Link Between Gratitude And Happiness According To Neuroscience

Neuroscience: Link Between Gratitude And Happiness

English poet John Milton once said, “Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.”

While proverbial sayings have regarded gratefulness as key to happiness, researchers have further established the science behind the association. Simply put, neuroscientists have tried explaining the science between gratitude and happiness.

Explaining The Link Between Gratitude and Happiness According To Studies

Overview of Relevant Studies

Researchers R. A. Emmons and M. E. McCullough examined the effects of having a grateful outlook on psychological and physical wellbeing by studying two groups—the first group was asked to each keep a daily journal of things they were grateful for while the second group was asked to log things that annoyed them or the reasons why they were better off than others in a daily journal.

Findings showed that the first group demonstrated a greater increase in determination, attention, enthusiasm, and energy compared with the second group.

Note that a similar research design was adapted to a second study group composed of individuals with neuromuscular disease. The result revealed that the gratitude-outlook group displayed heightened wellbeing. These results suggested that gratefulness or a conscious focus on blessings might have emotional and interpersonal benefits.

Another study also suggested that gratitude can help in overcoming materialism. It is worth noting that happiness from materialism is short-lived due to hedonic adaptation. The study of researchers Nathaniel M. Lambert et al revealed that experimentally induced gratitude resulted in higher satisfaction with life and lower materialism in a high gratitude condition compared to envy or low gratitude condition.

A two-part longitudinal study by Alex M. Wood et al. further revealed that gratitude led to higher levels of perceived social support, and lower levels of stress and depression. They concluded that gratitude seems to directly foster social support and protect people from stress and depression, which has implications for clinical interventions.

Understanding the Science Further

There is a neural basis for gratitude and happiness. Researchers Roland Zahn et al. examined blood flow in various brain regions of participants who were asked to recall experiences or feelings related to gratefulness. A functional MRI scan revealed that participants who demonstrated more gratitude had higher levels of activity in the hypothalamus.

It is important to note that the hypothalamus controls several bodily functions, including sleep and stress. Thus, activation of this area of the brain results in improved sleeping patterns and reduced stress levels that in turn, can help in improving or managing anxiety and depression.

Neuroscience researcher Alex Korb, Ph.D. further explained the relationship between gratitude and happiness. In his book, he said feelings of gratitude activate the regions in the brain associated with the release of dopamine—a neurotransmitter that plays in the reward-motivation system. The release of this chemical accordingly promotes initiative and enjoyable social interactions.

Furthermore, the same feelings of gratitude increase serotonin production in the anterior cingulate cortex of the brain. Serotonin is another neurotransmitter associated with the regulation of mood, appetite, and sleep. High serotonin levels result in improving mood as well as an overall sense of wellbeing. Take note that antidepressant drugs such as Prozac boost the production of serotonin.

Korb emphasized the fact that gratitude or a conscious effort to be thankful by focusing on blessings engages the brain in a virtuous cycle. Because gratefulness promotes the production and release of dopamine and serotonin, the human brain starts to look for more things to be grateful for.

The link between gratitude and happiness has nonetheless strong scientific basis. In a nutshell, these studies support another proverbial that says, “It is not happy people who are thankful, it is thankful people who are happy.”


  • Emmons, R. A. and McCullough, M. E. 2003. “Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 84(2): 377-389. DOI: 1037/0022-3514.84.2.377
  • Korb, A. 2015. The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time. New Harbinger Publications. ISBN-13: 978-1626251205
  • Lambert, N. M., Fincham, F. D., Stillman, T. F., and Dean, L. R. 2009. “More Gratitude, Less Materialism: The Mediating Role of Life Satisfaction.” The Journal of Positive Psychology. 4(1): 32-42. DOI: 1080/17439760802216311
  • Wood, A. M., Maltby, J., Gillett, R., Linley, P. A., and 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(4): 854-871. DOI: 1016/j.jrp.2007.11.003
  • Zahn, R., Moll, J., Paiva, M., Garrido, G., Krueger, F., Huey, E. D., and Grafman, J. 2008. “The Neural Basis of Human Social Values: Evidence from Functional MRI.” Cerebral Cortex. 19(2): 276-283. DOI: 1093/cercor/bhn080