October 30, 2023 • Article, Third Third, Third Third Journal
That’s right, thanksgiving can strengthen your brain. No, I’m not referring to the U.S. holiday on the fourth Thursday of November, though research shows getting together with loved ones can be good for your brain, especially if your Thanksgiving celebration is intergenerational. Rather, I am talking about the actions, attitudes, and emotions of thanksgiving. Feeling and expressing gratitude can be good for your brain. In particular, gratitude can be beneficial for folks in the third third of life.
Lots of academic research shows that gratitude is good for us. Dr. Robert Emmons, one of the world’s experts on gratitude, shows in “Why Gratitude is Good,” that people who practice gratitude experience the following benefits: stronger immune systems, lower blood pressure, better sleep, more joy and pleasure, more compassion, and less loneliness. Several studies focus on the benefits of gratitude for older adults. These include less loneliness, enhanced well-being, less anxiety and depression, less fear of frailty, and less anxiety about death. However relatively little research has been done on the relationship between gratitude and brain health in older adults.
Recently, however, a group of scientists in Japan explored this relationship. Noting the recognized benefits of gratitude for health, they wondered if gratitude might be related to cognitive function. So they designed a research study using standard tests of cognitive ability and brain scans (MRIs) to measure the relationship between gratitude and cognitive function among older adults.
They found that “higher levels of gratitude were associated with better cognitive function.” Grateful older adults did better on cognitive tests than those who were not grateful. Second, they also found that “the associations with better cognitive function were mediated by larger amygdala volumes.” The part of the brain that is essential to various emotions and motivations was, on average, larger among grateful older adults than among non-grateful ones. So, based on psychological testing and brain imaging, the researchers concluded: “Gratitude may be important for maintaining cognitive function.”
Implications for Third Third Flourishing
What does this mean for those of us in the third third of life? It means that gratitude is good for us, perhaps in ways we have never imagined. We know that Scripture teaches us to give thanks (for example, 1 Thess 5:18). We also know that gratitude can lighten our hearts and give us joy. We may even be aware of research that connects gratitude with healthy and happy living. But now we have reason to believe that gratitude may very well strengthen our brains, and that matters a great deal to those of us in the third third of life.
As we get older, we want to maintain excellent cognitive function. Yet, we’re aware of how our brains are changing. Moreover, we likely know people with cognitive impairment of some kind. Many older adults fear dementia more than any other health problem. According to the AARP, 48% of adults believe that they will likely have dementia—a percentage far greater than the 13.9% of people 71 and older who actually have it.
Along with the fear of dementia, many people believe there is nothing they can do to help their brains be healthier and stronger. Now, to be sure, our genes make a big difference when it comes to brain health. But, according to the CDC in the U.S., “up to 40% of dementia cases may be prevented or delayed.” The CDC suggests seven things we can do to maintain our brain health: quit smoking, maintain healthy blood pressure, be physically active, maintain healthy weight, get enough sleep, stay engaged, and manage blood sugar.
To this list we can now add something else: be grateful. That’s what the recent research from Japan reveals. Now, this study does not seek to explain how gratitude might contribute to higher cognitive functioning. A recent article in Forbes offers some relevant hints, however. Here are five research-based mental health benefits of gratitude:
- Gratitude can help regulate your emotions.
- Gratitude can elevate your mindset.
- Gratitude can help you feel more connected to others.
- Gratitude can motivate you toward better outcomes.
- Gratitude can help protect you from the effects of stress.
A study published in Research on Aging in 2021 examined the impact, not just of gratitude in general, but of gratitude toward God in particular. The researchers explained that gratitude toward God can help older adults deal in a healthy way with the major stressors often encountered in the third third of life, such as the death of a loved one or personal illness. And since stress may play a role in the development of dementia, we can see one possible way that gratitude contributes to mental health as we age.
Building Your Gratitude Muscles
I began this article with the bold claim: Thanksgiving can strengthen your brain. Now you can see that I’m not just making this up. Research shows that gratitude can indeed contribute to cognitive health. This gives us one more reason to build practices of gratitude into our lives, not just on Thanksgiving Day, but throughout the year.
Nevertheless, I have found it helpful to work on building my gratitude muscles. This doesn’t require strenuous exertion, by the way. Psychological research has consistently shown that even a weekly “count your blessings” exercise makes a noticeable difference in our well-being. So does pausing each evening to be grateful for the gifts of the day.
So, let me encourage you to feel and express gratitude, and not just on Thanksgiving Day. Give thanks to God and others on a regular basis. It will be great for your faith, your relationships, and even your brain health.
Banner image by Miguel Bautista on Unsplash.
Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders, and the founder of the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative. Previously, Mark was the Executive Director of the De Pree Center, the lead pastor of a church in Southern California, and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. He has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,500 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership. With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.