Hey, “thanks” for a better brain!


CEO John Tocci and Director of Field Operations Bill Welch stand together

How does showing gratitude improve mental health?

John Tocci: This time of year, we are awash in messages about thankfulness and gratitude. Sure enough, gratitude is powerful, and we need reminders throughout the year, but I found this article particularly poignant. It’s about new research and clinical studies which show how simply writing about gratitude measurably improves mental health.   

The article, How Gratitude Changes You and Your Brain appeared in Greater Good Magazine from GCSC – part of the University of California Berkeley. Written by Joshua Brown and Joel Wong, it’s based on studies conducted in response to the problem of rising behavioral and mental health problems. Indeed, at TOCCI, much of our IPD work at Boston Medical Center is helping BMC deliver new and improved facilities to address the continuing surge in behavioral healthcare need. The studies included four findings:   

  1. Gratitude sets us free from toxic emotions.  

When researchers asked participants receiving mental health counseling to write three letters of gratitude, they saw a gradual shift away from negative feelings and toxic emotions. To the extent writers focused on appreciation rather than hurtful memories, participants reported improved mental health.  

  1. Writing grateful expressions helps even if you don’t share it.  

Participant’s positive outlook lasted for months after writing the letters, even when the letters were never mailed. The study discovered the mere exercise of writing positive, thankful thoughts (with more “we” words) makes it harder to focus on negative events or emotions like bitterness, resentment, and envy (the “I” words) – and promoted positive neurological results. 

  1. Gratitude is the gift that keeps giving.  

Gratitude not only cuts our ties with toxic emotions, but the study found the wellbeing benefits of gratitude – which may take a few weeks to manifest – actually grew over time to have a lasting positive impact. 

  1. Thanks for a better brain! 

Researchers used fMRI brain scans to see if there was a difference in the way guilt and gratitude affect the brain. They found grateful people showed more neural sensitivity in the area of the brain associated with learning and decisions. It seems grateful people pay attention to expressing gratitude more – which measurably improved mental health going forward. 

The authors finish with this exhortation: “Much of our time and energy is spent pursuing things we currently don’t have. Gratitude reverses our priorities to help us appreciate the people and things we do. Regardless of whether you’re facing serious psychological challenges, if you have never written a gratitude letter before, we encourage you to try it.” 

OK, let’s give it a shot!