Neurology and Neurosurgery

What happens in your brain when you give and practice gratitude?

A young woman wearing a volunteer vest is hugging a large white dog outside an animal shelter.


Delight others and yourself by giving and practicing gratitude. Your brain will light up with joy and give you mental, physical and social health benefits.


By Paul Wright, MD, Senior Vice President and System Chair of the Neuroscience Institute, Nuvance Health


You know that warm-all-over feeling you get by donating, volunteering or offering someone a sincere thank you. You might not know that glow is your brain’s reaction to giving and gratitude.


Find out the many mental, physical and social health benefits of giving and practicing gratitude. Plus, read on for easy ways to give and show thanks that have a big impact.


What happens in your brain when you give?


Researchers have studied how the brain responds to giving using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Giving triggers areas of your brain that release oxytocin, a neurotransmitter and hormone associated with pleasure, connection and trust with others. Studies have also shown generosity promotes happiness and joy.



What happens in your brain when you practice gratitude?


Studies have shown the amygdala and hippocampus are activated by feelings of gratitude. These areas in the brain regulate your bodily functions, emotions and memory. Gratitude also activates areas of your brain associated with feelings of bliss.


Have you heard of the stress hormone? Your brain releases cortisol when you are anxious, stressed or scared. Feelings of gratitude can regulate cortisol production in your brain and reduce anxiety and stress.


Similar to giving, gratitude triggers the brain to release neurotransmitters and hormones associated with happiness, including dopamine and serotonin. Low levels of these hormones can cause depression. Regularly practicing gratitude can be a natural antidepressant because it produces feelings of contentment and pleasure.


Everyone wants sharp cognitive function and the ability to learn, think and remember. Studies have shown a positive mindset is associated with creativity, open-mindedness and effective thinking. Whether positive thinking inspires gratitude or gratitude triggers positive thinking, it is a no-brainer to practice gratitude as much as possible.


What are the benefits of giving and gratitude?


Now you know what is happening in your brain when you practice generosity and gratitude. Here are the mental, physical and social health benefits, too.


Promote good health. Researchers have established a connection between gratitude and mental and physical well-being. The feel-good hormones released during acts of giving and thankfulness can help you manage stress and feel happy, and in turn, have more energy, a positive mindset and better sleep. 


Reduce pain. Giving and gratitude help regulate dopamine in your brain. Dopamine is a natural pain reliever.


Improve sleep. Gratitude activates the hypothalamus in the brain. The hypothalamus regulates many bodily functions, including sleep. The hypothalamus is also the part of the brain that produces oxytocin. Try regularly giving and showing thanks to sleep soundly.


Build social connections. Many ways to give and demonstrate gratitude involve interactions with others. Positive social engagements have many benefits, including warding off depression, isolation and loneliness.


Enhance productivity. Studies have shown people are more productive when they feel valued and seen. Managers who express gratitude toward employees contribute to employee retention and teamwork.



What are the different ways to give?


Altruism comes in many different forms. Try one of the following ways to give to spread joy to others and yourself.


Acts of service: You can serve others in many different ways. Some people dedicate their careers to serving others, such as healthcare workers, educators and first responders. Volunteering at a church, school, food bank or animal shelter is another way to serve others. You can also practice acts of service by simply doing something nice for someone else, such as cleaning the dishes or making dinner.


Philanthropy: Philanthropy can mean donating your time, items or money. Read on to learn about the benefits of volunteering. Other forms of philanthropy include making in-kind donations, such as clothing or household items to help others. Monetary donations can range from rounding up a few cents to contribute to a cause or a large financial gift. Your philanthropic ability and desire will depend on your circumstances and passions.



Volunteering: Giving your time demonstrates you care and are committed to serving others. Time is precious because most of us are balancing many responsibilities, wants and needs every day. While volunteering helps others, it can also help you. Studies have shown volunteering can create a sense of purpose and community, and in turn, ward off depression, anxiety and social isolation.


How to practice gratitude


You can practice gratitude in the following simple ways that have long-lasting effects.




Gratitude journal. Keep a journal of things you are grateful for, which will be different for everyone. You might write about your family, friends, pets or career, or simply a beautiful, sunny day and how grateful you were for the warmth of the sun. Writing down what you are thankful for reaffirms it. And, you can read your journal when you need a pick-me-up.


Gratitude affirmations. You can meditate on, say aloud or write down gratitude affirmations. Like a daily mantra, you can start with, “Today, I am grateful for …” and then complete it with whatever is meaningful to you.


Self-care. Showing yourself gratitude can be something small like treating yourself to your favorite dessert or big like taking a trip. You can block time to read a book, listen to your favorite music or get a massage. You can also show yourself compassion after a tough day, go to the movies or spend time with friends. Whatever you do to be grateful for your amazing self, do something today!



Appreciation toward others


Many of us express gratitude on birthdays and Thanksgiving Day in the United States. How about on all the other days of the year? Here are simple ways to show how thankful you are to others.


First, a tip before you read on — consider the recipient of your gratitude by putting yourself in their shoes. Have you heard of the five love languages? Each person may receive your gratitude differently depending on how they respond to acts of service, physical touch, quality time, receiving gifts and words of affirmation.


Acts of kindness: There are many ways to be kind and show gratitude to others, whether you know them or not. Acts of kindness can have a rippling effect. Hold the door open for the person behind you; let someone park in the space you are both waiting for; let someone with fewer groceries than you go ahead in line; treat for the car behind you in the drive-thru. If your gratitude recipients pay it forward, imagine how many people will be touched.


You can also show kindness by avoiding assumptions and rudeness. For example, if your online order goes to the wrong address, find a solution such as getting a refund or reordering the item rather than reacting with anger toward the delivery service. There is no need to be rude to customer service. Give them the benefit of the doubt: Maybe the address was incorrect or the driver was new or on a different route than normal.


Physical affection: Physical touch not only shows someone your appreciation but also has emotional and physical benefits. Wrap in a bear hug someone you are close with to show them your gratitude in the moment and after because of the lasting effects of hugs. Studies show hugs trigger your brain to release oxytocin. Researchers have also linked hugs to boosting immunity and lowering blood pressure, inflammation and stress levels.


You can also convey gratitude to someone with a warm handshake or gentle touch on the arm if the recipient welcomes it.



Gift of time: Giving someone your undivided attention is a form of gratitude. Show your appreciation for someone by spending quality time with them, whether over coffee or tea, dinner or simply stopping for a moment to converse with a colleague.


Gift giving: Giving a gift can demonstrate you appreciate someone. Gift giving does not need to be elaborate, expensive or even a physical object to make an impact — surprising someone with their favorite coffee drink, baking them cookies or making them a playlist can make someone’s day. Gift giving can also have a positive effect on the giver. Studies show the feel-good feelings associated with giving gifts start when you think about the recipient, search for or make the gift and carry through after delivering it.


Notes of appreciation: Anxiety, depression and loneliness have drastically increased since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now more than ever is the time to let others know you appreciate and think about them.


A “thank you” or “thinking about you” message can go a long way, whether it is a handwritten note, direct message on social media, text message or phone call. Sometimes it might be difficult to find words but try not to put pressure on yourself. A simple but genuine, “Thank you for being you!” can have a big impact on the recipient. Try it now: Send someone you care about a message to let them know how much they mean to you.


The bottom line: Giving and gratitude affect the brain in similar ways because they complement each other. When you give — whether your time, gifts or money — you are showing gratitude and appreciation for others. Both giving and gratitude can have major mental, physical and social health benefits for the individual and recipient. There are many ways to give and show thankfulness — try some of the above tips today!