Gratitude Journals Could Make You Think More Altruistically
Writing daily about gratitude might just change your brain for the better. Using MRI scans, researchers in a University of Oregon study found a notable change in the brains of 16 women who wrote about gratitude in an online journal every day for three weeks. In particular, the scans found changes with the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), an area of the brain that has previously been associated with altruistic traits.
To reduce variability in the project, researchers used a specific participant group, which was made up of women ages 18–27. For the first phase of the study, the women viewed two types of transactions: a sum of money being given to a food bank and a sum of money being routed to themselves. Researchers assessed the participants’ altruistic traits through both brain scans and self-reported accounts from a participant questionnaire. Participants whose answers showed more altruistic and grateful traits had a larger reward-related brain response when the charity received money than when they themselves did.
The women were then randomly divided into two groups: One wrote daily journal entries in response to prompts focused on gratitude and the other wrote from neutral, non-gratitude prompts. After three weeks, the participants repeated the initial exercise. While being scanned again, researchers saw notable shifts in the VMPFC.
“The gratitude-journal group, as a whole, whether or not they started high in altruism, increased that value signal toward the charity getting the money over watching themselves get the money,” says Christina Karns, research leader of this project and director of the Emotions and Neuroplasticity Project at the University of Oregon. “It’s as if they became generous toward others than themselves.”
The findings, which were published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, show that the VMPFC is flexible and allows for changes in values linked to feelings of altruism. It’s not clear, though, whether writing about gratitude creates long-lasting changes in a person’s brain or in the mental value they put toward charity.
“Our findings suggest that there’s more good out there when there is gratitude,” says Karns.
For coaching clients who want to become more grateful or selfless, suggest that they begin keeping a gratitude journal. You can even provide gratitude-focused prompts just as researchers did with their participants. Then, follow up to see how your client is feeling and if their outlook has improved.