The Biology of Thankfulness


Cultures around the world have different traditions in which people express thankfulness. Whether it is a national day of thanks or a moment observed before a daily meal, thankfulness feels hardwired into our humanity.

Cultures around the world have different traditions in which people express thankfulness. Whether it is a national day of thanks or a moment observed before a daily meal, thankfulness feels hardwired into our humanity.

While many of us know the World Health Organization as a leader in areas such as combating infectious disease and advocating for global standards for air and water quality, most of are unfamiliar with WHO’s definition of good health: “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”1 Álvaro Tala, of the University of Chile in Santiago reminds us that “gratitude is one of the concepts most commonly associated with well-being from the empirical point of view.”2

Researchers have studied thankfulness and its cousin, gratitude, to understand more about physical and psychological reactions they spark in our bodies. What they have learned is cultivation of thankfulness can bring about positive improvements in people’s physical and mental health—almost like taking a magical drug that does not require any FDA approval! Here are just some of the documented benefits:

Better Sleep

A team from the University of Manchester in the U.K. studied sleep quality and found that people who demonstrate gratitude as a personality trait had better subjective sleep quality and sleep duration, took less time to fall asleep, and showed less daytime dysfunction.3

Better Sleep, Lower Blood Pressure, Better Well-being 

Subjects who participated in a two-week gratitude training program compared to subjects who did not receive training were studied by a team from University College London. The gratitude group showed increased sleep quality, reductions in diastolic blood pressure, and subjective well-being.4

Gratitude Is Reflected in Brain Circuitry

An international team from Australia, Israel, and the U.S. studied what happens in our brains when we experience gratitude. The team induced feelings of gratitude in study subjects while they underwent brain scanning in an MRI machine. During the MRI scans, subjects heard powerful videotaped testimonies of Holocaust survivors who expressed gratitude for their own lives being saved or helped by receiving food, clothing, or shelter. The scans showed increased—or brighter—brain activity in the anterior cingulate cortex and the medial prefrontal cortex. These are areas of the brain associated with morality and empathy. The research report stated that, “The results provide a window into the brain circuitry for moral cognition and positive emotion that accompanies the experience of benefitting from the goodwill of others.”5


It might sound like a stretch, but Albert Schweitzer, who lived long before anyone could do an MRI, may have anticipated this when he said, “At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.”6

As each of us takes stock of the health and well-being of ourselves, our families, and our communities, it is a good time to consider the conclusion by the authors of the MRI study described above: “In the historical setting of the Holocaust, in which receiving even a small gift could mean another day of survival, our results serve as reminders that in the midst of tragedy there can be acts of compassion, sacrifice, and profound human dignity.”5

Be the spark!


1World Health Organization. Who We Are: Constitution.

2Tala Á. Thanks for everything: a review on gratitude from neurobiology to clinic. Revista Médica de Chile 2019;147(6): 755-761.

3Wood AM, Joseph S, Lloyd J, Atkins S. Gratitude influences sleep through the mechanism of pre-sleep cognitions. Journal of Psychosomatic Research. 2009 Jan;66(1):43-8.

4Jackowska M, Brown J, Ronaldson A, Steptoe A. The impact of a brief gratitude  intervention on subjective well-being, biology and sleep. Journal of Health Psychology. 2016 Oct;21(10):2207-17.

5Fox GR, Kaplan J, Damasio H, Damasio A. Neural correlates of gratitude. Frontiers in Psychology. 2015 Sep 30;6:1491.

6Greenberg M. The Seven Best Gratitude Quotes: Develop A Gratitude Practice to Open Your Heart and Rewire Your Brain. Psychology Today. 23 November 2011.

VIDEO: BrainCraft. The Amazing Effects of Gratitude. 26 November 2015.


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