Neural Pathways to Happy

Would you like to know a simple 5 minute practice that could help you feel happier, enjoy better health and make more progress towards your goals?  There is a growing body of research that demonstrates the simple practice of gratitude has wide reaching positive effects on our well being.  In this post I’d like to share with you some of those benefits and the neuroscience behind practising gratitude.

GratitudeFirst, lets understand what gratitude is  

Gratitude is not a Pollyanna style of being blindly optimistic about every situation.  Research shows that whilst gratitude enhances positive emotions, grateful people don’t deny or ignore the negative aspects of life.  Gratitude is about noticing and appreciating the positive in life, and it seems to be that the more you practice gratitude the more things you’ll have to be grateful for.

So what are the positive benefits to our well-being by practising gratitude?

Results of numerous research studies shows that people who keep a gratitude journal are more likely to:

  • Have fewer health complaints
  • Exercise more regularly (on average 1.5 hours more a week)
  • Feel more optimistic
  • Have higher levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness and energy
  • Display more pro-social behaviour – such as empathy, generosity and offering help or provide emotional support to others
  • Feel happier and have overall more satisfaction with their lives
  • Be more connected with others
  • Make more progress towards their goals
  • Get better quality sleep and awaken feeling more refreshed (this sleep study consisted of adults with neuromuscular disease – so people with clinical impaired sleep)

Do you think that’s a pretty impressive list?  Well there’s more, gratitude has been linked to:

  • feeling less stressed and less depressed
  • as a coping mechanism and a way to increase daily functioning for war vets suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,
  • and in children it can cultivate a more positive attitude towards their families and their school.

It is clear from the research that practising gratitude increases our well-being.  But what causes it to do so?                                                                                                       

The Neuroscience of gratitude – what happens in our mind when we practice gratitude?

When you understand how the things we do and the thoughts we repeatedly say to ourselves become imprints in the form of neural pathways in our brain, and the more well trodden the neural pathway the more likely this will become our automatic or default way of thinking or being, it’s easy to see how practising gratitude regularly will improve your health and well-being.

When we do something, and do it often our brain lays neural pathways that become shortcuts, so eventually we can do it without thinking.  Can you remember learning to drive, to start with you had to put a lot of conscious concentration into when to release the clutch, and put your foot on the accelerator and so on, but after a while driving became so instinctive and automatic, that find yourself busy singing along to the radio and automatically transitioning between the clutch, brake and accelerator without any conscious effort.  That’s thanks to our neural pathways.

It’s the same when you practice gratitude it lays neural pathways that become stronger with regular use, and the brain likes to default to well used neural pathways, By practising gratitude regularly you’re teaching your brain that this is the path it automatically should take.  A little bit like when you are walking through a bushy reserve, its quicker and easier to take the “well trodden path” than it is to make a new path through long grass.

So the stronger the neural pathways of looking for things to be grateful for means we automatically start looking for more things to feel grateful about.

And that brings into play the law of attraction

“You tend to attract and move toward what you focus on”.  It’s how the mind works.  For example, if you are riding a bicycle and start looking at a tree ahead to the left, perhaps noticing how beautiful it is, or that there is a birds nest in it, your subconscious mind becomes aware of the direction that your conscious mind has taken, and starts making adjustments, coordinating your muscles to move towards the focus of your attention… WHAM! and suddenly you find that you’re veering off course right towards that tree!

So it makes sense to shift your focus from what you don’t want and set your mind in the direction of what you do want. Practising gratitude helps train your mind to instinctively focus on noticing and appreciating the positive in life, and the more you focus on this the more benefits you’ll attract into your life to be grateful of  🙂

Your Gratitude Journal Experiment

Try it for yourself, for the next month every night before you go to sleep write down in a journal 7 things you are grateful for.  As for me I’m grateful to be sharing this information with you, on a lovely summers day in beautiful Auckland, New Zealand,  and I’m grateful you took the time to read this.


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Froh, J. J., Sefick, W. J., & Emmons, R.A. (2008) Counting Blessings in early adolescents: An experimental study of gratitude and subjective well-being.  Journal of School Psychology, 46, pp213-233

Kashdan, T.B., Uswatte, G., & Julian, T. (2006) Gratitude and hedonic and eudaimonic well-being in Vietnam war veterans.  Behavioural Research and Therapy, 44, pp179-199

Masingale, A.M., Schoonover, S., Kraft, S., Burton, R., Waring, S., Fouad, B., Tracy, J., Phillips, S., Kolts, R.L., & Watkins, P. (2001). Gratitude and post-traumatic symptomatology in a college sample.  In Watkins, P.C., Grimm, D.L., & Kolts (2004). Counting your blessings: Positive memories among grateful persons. Current Psychology, 23 (1)

McCullough, M. E., Emmons, R. A., & Tsang, J. A. (2002) The grateful disposition: A conceptual and empirical topography.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, pp112-127

Wood, A. M., Froh, J. J., & Adam, W. A. Geraghty. (2010) Gratitude and well-being: A review and theoretical integration.  Clinical Psychology Review

Wood, A. M., Joseph, S., Lloyd, J., & Atkins, S. (2009) Gratitude influences sleep through the mechanism of pre-sleep cognitions.  Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 66, pp43-48

Wood, A. M., Maltby, J., Gillett, R., Linley, P. A., & Joseph, S. (2008) The role of gratitude in the development of social support, stress, and depression: Two longitudinal studies.  Journal of Research in Personality, 42, pp854-871