal coherence and raising our vibratory rate, which helps us become more conscious of the thoughts, feelings, and attitudes that we are feeding the field each day. We have a choice in every moment to take to heart the significance of intentionally managing our energies. This is the free will or local freedom that can create global cohesion.
Overall, this type of work suggests that human consciousness, in general, has the power to be a key ingredient in changing our world.
One study, was done during the Israel-Lebanon war in the 1980s. Two Harvard University professors organized groups of experienced meditators in Jerusalem, Yugoslavia and the United States, and asked them to focus their attention on the area of conflict at various intervals over a 27-month period. Over the course of the study, the levels of violence in Lebanon decreased between 40 and 80 percent each time a meditating group was in place. The average number of people killed during the war each day dropped from 12 to three, and war-related injuries fell by 70 percent.
What this shows is that consciousness can have a temporary effect. But how do we make it more permanent? How do we create lasting change?
Another great example is a study that was conducted in 1993 in Washington, D.C., which showed a 25 percent drop in crime rates when 2,500 meditators meditated during a specific period of time with that intention.
Once again a temporary change only. This type of information is heavily correlated with quantum physics, as many experiments in that area as well as parapsychology (telepathy, remote viewing, distant healing) indicate similar findings.
This holds true as far back as 1999. Statistics professor Jessica Utts at UC Irvine published a paper showing that parapsychological experiments have produced much stronger results than those showing a daily dose of aspirin helps prevent heart attacks. Utts also showed that these results are much stronger than the research behind various drugs like antiplatelets.
This type of work has statistically significant implications, yet is heavily ignored and labelled as pseudoscience simply because it conflicts with long-held beliefs from a material worldview that is coming under fire. We often have trouble letting go of these types of worldview's, but times are changing, and we must also.
For many years I have worked with researchers doing very careful work [in parapsychology], including a year that I spent full-time working on a classified project for the United States government, to see if we could use these abilities for intelligence gathering during the Cold War… At the end of that project I wrote a report for Congress, stating what I still think is true. The data in support of precognition and possibly other related phenomena are quite strong statistically, and would be widely accepted if it pertained to something more mundane. Yet, most scientists reject the possible reality of these abilities without ever looking at data! And on the other extreme, there are true believers who base their beliefs solely on anecdotes and personal experience. I have asked debunkers if there is any amount of data that would convince them, and they generally have responded by saying, “probably not.” I ask them what original research they have read, and they mostly admit that they haven’t read any. Now there is a definition of pseudo-science-basing conclusions on belief rather than data!
Utts, Chair of the Statistics Department, UC Irvine (Dean Radin, Real Magic)
Emotions and other factors associated with consciousness have the power to transform our inner world in ways we don’t fully understand yet. These findings show how consciousness can actually transform the physical/material world as well, and that’s huge. This validates the idea that if we can change our inner world through healing trauma, gratitude, empathy, compassion, and meditation, we can make our outer world more peaceful.