Scientists at Seattle Children’s Research Institute describe the neuroscience behind gratitude and how kids learn it.

What happens in our brains and bodies when we feel gratitude? We get a fuzzy feeling when we give thanks or receive it because we did something nice. But why does gratitude feel good? And how can families teach kids to express this sentiment?

Dr. Susan Ferguson, a neuroscientist at the Center for Integrative Brain Research at Seattle Children’s Research Institute, says the feeling of gratitude activates several parts of the brain. The ventral tegmental area is a part of the brain associated with reward and motivation. The hypothalamus is associated with basic tasks such as eating, sleeping, hormone secretion and stress. The septum is associated with bonding. When we feel and express thanks, these parts of the brain light up.

“Research shows that gratitude is linked with feelings of reward, improved sleep and decreased depression and anxiety,” Ferguson said. “There are measurable benefits to mental health and interpersonal relationships when humans feel gratitude.”

She says that these older parts of the brain are important to basic human survival—for taking care of young, for example. When we experience gratitude, the brain releases hormones linked with social behavior.

Dr. Susan Ferguson says when humans feel gratitude, the brain produces oxytocin, a hormone important to bonding.

Dr. Susan Ferguson says when humans feel gratitude, the brain produces oxytocin, a hormone important to bonding.

“When we feel gratitude, the brain produces oxytocin, a hormone important to bonding,” Ferguson said. “It’s the same hormone that mothers release after birth and is found in breast milk. That feeling of thankfulness helps humans stay close to each other.”

Ferguson also points to research that shows more advanced parts of the brain are associated with gratitude. In a study from the University of Southern California, study participants were asked to imagine how they would feel if they were in a tragic situation from which someone else saved them by providing food, shelter or clothing.

“Those researchers found that when we verbalize thoughts of gratitude or hear stories of people helping each other, the prefrontal cortex is activated,” Ferguson said. “That’s an area of the brain important for positive emotions, moral cognition and decision-making.”

Teaching Gratitude to Children

Dr. Megan Moreno, a pediatrician and researcher at the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development, says children often learn to express gratitude at major events, like receiving gifts at birthdays. She thinks families can do more to focus on the small moments when a ‘thank you’ is called for.

“If your spouse sets the table while you cook, that’s a good time to say ‘thank you’ and model the behavior for your child,” Moreno said. “Do the same thing when you’re out. Make sure your child sees you thank the person who rings you up at the grocery store. Children will learn the behavior and feel comfortable expressing thanks in that day-to-day environment.”

Moreno also says kids are never too young or too old to learn thanks, from toddlers to teenagers. For really young children, she’s observed that gratitude might not come naturally. But parents should keep modeling the behavior and the child will pick it up.

How about your moody teenager? She says that even though some teens can feel awkward or distant about expressing sentiments, parents should know that teens are absorbing emotional cues.

“Even when they seem emotionally distant, teens observe their parents as role models,” she said. “If you express gratitude to your teenager and hear little in return, know that your thankfulness does register in your teen’s mind.”

While face-to-face expressions of gratitude are important, written words can impart the same sentiment. She suggests that notes, letters, and even text messages are meaningful ways to say ‘thanks’ and teach a child gratitude.

From little kids to adults, she says, gratitude holds a high position in how we relate to each other.

“Many of my colleagues hang thank you notes from patients next to their diplomas,” Moreno said. “It shows how deep those feelings of gratitude can go and how special they can be to someone.”

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