Whether we are thanking our spouse, our kids, Mother Nature, or receiving thanks in return, gratitude in any form can help stabilize emotions, help us parent from our center, and offer our children the safety and connection to learn and grow.
What Is Gratitude
Is gratitude an emotion, a virtue, or behavior?
It may mean different things to different people in different contexts. However, researchers have developed frameworks for conceptualizing gratitude so that it can be studied scientifically.
Dr. Robert Emmons of the University of California, Davis and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami, has done vast research on gratitude and believes it has two main components. “First, it’s an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received.”
In the second part of gratitude, Dr. Emmons explains, “we recognize that the sources of this goodness are outside of ourselves. We acknowledge that other people gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.” He continues that gratitude isn’t something intentionally sought after, deserved, or earned but rather built upon good intentions.
No matter your definition, studies have shown that not only does gratitude feel good, but it has many neurological benefits that affect emotions and behaviors. And those big life skills that you want to teach your kiddos - namely self-love, empathy, and stress management - well, gratitude is helpful for that, too.
Gratitude And The Brain
According to Dr. Susan Ferguson, a neuroscientist at the Center for Integrative Brain Research at Seattle Children’s Research Institute, the feeling of gratitude activates several parts of the brain. When we feel and express thanks, the ventral tegmental area which is associated with reward and motivation and the hypothalamus which is associated with basic tasks such as eating, sleeping and hormone secretion light up.
Additionally, when we express gratitude and receive the same, it acts as a catalyst for neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine, which are crucial in managing emotions, anxiety and immediate stress responses. The upspiral of these neurotransmitters helps us feel happy from the inside out.
Scientists have suggested that by activating the reward center of the brain, gratitude exchange alters the way we see the world and ourselves. By consciously practicing gratitude, we can help these neural pathways strengthen themselves and ultimately create a positive nature within. This allows us to pay attention to what we have, and produces intrinsic motivation and a strong awareness of the present.
Dr. Ferguson also indicates that when we experience gratitude, the brain releases hormones linked with social behavior. “When we feel gratitude, the brain produces oxytocin, a hormone important to bonding. It’s the same hormone that mothers release after birth and is found in breast milk. That feeling of thankfulness helps humans stay close to each other.”
Research also points to the relationship between the more advanced parts of the brain and gratitude. In a study from the University of Southern California, study participants were asked to imagine how they would feel if they were in a tragic situation from which someone else saved them by providing food, shelter or clothing.
“Those researchers found that when we verbalize thoughts of gratitude or hear stories of people helping each other, the prefrontal cortex is activated. That’s an area of the brain important for positive emotions, moral cognition and decision-making,” Ferguson shares.
Dr. Daniel Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and executive director of the Mindsight Institute, shares that gratitude is as necessary as daily basic needs. “Just as people practice daily dental hygiene by brushing their teeth, gratitude and mindfulness is a form of brain hygiene - it cleans out and strengthens the synaptic connections in the brain.”
Gratitude And Emotions
The limbic system consists of the thalamus, hypothalamus, amygdala, hippocampus, and cingulate gyrus. Collectively, these parts of the brain are responsible for our emotional experiences. Studies have shown that the hippocampus and amygdala, sites that regulate not only our emotions but also memory and bodily functioning, get activated with feelings of gratitude.
Emotional resilience is a trait present at birth that continues to develop throughout life. When studying emotional resilience, many psychologists believe that it is the marriage of five components:
- Social competence – The ability to get along with others and build and maintain relationships
- Problem-solving – The ability to focus on solutions and proactively act on them
- Autonomy – Accepting independence of your own thoughts, emotions and behaviors
- Forgiveness – The inner power to let go of something to heal and love
- Empathy – The strength to hear others and understand their point of view
Yet modern research and studies indicate that there is a sixth component to emotional resilience – that of gratitude. Gratitude builds emotional resilience by:
- Exploring current beliefs and re-evaluating thought patterns
- Shifting perspective to see the positive side of things or the gifts of every situation
- Staying centered to be with and accept the present situation as it is
- Identifying and focusing on solutions rather than problems
- Maintaining health by regulating metabolic functioning and by influencing hormones
- Sustaining relationships and appreciating others as they are.
Incorporating gratitude allows us to adapt to stressful events and center after an unpleasant situation - whether that be a power struggle with your child, an argument with your partner, or an unexpected life event - and powers intrinsic motivation from within to overcome and learn from the experience.
Gratitude And Perspective
You know how they say what you resist persists? Well, there is actually a science to that.
While gratitude can build the gray matter of the brain, negative stress causes energy to be drawn away from the prefrontal cortex, which can lead to reduced processing of emotions and increased behavioral outbursts.
The brain handles thoughts as if they have already happened. So, for instance, if you constantly say or think, “I am tired,” then you will feel tired. If you find yourself thinking “I always yell at my kids but it’s the only way they will listen,” then you are more likely to yell.
Yet when you ground in gratitude to be with what is and focus on what you do want, like a highlighter, your brain mirrors that. Mantras like “I am enough” or “I am grateful” will activate the prefrontal cortex and result in more connected and responsive behaviors. As such, your brain will keep attracting what you are grateful for.
And while gratitude may not look like sitting peacefully atop a mountain quiet with your thoughts, there are many practices in which you can insert gratitude via small moments throughout the day. By merely pausing, noticing and being present, we can find something to be grateful for in any given moment. When we put little stops into our day, our pain points can become tiny gifts:
- My kids are too noisy may evolve into I am grateful for the sound of life in my home.
- I am tired of trying to keep up this house may transform into I am grateful to have a home for my family.
- Bedtime is taking too long to put my kids to sleep may turn into I am grateful my kids are home and safe.
Gratitude And Positive Parenting
As we model gratitude ourselves, we set the blueprint for our children to do the same. Whether we are thanking the grocer who bags our groceries, writing a thank you letter to a friend, or starting a new family ritual like a gratitude jar, our children can pick up on these gestures and emulate them themselves. Another tool is to take time to notice three positive things your child does and verbalize thanks, and offer opportunities for your child to share what they are thankful for, too.
When we learn to pause, we are better able to connect with our children, and be present with them. Gratitude does not mean that we will be perfect parents or that our children will be perfect. But perfection is not the goal, presence is, for within presence lies many gifts to be grateful for.