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Published on 1/9/2020 additional information available

The neuroscience of gratitude and giving

# Friends
# giving
# our brains
# neuroscience
# studies

At a Friends giving dinner this weekend, in between the turkey and sweet potato pie, my friends and I asked ourselves: What are we grateful for?


After we listed off a bunch of things, I asked myself another question: Through practicing gratitude as we’d just done, were we making ourselves more altruistic?


I was thinking about the work of Christina Karns, a neuroscientist at the University of Oregon who’s published fascinating research showing that when we’re grateful, our brains become more charitable. (What, you don’t think about neuroscience studies at your dinner parties? Weird!)


Karns wondered what happens in the brain when you receive a gift versus when you give one — and whether the neural response differs depending on your character. So she placed study participants in a brain scanner and had them watch as a computer moved real money into their own account or gave it to a food bank instead.


She described what she learned:

"It turns out that the neural connection between gratitude and giving is very deep, both literally and figuratively. A region deep in the frontal lobe of the brain, called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, is key to supporting both. Anatomically, this region is wired up to be a hub for processing the value of risk and reward; it’s richly connected to even deeper brain regions that provide a kick of pleasurable neurochemicals in the right circumstances.


The participants I’d identified as more grateful and more altruistic via a questionnaire [showed] a stronger response in these reward regions of the brain when they saw the charity gaining money. It felt good for them to see the food bank do well."

Next, Karns wanted to know whether, by changing how much gratitude people felt, she could change the way the brain reacts to giving and getting. So she split participants into two groups. Over three weeks, one group journaled about the things they were grateful for, while the other group journaled about other (non-gratitude-specific) happenings in their lives.


The result? The people in the gratitude-journaling contingent reported experiencing more thankfulness. And the reward regions of their brain started responding more to charitable giving than to gaining money for themselves.


As Karns writes: "Practicing gratitude shifted the value of giving in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. It changed the exchange rate in the brain. Giving to charity became more valuable than receiving money yourself. After the brain calculates the exchange rate, you get paid in the neural currency of reward, the delivery of neurotransmitters that signal pleasure and goal attainment."


I think these findings are pretty amazing. For those of us who don’t always find resonant the old adage that “giving is better than receiving” (I don’t know about you, but, um, I really like getting gifts!), Karns’s research offers a useful amendment: Giving really can be better — if you make it so. You can proactively choose to retrain your brain so it gets more pleasure out of giving.

It also occurs to me that there’s a potentially powerful, pragmatic takeaway here: If increasing people’s gratitude is an effective way to increase their charitableness (and there are other studies in support of this notion), then maybe it’s worth nudging people to cultivate more gratitude?

For now, we’ve got at least one such nudge built into our calendar: Thanksgiving. If Karns is right about the power of gratitude, this holiday may actually create the perfect conditions for us to be more charitable a few days later on Giving Tuesday.

Personally, though, I find her research compelling enough that I think cultivating gratitude merits more than a day of practice per year. So I’ve decided to run her experiment on myself (minus the MRI): For the next three weeks, I’m going to keep a gratitude journal.

I don’t think it’ll magically turn me into Mother Teresa, but maybe it’ll make me slightly more prone to acting charitably — and enjoying it. visit us on

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