Grandparents and philosophers have been nudging us to be grateful for the longest time. Grandma usually says, count your blessings, and the Greek philosopher Cicero has called gratitude the “mother of all” virtues. We’re taught to be grateful for our meals, appreciative when we receive gifts, and acknowledge another person’s act of generosity towards us. But why have they been asking us to do this? What is it about gratitude as an emotion or feeling that elders and contemplative cultures have been championing for centuries? And importantly, what implication does it have for our well-being and achievement levels?
While neuroscientists are only at the cusp of studying the neural and cognitive basis and benefits of gratitude – research findings now point to some definitive answers. First, research has found that when we express gratitude, the brain releases a surge of dopamine and serotonin, two critical neurotransmitters responsible for positive emotion. These are in turn critical for driving motivation and attention which are essential for achievement. Second, experiences have shown that the brain scans of those expressing gratitude showed a surge of activity in the medial prefrontal cortex of the brain – an area key to our executive functions, learning and making decisions.
Similarly, gratitude also activates the hypothalamus, a structure at the base of the brain which promotes deeper sleep, and improved immunity by reducing the stress hormone-cortisol. Finally, we know that ‘neurons that fire together wire together’. This means the more we cultivate gratitude as an emotion, the more likely it is to become a thinking and feeling habit which in turn can create a virtuous cycle of higher levels of dopamine and serotonin and lower levels of cortisol.
These neural benefits of gratitude can drive student well-being and achievement simultaneously – a goal we pursue at Sai Shiko. Interestingly, our recent conversation with Nikita Dhawan, a 12th grader, began with her expressing gratitude to all who had supported her throughout her academic journey! Finally, while grandma and Cicero didn’t have access to brain scans, today’s neuroscientists do. Some of the pioneering work in neuroscience of gratitude can be found here.
With Grit & Gratitude,
The Sai Shiko Team