As gratitude changes the brain
Many studies in recent years indicate 10 for the benefit of thanks: when people consciously think of the good in their lives, they become happier. But we can not rely on the results of the experiments - most of them are carried out on a prosperous people. We decided to find out whether gratitude helps people with psychological problems.
In our study, 300 people took part, most of them were students who are faced with psychological problems and enrolled in psychotherapy. Our experiment was launched before the start of their therapy sessions: many participants suffered from depression or an anxiety disorder, and the average showed lower psychological health indicators.
We randomly divided the people into three groups, participants in each of them went to the sessions of the therapist. The difference lies in the additional assignment. Participants in the first group every week wrote a letter of thanks to some person. The participants of the second described their thoughts and feelings caused by unpleasant situations in their lives. Members of the third group did not write anything. The experiment lasted three weeks.
A few weeks after the end of the experiment, we evaluated the psychological health of participants. In the first group, it has significantly improved, the other two had no change. So, thanks to help not only healthy, but also to those that struggle with psychological problems. We have carefully analyzed the study data to understand how gratitude affects the brain and the body.
Thanks saves from destructive emotions
We compared the proportion of words with positive and negative emotional evaluations, which are used in the texts of the two participants in writing groups. Participants who wrote letters of thanks, used more positively stained words and fewer words with negative emotional coloring as compared with the second group. However, positive words does not guarantee mental well-being. Only those people who have used less than negative words, subsequently improved their condition. The lack of negative comments resulted in a difference in the state of mind between the two groups. Thanks letter switches attention from negative emotions like resentment and envy. When you write, how to appreciate others and how a lot of good people are brought to life, it is difficult to get stuck in thoughts of bad events.
Thanks helps, even if there is a secret
We told participants, who wrote a letter of thanks, it is not necessary to send emails to. Only 23% of participants actually sent the letter. But all the other members of the group also corrected his fortune, although letters remained under them. It means the actual transfer of gratitude does not play a key role.
Let's say you want to write someone a letter of thanks, but do not dare. Write it in any way. Then decide to send or not. writing letters to the act itself will help to evaluate the people in your life and shift the focus from the negative thoughts and feelings.
The positive effect of letters of gratitude does not occur instantaneously. In our study, it accumulates over time. A week after the end of the writing practice, we have not noticed a difference in the state of mind among the participants three groups.
But four weeks later, the first group to write letters of gratitude, has demonstrated improvement compared to the other two groups. 12 weeks after the end of the experiment the difference became even more pronounced.
In many other similar studies, the positive effects decreased over time. In this case, the opposite has happened. Perhaps, the participants discussed their letters. These discussions strengthened the psychological effects of writing letters.
If you write a letter of thanks, do not expect immediate improvement. Be patient. Thanks needed time to act.
The habit of being grateful improves health
After three months, since the beginning of the psychotherapeutic session, we compared the number of people who wrote letters of gratitude to those who did not write anything. We wanted to know whether they became brain to process information differently.
To do this, we ask them to complete the exercise "Pay It Forward" and the process used tomography to evaluate the brain activity of the participants. During the "benefactor" exercise gives each participant a small sum of money and asked him to give them to another person, if he feels gratitude. The participants then decide whether to transfer the money to a good cause, and determine the amount.
We wanted to separate donations motivated by a sense of gratitude, of donations on the basis of the other senses, such as debt or guilt. To this end, participants were asked to note how they are grateful to "benefactor", how much want to participate in the charity and how much will feel guilty if you do not do this. Participants also completed questionnaires that allowed to determine how they are grateful to the whole life.
People who were generally grateful, gave more money for a good cause, and showed a higher neuronal sensitivity in the medial prefrontal cortex - This zone is responsible for learning and decision-making. We can assume that a grateful people are more concerned about how to express my gratitude.
Constant practice trains the brain, and it becomes more sensitive to the experience of gratitude in the future
We also compared the brain activity of the participants, who wrote a letter of gratitude to the performance of those who did not, and notice the difference. Those who wrote letters of gratitude, there was a notable activity in the medial prefrontal cortex. We have found this effect three months after the start of the experiment. This means that an expression of gratitude has a long-term impact: constant practice trains the brain, and it becomes more sensitive to the experience of gratitude in the future. In the long term it strengthens mental health.
No matter whether in front of you is a psychological problem, try to write a letter of thanks. Most of the time and effort we spend on the pursuit of the fact that we do not have. Thanks helps us to appreciate the people around us and the things that we already have.
About the Author
Joshua Brown (Joshua Brown) - psychologist, working at Indiana University.
Joel Wong (Joel Wong) - psychologist, working at Indiana University.