Giving thanks may make your brain more altruistic

Over Thanksgiving, in between mouthfuls of turkey and sweet potato pie, many of us will be asking ourselves: What are we grateful for?

Taking a moment to practice gratitude like this isn’t an empty holiday tradition. It’s good for our mental and physical health. And here’s another thing: It can actually change our brains in ways that make us more altruistic — just in time for Giving Tuesday.

The past two decades have seen a flurry of research on gratitude, beginning in the early 2000s with a series of landmark papers by Robert Emmons, Michael McCullough, and other psychologists. In recent years, we’ve learned through several scientific studies that there’s a deep neural connection between gratitude and giving — they share a pathway in the brain — and that when we’re grateful, our brains become more charitable.

Christina Karns, a neuroscientist at the University of Oregon, is one of the leading researchers in this field. In 2017, she wondered what happens in the brain when you receive a gift versus when you give one — and whether the neural response differs depending on your character. So she placed study participants in a brain scanner and had them watch as a computer moved real money into their own account or gave it to a food bank instead.

Karns described what she learned:

It turns out that the neural connection between gratitude and giving is very deep, both literally and figuratively. A region deep in the frontal lobe of the brain, called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, is key to supporting both. Anatomically, this region is wired up to be a hub for processing the value of risk and reward; it’s richly connected to even deeper brain regions that provide a kick of pleasurable neurochemicals in the right circumstances.

The participants I’d identified as more grateful and more altruistic via a questionnaire [showed] a stronger response in these reward regions of the brain when they saw the charity gaining money. It felt good for them to see the food bank do well.

Next, Karns wanted to know whether, by changing how much gratitude people felt, she could change the way the brain reacts to giving and getting. So she split participants into two groups. Over three weeks, one group journaled about the things they were grateful for, while the other group journaled about other (non-gratitude-specific) happenings in their lives.

The people in the gratitude-journaling contingent reported experiencing more thankfulness. What’s more, the reward regions of their brain started responding more to charitable giving than to gaining money for themselves. As Karns writes:

Practicing gratitude shifted the value of giving in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. It changed the exchange rate in the brain. Giving to charity became more valuable than receiving money yourself. After the brain calculates the exchange rate, you get paid in the neural currency of reward, the delivery of neurotransmitters that signal pleasure and goal attainment.

These are striking (though likely not permanent) effects. Of course, we still need more research to fully understand the brain mechanisms underlying gratitude, giving, and how they relate. But for those of us who don’t always find resonant the old adage that “giving is better than receiving,” Karns’s results, if true, offer a useful amendment: Giving really can be better — if you make it so. You can proactively choose to retrain your brain so it gets more pleasure out of giving.

Here are some effective ways to cultivate gratitude

If increasing people’s gratitude is an effective way to increase their charitableness, then maybe it’s worth nudging people to cultivate more gratitude.

For now, we’ve got at least one such nudge built into our calendar: Thanksgiving. Many religious traditions also include daily practices meant to foster gratitude, and scientific studies have shown that some — like prayer — really do have that effect.

If practicing gratitude isn’t yet part of your daily routine and you’d like to cultivate it throughout the year and not only on Thanksgiving, here are a few practices that researchers have found to be effective in boosting thankfulness.

Gratitude journaling: This simple practice — jotting down things you’re grateful for — has gained popularity over the past few years. But studies show there are more and less effective ways to do it. Researchers say it’s better to write in detail about one particular thing, really savoring it, than to dash off a superficial list of things. They recommend that you try to focus on people you’re grateful to, because that’s more impactful than focusing on things, and that you focus on events that surprised you, because they generally elicit stronger feelings of thankfulness.

Researchers also note that writing in a gratitude journal once or twice a week is better for your well-being than doing it every day. In one study, people who wrote once a week for six weeks reported increased happiness afterward; people who wrote three times a week didn’t. That’s because our brains have an annoying habit called hedonic adaptation. “We adapt to positive events quickly, especially if we constantly focus on them,” Emmons explains. “It seems counterintuitive, but it is how the mind works.”

Gratitude letters and visits: Another practice is to write a letter of gratitude to someone. Research shows it significantly increases your levels of gratitude, even if you never actually send the letter. And the effects on the brain can last for months. In one study, subjects who participated in gratitude letter writing expressed more thankfulness and showed more activity in their pregenual anterior cingulate cortex — an area involved in predicting the outcomes of our actions — three months later.

Some psychologists, like Martin Seligman, Sonja Lyubomirsky, and Jeffrey Froh, have studied a variation on the gratitude letter practice by having participants write a letter to someone they’ve never properly thanked, then visit the person and read the letter aloud to them. A 2009 study led by Froh found that teens experienced a big increase in positive emotions after doing a gratitude visit — even two months later.

Experiential consumption: There’s another way to foster gratitude and thwart hedonic adaptation that seems especially relevant to the upcoming gift-buying season: Spend your money on experiences, not things. The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley summarizes a major study on experiential consumption like this:

Across six experiments, this study found that people felt and expressed more gratitude following a purchase of an experience (e.g., concert tickets or meals out) than a purchase of a material good (e.g., clothing or jewelry). According to the researchers, these experiments suggest that “as a naturalistic behavior that is relatively resistant to adaptation, experiential consumption may be an especially easy way to encourage the experience of gratitude.”

In other words, if you’re going to buy something special this holiday season, consider making it an experience. The resultant gratitude is more likely to stick around in the brain — and where gratitude abounds, altruism may follow.

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