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Being Grateful Can Help the Brain Create Positive Emotions

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June 1, 2023
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Research Shows Choosing Gratitude Increases Happiness

Scientific studies have found that being thankful, even if you have to fake it, can help you be more satisfied with your life.

In a study called, “Counting Blessings versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life,” researchers assigned one group of people to keep a short list of things they were grateful for.

Another groups listed annoyances or neutral events.

After 10 weeks, the people listing things they were thankful for had significantly greater life satisfaction than the others.

The results of the study done by Robert Emmons at the University of California Davis and Michael McCullough at the University of Miami were published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2003.

Interest in happiness and the science of how gratitude affects the mind and body have continued to increase dramatically in the years since that study.

“Evidence suggests that we can actively choose to practice gratitude, and that doing so raises our happiness,” says Arthur C. Brooks in a New York Times article in November 2015.

“One explanation is that acting happy, regardless of feelings, coaxes one’s brain into processing positive emotions,” says Brooks.

He points to research published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, that found “…gratitude stimulates the hypothalamus, a key part of the brain that regulates stress and the ventral tegmental area that’s part of the circuitry that produces the sensation of pleasure.”

Gems of folk wisdom have carried this same message: ”Smile and the world smiles with you. Cry and you cry alone.”

Brooks says researchers have found that folk wisdom to be pretty reliable information.

“In addition to building our own happiness, choosing gratitude can also bring out the best in those around us,” says Brooks. He gives an example of a study published in 2012 that found that high-powered people who tended to be emotionally insecure, such a “bad boss,” lashed out if their competence was questioned. But when shown gratitude, they reduced their bad behavior.

Make Gratitude a Routine

A good practice, says Brooks, is to “make gratitude a routine, independent of how you feel.” The way to do it is to adopt specific positive habits related to the different ways gratitude can be expressed.

  1. Interior gratitude: The practice of giving thanks privately.
  2. Exterior gratitude: As suggested by Martin Seligman, author of Authentic Happiness, systematically express gratitude in letters to loved ones and colleagues. Try a routine of writing a couple of short emails each morning thanking family, friends or colleagues for what they do.
  3. Be grateful for small things or often unnoticed things: Pay attention to the pleasure of things like the breeze, a favorite song, the peaceful elegance of a cat sitting in a window.

Brooks reminds us that study after study, and many bits of folk wisdom, encourage us to recognize the power of gratitude. Capturing the power of gratitude, and using it regularly, can make our lives happier –even if we have to force our thankfulness at times.

“Don’t express gratitude only when you feel it,” says Brooks. “Give thanks especially when you don’t feel it. Rebel against the emotional ‘authenticity’ that holds you back from your bliss.”



Emmons, Robert A. and McCullough, Michael E., “Counting Blessings versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2003.

Brooks, Arthur C., “Choose to be Grateful. It Will Make You Happier,” New York Times,   Nov. 21, 2015.

Cho, Yeri and Fast, Nathanael “Power, Defensive Denigration, and the Assuaging Effect of Gratitude Expression,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, May 2012.

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