The neuroscience of gratitude

Does gratitude matter during a global pandemic?

Let’s face it, this Thanksgiving will be in a class by itself. 

It will be a unique experience. Some families will gather around tables, smaller than in the past, others will gather “virtually.” Whatever your plans, many of us will be changing the way that we celebrate this holiday.

Thanksgiving may seem like a challenging, perhaps ironic, undertaking in 2020. It is an important one. Our relationships and our families need to make time for this ritual, this year more than ever. You need this pause and this focus on gratitude as well.

Let’s look at gratitude from another lens and follow the science. How can a better understanding of the neuroscience of gratitude help us to pull through these difficult days?

What is gratitude?

Gratitude is a way to acknowledge the good things in life. Gratitude is a positive emotional response felt on giving or receiving a benefit from someone (Emmons & McCullough, 2004).

The neuroscience of gratitude and thanksgiving; reducing stressors large and small

Robert Emmons is a psychology professor at the University of California, and perhaps the world’s leading expert on the neuroscience of gratitude

“When we experience resentments, we make ourselves envious, angry, bitter, and annoyed again and again. We are weighed down in negativity, prevented from accessing gratitude and serenity.”

Robert Emmons.

These impediments to gratitude and serenity are often due to external stressors. Of course, this year that includes COVID. In this blog post, I’ll discuss the neuroscience of gratitude. You will learn how to notice and redirect negative thoughts and emotions. Doing so will protect your quality of life and relationship.

“Gratitude reduces all stress, big and small.”

Robert Emmons

Gratitude requires noticing. Dr. Emmons describes 2 essential observations for a grateful awareness;

  1. “recognizing that one has obtained a positive outcome” and
  2. “recognizing that there is an external source for this positive outcome.”

Bring this practice into your life and practice mindfulness with your partner. Take a moment to turn away from the distractions that are all around you. Take a moment to see, hear, taste, feel what is going on at this moment. Notice what you are grateful for in this fully present time. Notice what is going right in your life.

The 6 benefits bestowed by the neuroscience of gratitude

Pausing to find the positive outcomes in your life is time well spent. Gratitude is a powerful, yet sometimes subtle emotion.

  1. Gratitude improves your health. Social scientists have decades of research showing a high correlation between the neuroscience of gratitude and health. As you write in your gratitude journal you will experience lower stress, improved sleep, and a heightened sense of emotional awareness (Seligman, Steen, Park and Peterson, 2005).
  2. Gratitude is good for your career. Grateful people work harder and are more dedicated. Expressing gratitude in the workplace correlates with feelings of closeness and bonding (Algoe, 2012).

  1. Gratitude is an analgesic. A 2003 study assessed the impact of gratitude on physical health. The study found that 16% of the patients who kept a gratitude journal reported fewer pain symptoms. Participants were more willing to cooperate with their treatment plan. Gratitude increases the level of dopamine in the brain and a sense of well-being.
  2. Gratitude allows us to celebrate what is happening right now. We notice positives and magnify and celebrate the positive.
  3. Gratitude blocks negative emotion and strengthens positive emotion. Regret, envy, resentment, and even depression are harder to sustain.
  4. Gratitude invites us to more fully appreciate and enjoy our network of connections. Grateful people enjoy a wider network of social supports and have better relationships overall.

The Neuroscience of Gratitude and Your Marriage

  1. Choosing to be grateful makes it easier to be more thankful next time. The neuroscience of gratitude changes the brain in a healthy way.  When we are grateful, our brain releases chemicals that lower our stress, and condition our brain to be thankful. It is the deliberate act of feeling grateful that changes the brain. This will go a long way in establishing a culture of gratitude in your relationship and in your home. Make gratitude a habit.
  2. Gratitude lowers defenses. Gottman’s research shows that it is best to interact with your partner from an initial stance of gratitude. When you do, it lowers their defensiveness, increases positivity, and promotes collaboration.
  3. Start small and notice what’s happening right now. Gratitude and thanksgiving are what happens when we notice the good, however small, in the right here and the right now.

If we wait for only the large events to feel gratitude, we miss out on so many little moments. That is what strengthens our relationships, many small deposits into our love bank over time.

Why gratitude matters now more than ever

Gratitude and humility are also related concepts. Humility reminds us of our interconnectedness and dissuades us from the myth of self-sufficiency.

When we can manage to lift our heads up and see the world with grateful eyes we’re invited to ponder the preciousness of life. We can also appreciate the gravity, and pervasiveness of our shared predicament.

I’ve been thinking a lot about humility lately. We live in decidedly ego-driven, un-humble times.

It’s hard to be grateful sometimes

Perhaps that’s why it’s so damn hard to be grateful.

We’re used to laying claim to every good fortune that crosses our path. We’ve reveled in our independence. Now we are waking up to realize that the world is an uncertain place and that nothing is promised to us.

Telling people to buck up, count their blessings, and remember what they still have to be grateful for can do much harm.

Processing a life experience through a grateful lens does not mean denying negativity.

It is not a form of superficial “happiology.” Rather, it means realizing the power you have to transform an obstacle into an opportunity. Reframe a loss into a potential gain, recast negativity into positive channels for gratitude.

Robert Emmons

The neuroscience of gratitude explains gratitude circuits in the brain

  • Dopamine – No matter what kind of gratitude we express, the neural circuitry in our brain releases dopamine. Dopamine feels good, fosters optimism, and promotes healthy dialogue. Dopamine has also been correlated with goal-seeking behavior as well.
  • Serotonin – When we write in our gratitude journal or write a handwritten thank you note, the anterior cingulate cortex in our brain releases serotonin. Serotonin is a naturally-occurring anti-depressant, which boosts our motivation and willpower.

“the more practice you give your brain at feeling and expressing gratitude, the more it adapts to this mindset — you could even think of your brain as having a sort of gratitude ‘muscle’ that can be exercised and strengthened … the more of an effort you make to feel gratitude one day, the more the feeling will come to you spontaneously in the future.” Christian Jarrett


The more we think grateful thoughts, the more we activate the “gratitude” circuits in our brain. The more often we activate our gratitude circuits the quicker these neural pathways will be able to see the positive. Our minds will be less inclined to problem-saturated thinking.

The neuroscience of gratitude helps us to recognize what’s going right not hyper-focusing on problems.

It’s become an axiom of neuroscience that “neurons that fire together, wire together.” This is called Hebb’s Law. That’s how neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to form new neural pathways, can deepen our capacity for gratitude.


Deepening our capacity for gratitude

The COVID Pandemic will deepen our capacity for gratitude as we stop taking things for granted.The history of Thanksgiving, our national day of gratitude, is a history of our shared social predicaments.

The first Thanksgiving took place after nearly half the pilgrims died after a horrific winter.

Thanksgiving became a national holiday in the middle of the Civil War and moved to its current date during the Great Depression.

As we face challenging times, remember that an appreciation for the neuroscience of gratitude may preserve your mental health.

Happy Thanksgiving from the team at Couples Therapy Inc. May you and your families find gratitude and health this holiday season.


Algoe, S. B. (2012). Find, remind, and bind The functions of gratitude in everyday relationshipsSocial and Personality Psychology Compass, 6(6), 455-469.

Emmons. Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier

Emmons, R. A. (2004). The Psychology of Gratitude: An Introduction. In R. A. Emmons & M. E. McCullough (Eds.), Series in affective science. The psychology of gratitude (p. 3–16). Oxford University Press.

Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410–421.

Ready for a change in your relationship?

It starts with a no-obligation 15 minute phone call with our client services team.

Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and couples struggling with conflict avoidant and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}