Mental Health Blog

How Gratitude Influences Our "Happy" Neurochemicals

Posted by Patty Shirley on

During this season of Thanksgiving, it is often a time to reflect upon all that we have to be thankful for.  Despite the many challenges that many of us have faced in 2017, reflecting upon the areas of our life that have been fruitful, positive and fulfilling can help us to get through the more challenging times.

Our vastly incredible brains have the ability to make specific types of neurochemicals that can actually help us to feel happier.  Certain activities can help to promote the release of our happy neurochemicals, Dopamine, Serotonin, Endorphins and Oxytocin.  A key to releasing these happy neurochemicals is in expressing gratitude.  Expressing gratitude, and thus releasing happy neurochemicals also influences our other behaviors, increasing our enthusiasm, motivation, productivity and optimism, as well as increasing our desire and ability to exercise with more energy, achieving a more restful sleep, reducing anxiety and depression and increasing our overall health.

Dopamine, often referred to as our “reward” neurotransmitter, seeks pleasurable activities.  In the same way that the antidepressant Wellbutrin boosts our Dopamine neurotransmitter, so does expressing gratitude.  Starting to express gratitude on a regular basis can become habit forming, with our brains desiring more reward, thus engaging in a cycle of desiring to seek out more things to be grateful for.  But starting this new habit of expressing gratitude takes practice!

Serotonin, another of our happy neurotransmitters, can also be boosted by expressing gratitude.  Similar to Prozac, a highly prescribed antidepressant and SSRI, which boosts the Serotonin neurotransmitter, our brains can release Serotonin automatically and completely naturally with a simple expression of gratitude.

Oxytocin has been referred to as our Love Hormone.  Expressing our gratitude for others through loving gestures not only encourages the release of our own Oxytocin but also encourages the release of Oxytocin in those receiving our gesture of love.  Giving a gift as an expression of gratitude, sending a grateful email or note, sharing a cuddle or hug with a loved one to show them our gratitude, can encourage the release of Oxytocin, while increasing intimacy, trust, reducing cardiovascular stress and improving our immune systems.

Endorphins, released by our brains to act as a pain reliever, analgesic, stress reducer, and sedative, are similar to opiates like morphine and codeine.  Endorphins can lessen our anxiety and depression as the neurochemical diminishes our perception of pain.  Since our brain manufactures Endorphins, addiction or dependence isn’t a factor, like the pharmaceutical versions.  One of the best ways to release Endorphins is to laugh.  Reflecting on the accomplishments of this past year, whether we greatly succeeded in a victory or pushed through a challenging time, is a great way of expressing gratitude.  Recognizing that some of our most cherished predicaments this last year can be funny and experiencing the laughter of gratitude, can be a great way to release Endorphins.

Something as simple as keeping a Gratitude Journal, even if just once a week we note the things in our lives that we are grateful for, can impact us in a positive way.  Remembering that expressing gratitude can help to increase the release of our happy neurochemicals, giving us a new dose of happiness and uplifted spirits.  The expression of gratitude also influences those around us, giving others something to be grateful for, as well.  Expressing your gratefulness for those special people in your lives, can help to lead to a gratitude-filled Thanksgiving!


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