Expressing Gratitude Can Enhance Altruism, Brain Studies Show
Taking time to be thankful has benefits for well-being, research shows. Not only does gratitude associated with optimism, less anxiety and depression, and greater goal attainment, but it’s also associated with fewer symptoms of illness and positive physical benefits.
Researchers have recently made connections between the internal experience of gratitude and the external practice of altruism which is the concern for the welfare of others, and selflessness.
Neuroscience researcher Hongbo Yu and colleagues published a study in the Journal of Neuroscience, which examined the brain regions and connections that shows how gratitude and altruism and how changes in one might lead to changes in the other.
Researcher Hongbo Yu has also been testing the idea that the plasticity of the mature brain can be used to enhance the experience of well-being trying to determine if practice could change how emotions that support social relationships — like gratitude, empathy and altruism — are typically programmed into the brain? Through practicing gratitude, could people become more generous?
To study the relationship between gratitude and altruism in the brain, the researchers conducted a study in which they asked volunteers questions about how frequently they feel thankful and the degree to which they tend to care about the well-being of others. Then they used the data collected to determine the extent to which someone’s gratitude could predict their altruism. In other associated research, Jo-Ann Tsang and Stephen R. Martin found more grateful people tended to be more altruistic.
Hongbo Yu and colleagues then explored how these tendencies are reflected in the brain by having study participants perform a giving activity while in the MRI scanner. They watched as the computer transferred real money to their own account or to the account of a local food bank. Sometimes they could choose whether to give or receive, but other times the transfers were like a mandatory tax, outside their control. The researchers compared brain activity when a participant received money as opposed to seeing money given to the charity.
The researchers found that the neural connection between gratitude and giving is very deep and clear in the brain. A region deep in the frontal lobe of the brain, called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, is a key to supporting gratitude and altruism. Anatomically, this region is wired up to be a hub for processing the value of risk and reward; it’s richly connected to even deeper brain regions that provide pleasurable reward neurochemicals in the right circumstances. The region also holds abstract representations of the inner and outer world that help with complex reasoning, one’s representation of oneself, and social processing.
Beyond identifying the place in the brain that was especially active during these tasks, the researchers also saw differences in how active this region was in various individuals.
The researchers termed what they called a “pure altruism response” by comparing how active the reward regions of the brain were during “charity-gain” versus “self-gain” situations. The participants they’d identified as more grateful and more altruistic via the questionnaire had a higher “pure altruism” scores — that is, a stronger response in these reward regions of the brain when they saw the charity gaining money. It felt good for them to see an organization such as the food bank do well also.
Importantly, the participants in the study also exhibited a change in how their brains responded to giving. In the MRI scanner, the group that practiced gratitude by journaling increased their “pure altruism” measure in the reward regions of the brain. Their responses to charity-gain increased more than those to self-gain.
In another study by Hubbard J. Harbaugh and colleagues published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, focused on this same brain region and found that individual differences in self-reported “benevolence” were mirrored by participants’ brains’ responses to charitable donations, including in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.
Practice makes grateful, makes altruistic?
The human brain is amazingly complex and flexible. Neuroscientists call this plasticity.
Christina M. Karns and colleagues published a study in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience that tested whether changing the amount of gratitude people felt could alter the way the ventromedial prefrontal cortex responds to giving and receiving. The researchers randomly assigned study participants to one of two groups. For three weeks, one group wrote in their journals about gratitude, keeping track of the things they were thankful for. Over the same period, the other group wrote about engaging topics from their lives that weren’t specific to gratitude.
Gratitude journaling seemed to work, a finding supported by Jeffrey J. Froh and colleagues’ research published in the Journal of School Psychology. Just keeping a written account about gratitude led people to report experiencing more of the emotion. Other recent work also indicates that gratitude practice makes people more supportive of others andimproves relationships.
Altering the exchange rate for what’s rewarding
The ventromedial prefrontal cortex is connected to other brain systems that help you experience reward. These high-level systems in your frontal lobes are constantly assessing the value of your decisions. This part of the brain helps you place various things in a hierarchy of how rewarding you find them to be. It may help you determine which decisions, goals and relationships to prioritize.
Practicing gratitude shifted the value of giving in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. It changed the exchange rate in the brain. Giving to charity became more valuable than receiving money yourself. After the brain calculates the exchange rate, you get paid in the neural currency of reward, the delivery of neurotransmitters that signal pleasure and goal attainment.
So in terms of the brain’s reward response, it really can be true that giving is better than receiving. So as Hongbo Yu says, “taking time to practice gratitude can help make giving the most rewarding of activity of all.”
That advice could not be more valuable during our difficult current times.