Give Gratitude from the Heart

Posted on in On Our Radar by Brenda Patoine

Your Brain Will Thank You.
(And So Will Your Family.)


Ahh, Thanksgiving. Time to fight traffic and travel long distances to visit relatives we may not even like and gorge ourselves on factory-farmed turkeys to commemorate our ancestors’ conquest of Native Americans before rushing out to toss our dollars into the great black hole of corporate thievery. . . .Whoops! No, that’s not it. Rewind.

That’s the kind of attitude that will get you in trouble, physiologically speaking. Frustration, resentment, anger—these are the dark emotions that thrust our bodies into a state of stress and anxiety, triggering an evolutionarily ingrained response that floods our body with powerful and potentially toxic hormones, puts our brain on alert, and can throw our heartbeat rhythms into disordered chaos.

In contrast, positive emotions like love, compassion, and appreciation generally counteract the physiology of the stress response. In the absence of underlying disease, they release feel-good hormones like norepinephrine. Dopamine flows in the brain’s pleasure pathways. Heart rhythms relax into a more stable, coherent order.

Gratitude, it turns out, may be one of the most powerful ways to get that warm and fuzzy feeling. Better yet, it seems like the warm fuzzies may actually spread from one person to another who’s physically close by.

What Vibes Are You Emitting?

We’ve all experienced this, right? Someone so infectiously positive that you can’t help but feel good around them? Or expressing such heartfelt gratitude that you feel compelled to thank them for thanking you? Of course, sad or angry feelings can spread as well. We feel the vibes of other people, good or bad.

One scientific explanation behind that phenomenon is that the heart emits an electromagnetic field that extends several feet from our bodies, according to some research, and is about 60 times stronger than the electromagnetic energy emitted by the brain. When we are interacting with people in close proximity, our heart energy field literally encompasses their body, and vice versa.

It turns out that positive emotions like gratitude and appreciation generally set your heartrate pattern in a particular way—a smooth-waved rhythm of peaks—whereas negative emotions like anger and frustration seem to send it into an erratic, disordered rhythm. The HeartMath Institute, a nonprofit that studies “heart intelligence,” has shown how different emotional states change the pattern of this heart-rate variability.

girl taking her hands on the heart

If you put this research together—and the HeartMath Institute is pushing the envelope on this idea—you can envision how your own emotional state affects those around you. In fact, there’s pretty good evidence that your particular heart-rate rhythm—your “heart-print,” if you will—shows up in the patterns of those around you.

The Power of Gratitude

Several years ago, I attended a weekend workshop at the Omega Institute with Gregg Braden, an author and activist who draws on science to explain spiritual phenomena, and he demonstrated this vividly in an experiential exercise. He hooked up a volunteer to a heartrate monitor, a simple clip placed on her ear that measured her heartbeat and displayed it on a projection screen so the whole group could see her heart-rate pattern. Then Braden gave the woman a difficult mental task, something like “count backward by 103 from 3,457, and quickly!” Immediately we saw the woman’s heart-rate jump all over the place, and it just got worse as she struggled with the arithmetic.

Mercifully, he stopped her. Then he had the 100 or so of us in the room do a simple, quick exercise. He had us put our hands on our hearts, focus our breath there, and think about something we were truly grateful for. The guinea-pig volunteer, who was wearing headphones and couldn’t see what we were doing, was ordered to do an equally challenging mathematic task.

After just a minute or two, we opened our eyes to see that her heart rate had gone from jagged peaks and valleys to a relatively smooth, ordered rhythm—a pattern the HeartMath people call “coherence.”

This was, for me, a memorable demonstration of the power of collective positivity, via the simple act of feeling thankful. Gratitude, Braden said, is the most reliable way to bring your heart rate into a “coherent” rhythm indicative of a calm, relaxed state of mind—and to bring others right there with you.

The Key to Relationship Happiness?

This may explain some of the findings of social scientists who have studied the impact of gratitude on interpersonal relationships. For example, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley published results showing that people who feel more appreciated by their romantic partners are in turn more appreciative of those partners and more responsive to their partners’ needs. They also are more committed and more likely to remain in their relationships over time.

Makes sense, right? You appreciate me, and I appreciate that you appreciate me, so I appreciate you in return. Gratitude flows both ways, and everybody’s happy. Could it be that gratitude is the simple key to relationship happiness?

To Be an A or a B?

Much has been written about how our emotional makeup impacts heart health, positively or negatively. Fifty years ago, Friedman and Rosenman first described how people with the now-infamous Type A personality—marked by hostility, impatience, competitiveness, and dominance—were more prone to cardiovascular disease and death from heart attack. In the decades since, researchers have attempted to narrow down the Type A traits that are most problematic, and guess what? Negative-affect traits like depression, anxiety, and anger/hostility turn out to be the most damaging pieces of the puzzle. Psychological scientists call it “Type D” (for distressed) personality.

paper with sign "Thank You"

Positive emotional traits, conversely, have been associated with better health overall and lower risk for heart disease. Relaxed Type B’s, social extroverts, and optimists tend to enjoy better quality of life and suffer less serious health issues. One study published in 2010 that followed 500 men for 15 years found that the optimists in the study had a 50% lower risk of heart-related death than those who had a more pessimistic view of life.

It’s easy to consider how gratitude fits in with a more optimistic, positive social personality. Who’s more likely to be grateful: someone who is angry, anxious, or depressed, or someone who is calm, content, and feels blessed? Someone who sees the glass half-empty or someone who sees it half-full? Which kind of person do you feel better around?

What about the Brain?

As research progresses, science is beginning to tease out, gradually but inevitably, exactly how and why positive emotions impact general health and well-being. So what about the brain? How does something like gratitude affect the brain?

People like Candace Pert, a prominent mainstream neurobiologist whose book, Molecules of Emotion, helped put words like neuropeptide into the public vocabulary, have shed light on the neural correlates of various emotional states. Neuroscientist Richard Davidson’s groundbreaking investigations into the science of meditation have helped describe what happiness looks like in the brain. And neurosurgeon James Doty’s research center at Stanford University investigates the neural bases of compassion and altruism and how the conscious cultivation of compassionate states can literally reshape the brain.

On the other hand, neuroscience has barely nibbled on the question of how “gratitude”—a scientifically nebulous social construct—is represented in the folds and synapses of the brain. There is some evidence from imaging studies that the brain’s reward center lights up when we’re feeling grateful. This is the same neural circuit that underlies primal drives like feeding and mating—you know, things that have been kind of important to the survival of the species. It’s also the circuit that is co-opted by drugs of abuse like cocaine or heroin, which push it into a hyperdrive of reward seeking over all else.

Gratitude Is Like Cocaine to Your Brain?

Well, not exactly. Maybe more like chocolate. But the fact that it activates the reward center, the pleasure pathway of the brain, makes sense, doesn’t it? Gratitude is rewarding. Gratitude feels good, whether you’re the giver or the receiver.

And as with those who appreciated their partners more because their partners appreciated them, gratitude breeds more of the same. The pleasure pathway keeps getting a hit, making us crave more of that feeling. So we direct our behavior to getting more—just like a junkie seeks out that next rush of cocaine.

Dopamine is the neuro juice the good ole pleasure pathway uses to stay lubed up. It’s a feel-good neurotransmitter, released by sex, drugs, and . . . well, maybe rock and roll, but definitely high-caloric foods like chocolate, which we all know can be addictive. But don’t go calling dopamine the “gratitude neurotransmitter” just yet. It’s certainly feasible that the rush we get when we offer heartfelt appreciation may be related to a little squirt of dopamine releasing deep in our mid-brain, but science still has a long way to go before anyone can point to a “thank you” part of the brain.

Could it be that they’ve been looking in the wrong place altogether?

Heart over Head in Happiness

Richard Davidson, a scientist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, has led a groundbreaking series of studies with longtime meditators in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. He has often told the story of when he and his scientific team traveled to India to perform a series of brain scans on the monks participating in the study. Displaying a picture of a group of the monks heartily laughing, Davidson said: “This was right after we explained, through a translator, that we were going to scan their brains as part of a study to understand happiness.”

The monks, he said, thought it was hysterical that we thought we could learn about happiness by looking at the head. You should be looking at the heart, they told the researchers.

The monks might be encouraged to know that more and more researchers are now moving a couple feet south of the brain to try to understand how and why an attitude of gratitude benefits health and well-being, in our selves and in those around us.

If nothing else, it’s something to keep in mind as you’re sitting down with that family of yours and contemplating the true meaning and value behind the tradition of thanksgiving.

Pass the gratitude, please.

Brenda Patoine is a freelance science writer and editor specializing in neuroscience, and a lover of bhakti yoga. Her blog,, tracks the rise of kirtan, a form of call-and-response chanting, in the West. This article first appeared on

Getting in the Gratitude Groove

Gratitude is rewarding and may be contagious. That is the suggestion from a converging body of research exploring how positive emotions like gratitude and appreciation affect our hearts, our brains, and even those around us.

Giving thanks may be easier on the day we Americans set aside for it, but how do we keep that thankful feeling flowing? How do we maintain an attitude of gratitude on a daily basis, especially in the post-holiday haze and pre-holiday craze of these longest winter nights upon us?

Here are five simple suggestions to flex your appreciation muscles. Once you get in the gratitude groove, you begin to become aware—gradually but inevitably—of the abundance that surrounds us at any given moment. You just might be amazed at how much there is to be grateful for. Try it.

1. The Tried & True Gratitude Journal

Every day, wake up and think What am I grateful for today? List five things. Keep a notebook next to your bed and write them down.

2. Make Someone Happy

Do (at least) one thing every day that shows another person—be it your life partner or the kid at the cafe—that you appreciate them.

3. Write a Thank-You Note

And I mean the old-fashioned way. Handwritten. On a simple card or scrap of paper, it’s the message that matters. Tell someone how they made a difference to you. Find their address, put a stamp on it (yes, they still have those), and send it snail mail.

4. Find the Gratitude

Think about a difficult or challenging situation you are facing. Find something about it that you are thankful for. There’s always something—a lesson learned, a pattern of behavior revealed, even just the simple knowledge that the situation will pass in due time.

5. Make It Your Mantra

People don’t say thank you nearly enough. Surprise your partner by thanking them for something they do all the time, like making the coffee. Thank the bus driver or the toll operator. Thank the sun for rising another day.

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