The U.S. is one of several countries that celebrates the end of the harvest with a day of giving thanks – that we’re prepared to survive another winter. With the word “survival” in the opening line, you’ve probably guessed that I’m about to find a way to link eating turkey with survival, because that’s usually where I end up when I talk about our marvelous survival machines – our brains.

In the U.S., this holiday is traditionally a day set aside to enjoy family and friends and be grateful for all the blessings we’ve enjoyed in the year. It turns out that the practice of being grateful is good for your brain. Robert A. Emmons and Michael E. McCullough published one of the first studies on gratitude in 2003, when they gave “gratefulness journals” to college students and asked them to capture weekly instances of things or people in their lives that made them feel grateful. They also had another group practice daily “gratitude interventions,” where the participants were guided through a meditation on gratitude. The results included a higher level of satisfaction with the their lives, greater empathy towards others and a higher sense of personal spirituality.

More recently, neuroscientist Alex Korb has investigated the positive influence of gratitude on depression, showing that regular focus on the positive aspects of one’s life can physically rewire the brain in ways that reduce feelings of depression. You’ll see similar work related to happiness from Rick Hanson and others. Here’s how it works:

Our brains is a vastly complex network of 100 billion neurons, each with up to 30,000 different connections. These cells communicate with each other by transmitting small electrical charges across the tiny gap between cells, called the synapse. Our brain is conditioned from eons of evolution to scan our environment for potential threats and rewards. To teach us the difference, it releases dopamine when something is beneficial to our survival, prompting us to do it again. Dopamine has been shown to reward positive behavior, such as exercise. The “runner’s high” is associated with this neurotransmitter. Repeated transmission of dopamine forms a physical neuropathway – it rewires our brains in ways that can make us more likely to repeat the behavior that generated the reward response. Once we get this gratitude cycle going in our lives, some wonderful things start to happen:

  • Our bodies become stronger healthier
  • Our minds become more accepting of others
  • Our brains tend to keep us happy rather than sad

Gratitude, like any behavior, is something that our brains learn to do through repitition. The more often you feel grateful, the stronger the positive results from this practice become. So this Thanksgiving season, take a quiet moment for yourself and make a gratitude list. Just write down all the things you are grateful for. The very act of writing it down accelerates the formation of those positive neural pathways. If you want to add to the great feeling you’re already getting, share your list with a friend. The social interaction and verbal expression of specific things you are grateful for will stimulate additional pathways to the same gratitude behavior. But don’t do this just one day a year – make it part of your regular routine – and watch how your brain changes. You’ll see the results in just a few weeks. And you’ll be grateful that you made a practice of being thankful.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!