The Science of Gratitude

Welcome to November, when those throughout the recovery community celebrate Gratitude Month! More than just a hollow reminder to be more thankful, gratitude is a principal that many claim is key to a happy, contented recovery.

Unsurprisingly, recovering addicts and alcoholics weren’t the first to discover the benefits of gratitude. For generations, religious leaders and philosophers from around the world have championed this underrated virtue. In recent years, the scientific community has also gotten on board.

So, is there more to gratitude than the warm, fuzzy feeling it evokes? Apparently, yes—according to scientists. Over the past twenty years, researchers have delved into the science of gratitude and discovered that this quality has deep roots in our DNA. From biological advantages to enhanced social cohesion, gratitude appears to be a potent emotion with some serious physical, mental and spiritual benefits.

Deep Roots

Scientists have discovered that wide variety of species, including primates, birds, bats, and even fish engage in behavior known as “reciprocal altruism”—acts of service to another animal, even at a cost to themselves, possibly because on an instinctual level they acknowledge that the other animal may return the favor in the future. Many researchers believe this desire to return generosity is an expression of gratitude—and some even suggest that gratitude may have evolved as a tool to motivate this shared helpfulness, which has obvious benefits to both individuals and entire species.

Research on primates lends credence to the idea that gratitude has deep evolutionary roots. Studies on chimpanzees found that chimps are more likely to share food with another chimp that groomed them earlier in the day and are more likely to help another chimp with a task if that chimp had helped them in the past.

Interestingly, neuroscientists have identified the parts of the brain most likely responsible for feeling and expressing gratitude, lending further validity to the theory that gratitude is a core component of the human experience. Scientists note that gratitude is associated with the parts of our brain responsible for regulating stress-evoking feelings of well-being.

Happier and Healthier

The past two decades of research confirm that gratitude has some heavyweight benefits for human beings. In positive psychology studies, gratitude is consistently associated with greater happiness, more overall positivity, increased resiliency, and improved social relationships. Several studies have found that more grateful people experience less depression and deal better with traumatic events.

Moreover, there is strong evidence for scores of other physical and psychological benefits. One study found that more grateful cardiac patients slept better, were less fatigued and had lower levels of inflammation. Another found that patients with heart conditions who kept a gratitude journal for eight weeks had reduced signs of inflammation afterward.

How to Be More Grateful

Since expressing gratitude has the potential to deliver such powerful results, why not try it?

Keep a gratitude journal

Jot down a few things each day you are grateful for. Studies show that even gratitude for inconsequential things, like a cup of coffee or tea, can make an impact.

Write a note

Make a habit of sending at least one gratitude letter each month. Researchers discovered that most people were overjoyed to receive one. Consider writing one to yourself once in awhile.

Acknowledge someone mentally

Silent appreciation for someone who has helped you or offered support is enough to trigger our brain’s gratitude centers.

Make it a social practice

Consider finding a time each week to touch base with family or friends to share some things that went well for you that week. Bringing others into our gratitude practice can help us build bonds and encourage us to share in each other’s good fortunes.





It’s not the end. It’s the beginning.

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