Eckhart von Hochheim was a 13th-century German theologian, philosopher and mystic. He is more commonly known as Meister Eckhart. Among other wise sayings, he is known for his pronouncement that, “If the only prayer you ever say is ‘thank you,’ it’s enough.” That is, being thankful is all you need to have a really good life.

Interestingly, the benefits of gratitude have been of major importance not only in Christianity, but in virtually every world religion for a very long time. It’s not just religions. Even in the midyears of the Roman Empire, Cicero proclaimed gratitude to be the “mother” of all human feelings. Can multibillions of people be wrong?

So, to whom or what are you thankful? Of course, Christians and others would say you are thankful to God, if only because you can “enter His gates with thanksgiving.” Others, less mindful of a deity, might give thanks to those people who help you in your life. And still others ignore the whom-or-what, and simply acknowledge that there is more to life than oneself.

Oh no, Bob, you’re going all theological on us again! Actually no. What I’m doing is exploring the now rich abundance of scientific research that shows clearly the psychological and physical effects and affects of gratitude. There are, of course, parallels between scientific discoveries and what religions and cultures have known for thousands of years.

What has science confirmed?

Science has discovered benefits of gratitude in several areas of life: personality, health, emotions, social interactions and even career. This column is way too short to describe all of this in detail, but here is a summary of what’s been confirmed.

In the realm of personality, research finds that gratitude makes you more optimistic, less materialistic, more spiritual, less self-centered and have more self-esteem.

In terms of health, gratitude improves your overall physiological functioning. This includes better ability to deal with terminal conditions, positive changes to your immune system and promoting faster recovery from assorted medical procedures. Additionally, you will feel less pain, have lower blood pressure and see the doctor a lot less often.

Emotional benefits of gratitude include being more resilient and more relaxed, feeling less envy, and generally feeling better consistently.

Socially, you’re likely to be more friendly and more respectful, have more friends and better marital relations, and be able to form deeper relationships.

Even your career can benefit from an attitude of gratitude. Research has shown increases in productivity, better management and decision making, more interest in networking, and an increased ability reach your goals.

What’s happening in your brain?

All of this is happening because of real changes in your brain. Neuroscience has explored what’s happening in your brain when you feel gratitude, and while complex, it’s all right there. Specifically, there are physical centers in your brain that respond to thoughts and expressions of gratitude. Interestingly, the more grateful is someone, the more gray matter will be found in these centers. The actual names are not important, but briefly, the function is something like this.

Gratitude wires up and activates new neural connections to what we’ll call the “bliss center.” In addition, it restructures your cognitive capacity by evoking positive thinking. It reduces fear and anxiety by regulating your stress hormones like cortisol. And it releases dopamine and serotonin, the neurotransmitters responsible for feelings of happiness.

Cultivating gratitude

Among the more effective ways to improve your experience of gratitude is to keep a daily journal of things for which you are thankful. The interesting thing about writing down your thankfulness is that the more you do it, the more gratitude you feel. The writing itself need take no more than a few minutes, but the beneficial effect is cumulative over time. And by the way, even making up thanks that you don’t really feel has been shown to have the same benefits as authentic thanks.

Studies from 2003 to 2009 showed that keepers of a gratitude journal experienced significantly fewer physical symptoms, including pain. They also spent more time exercising, had both more and better-quality sleep, and found a reduction in both depression and anxiety, as well as blood pressure.

Equally important is to express gratitude verbally. We often say a perfunctory thanks to grocery store clerks, to someone who holds a door for us and similar casual encounters. This is good practice, but even more, talk often about the things for which you’re thankful. This can be in a classroom, at the dinner table, or at any social or business event. Again, the more you do it, the more thankful you will feel.

Even more, think about the people who have been or are influential in your life. Write a thank-you note, and send it.

What has MYK got to do with gratitude?

You may well observe that most of my columns address conditions for which I have a treatment; I suppose they’re a kind of low-level, back-door infomercial. So how on earth would I treat a lack of gratitude? The answer lies with the vagus nerve, about which I have written often, both directly and indirectly.

Vagus, the Latin word for “wandering,” is the longest of your cranial nerves. It wanders down from your brainstem through your neck, thorax and abdomen. Vagus influences organs such as your heart, lungs and liver, as well as your voice, digestion and more.

I have referred to vagus as countering our cultural obsession with the fight-or-flight response by invoking a rest-and-digest, or relaxation, response. Others have referred to vagus as the nerve of compassion. Very new research links vagus to receptors for a neurotransmitter, oxytocin, that’s important to trust and maternal bonding.

Research affirms that activation of the vagus nerve enhances feelings of caretaking and an awareness that all of us, however different culturally, share a common humanity. High activation of the vagus nerve in a resting state causes an increase in feelings of gratitude, altruism, compassion, love and happiness. And children with high vagus activity are likely to be more giving and cooperative. Regulating vagus is now shown to be important in treating inflammation, especially related to the likes of epilepsy and IBS. 

So yes, my treatment for lack of gratitude is the one I use to stimulate your vagus nerve. I also use this treatment for anxiety, depression, vocal problems, rheumatoid arthritis and more.

Bob Keller maintains a holistic practice in Newburyport. He offers medical massage therapy for pain relief and advice on muscular balance and diet, as well as psychological counseling, dream work and spiritual direction. Many patients call him Dr. Bob, but he is not a medical doctor. He can be reached at 978-465-5111 or bob@myokineast.com.

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