Medical scientists, too, believe they are able to trace the beneficial effects of gratitude in humans. Thankfulness may work in the same manner spiritual and religious ideas do, speculates Andrew Newberg, director of research at the Myrna Brind Center for Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and Medical College in Philadelphia. While scientists have yet to conduct specific brain studies on the physiological effects of thankfulness, they have found that intense focus on positive things, such as the favor of a friend, causes the positive thinking – or positive neural pathways, as medical science terms it – to engage. You not only appreciate the favor and the friend, but you strengthen the process itself, making it easier to see experiences in a positive way in the future, says Dr. Newberg.
Conversely, if you dwell on the negative – say the friend's forgetting of your birthday – the opposite happens: Stress can be triggered, and it becomes easier to process things negatively in the future. Thus, suggests Newberg, "even though it might feel forced, if you focus on gratitude over time, it does change the way your brain works."
Robert Emmons, a University of California, Davis, professor of psychology whose research and writing on the topic have made him something of a gratitude guru, says that people motivated to change their levels of happiness, or to lift a mild depression, can do so through a gratitude "intervention." This might entail keeping a gratitude journal, for instance, or spending 15 minutes a week remembering past kindnesses and, in response, writing a letter of thanks to a person who did the kindness. "The ones who gain the greatest benefits [are those who] try hard to carry it out over time," Professor Emmons wrote in an e-mail interview with the Monitor.