Gratitude can come in many forms. It can be a kind gesture, a thoughtful gift, or even a quick “thanks” as we carry on with our busy lives. We often show gratitude to others to make them feel good about helping us out, but it seems that the recipient of gratitude isn’t the only one who benefits: our brains do too.

Gratitude may help rewire the brain in ways that contribute to our health and happiness. In fact, one study that looked at the effects of gratitude writing on those struggling with their mental health shared some significant insights into the potential psychological benefits of gratitude.

Gratitude Provides Relief From Toxic Emotions

In the study, participants were divided into 3 groups, though they all received counseling services. One wrote a letter of gratitude once a week for 3 weeks, another wrote about negative experiences, and the third didn’t do any kind of writing activity.

They found that those in the gratitude writing group who included fewer negative emotion words in their letters were more likely to report improved mental health. This suggests that when we focus on feelings of gratitude, we are less likely to pay attention to toxic emotions. This provides us with some relief from that negative energy, which can lead to increased happiness.

The Benefits of Gratitude Accrue Over Time

It’s important to note that the positive effects of gratitude didn’t happen immediately after the end of the writing activities, but accumulated over time. There was no reported difference in mental health between the different groups until 4 weeks after the end of the study. And then, interestingly enough, even larger improvements were reported at 12 weeks.

Therefore, if you’re looking to reap the psychological benefits of gratitude, you need to be patient. It seems that showing gratitude may start a series of events or changes in the way your brain processes certain kinds of information. Over time, this may lead to significantly improved mental health.

The Effects of Gratitude May Be Long-Lasting

In order to see if participants were processing information differently, the researchers had some of them do a gratitude exercise while they measured their brain activity with an fMRI scanner. Since they wanted to see if the effects were lasting, this took place 3 months after the initial study.

They found that those who wrote the gratitude letters showed a lot more medial prefrontal cortex activation when they experienced gratitude than the non-writing group. The medial prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that is thought to be involved with important processes relating to memory and decision making.

Such a significant difference implies that gratitude may indeed rewire the brain. Keep in mind that these participants reported significantly improved mental health around this time, so it seems to reprogram it in a more positive way. The researchers theorize that practicing gratitude may help make the brain more sensitive to its effects over time and that this is what is responsible for the reported improvements in mental health.

All in all, everyone wins when you practice gratitude regularly. The recipient feels good, and you’re going to feel better too – perhaps even permanently.