The Science Of Gratitude: As We Age, Our Brains Get Better At Feeling Thankful


You’re gathered around your Thanksgiving meal, taking turns saying the things you’re thankful for. Your four-year-old nephew gives thanks for the Ninja Turtles suit he’s going to wear on Halloween. Your teenage daughter sighs and goes back to checking her iPhone. Your spouse is thankful everyone was able to show up and the turkey isn’t overcooked. And your grandmother puts everyone to shame by expressing how grateful she is for each and every day.

If your guests’ level of gratitude seems to increase with age, science backs it up. Researchers are beginning to unravel the biological and developmental underpinnings of gratitude, and they’re finding reason to believe it may be easier to feel grateful as we grow older.

Neuroscientists have suggested older people have a sunnier outlook because the limbic system, particularly the amygdala, an area of the brain involved in emotional attention and memory, becomes less active in response to negative information. At the same time, older individuals maintain or even increase their reactivity to positive information.

“Therefore, the trend is toward greater emotional positivity with increasing age,” says leading gratitude expert Robert Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and author of Gratitude Works! A 21-Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity.

A positive outlook, of course, doesn’t automatically make people grateful, but it certainly helps set the stage.

Gratitude is more complex and experienced differently in the brain than mere happiness, explains University of Oregon neuroscientist and research associate Christina Karns. For instance, the happiness you feel when you bite into a delicious cake is a different phenomenon than feeling grateful toward the person who baked it for you.

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While happiness occurs in the brain’s immediate reward systems, gratitude is believed to also involve the cortical structures associated with higher order cognition and social reasoning, Karns says.

“It’s different than those sort of basic emotions, like happy, sad, fear, anger. So there isn’t going to be just one system in the brain that is implicated in gratitude,” she says.

Her work on the neuroscience of gratitude is an uncharted area. Karns can think of only one published paper that uses neuroimaging to examine what happens in the brain when we feel gratitude. Until recently, Karns says, the study of gratitude has been neglected in favour of foundational research on subjects such as memory and attention. Yet understanding how the brain processes gratitude may unlock the secret to living a happier, healthier, more fulfilling life.

Much of what’s known about gratitude comes from psychology. The ability to experience and express gratitude tends to solidify around the ages of 7 to 10, according to psychologist Jeffrey Froh, co-author of the Making Grateful Kids: The Science of Building Character. That’s not to say younger children can’t sense it (Froh recalls a time when his daughter expressed appreciation for the beauty of a sunset at the age of 3), but he explains, gratitude becomes stronger and is expressed more spontaneously as they grow.

It seems some of the building blocks for gratitude are still developing in those early years. Perhaps most crucial is the theory of mind, that is, the ability to take on the perspective of another person. As Froh notes, that begins to develop around the ages of 3 to 5. Theory of mind is important, he says, because in order to feel grateful toward someone, you must to be able to understand that they intentionally went out of their way to do something kind for you.

But when children reach adolescence, heartfelt thank-yous can be harder to come by, as teens naturally want to become more independent, Froh says. “The reality is, though, when you’re grateful, you recognize the sense of dependency that actually exists,” he says. “But in teens, everything is ‘I did this on my own’ and ‘I want to do this on my own.’”

Numerous studies have shown people become progressively happier from their 20s onward, and are, on average, at their most positive in their senior years.

Laura Carstensen, psychology professor and founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity in California, believes increasing positivity with age can be explained by the idea that people’s time horizons grow shorter as they approach their later years. Young adults in their 20s tend to see their futures as limitless, whereas older adults perceive more constraints on time.

This shortened sense of time makes people focus on goals that can be realized in the here and now, which tend to be about emotion, or what feels good, Carstensen says, rather than engaging in activities that may pay off much later.

Plus, she adds, “When people recognize the fragility of life and they don’t have all the time in the world … people see what’s good about life.”

She notes this effect occurs not only in seniors, but in young people with a life-threatening illness and even in those preparing for a geographical move. For example, people often feel more appreciative of their friends and favourite hangouts when faced with the prospect of changing cities.

Of course, another reason it’s easier for older people to count their blessings is simply because they’ve had enough life experience to recognize them. Encountering sad and difficult experiences over a lifetime makes you more sensitive to good ones, says psychology professor Susan K. Whitbourne of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “Because then, you know it’s not just a [given] that life is going to hand you a bunch of happiness and success.”

But let’s face it: Age aside, some people are simply more grateful than others. And Emmons sees the difference as a matter of choice: “Some people choose to look at life through a grateful lens, others through a lens of entitlement.”

The question is why people make that choice. In his view, grateful people recognize the same fundamental concept.

“We all begin life dependent on others, and most of us end life dependent on others. If we are lucky, in between we have roughly 60 years or so of unacknowledged dependency,” he says. “The human condition is such that throughout life, not just at the beginning and end, we are profoundly dependent on other people. And grateful people are aware of this dependency, and it does not freak them out.”

How to become more grateful

Gratitude often requires mental discipline, says psychology professor Robert Emmons of the University of California, Davis. But as neuroscientist Christina Karns explains, it’s possible, with practice, to strengthen connections in the brain to become more grateful.

Document it. Journaling is the easiest and best evidence-based tactic to cultivate gratitude, Emmons says. Think about things you’re grateful for, write them down and share them with others, including via social media.

Choose your words. Grateful people tend to speak differently, says Jeffrey Froh, associate professor of psychology at Hofstra University in New York state. They’re more likely to use words such as “blessed,” “lucky” and “fortunate.” A concept called the Whorfian hypothesis suggests what you say influences how you think and what you do, Froh says, so using a vocabulary of gratefulness may, in time, make you feel more grateful, too.

Model it. Gratitude exercises requiring abstract thought don’t work with young children, as they tend to be very concrete in their thinking. Emmons suggests using visual aids, such as getting them to create pictorial collages of the things they’re thankful for. And don’t overlook the power of being a role model. If you want a grateful kid, Froh says, be grateful yourself.

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