Updated: Apr 15
There are many benefits to being grateful. Gratitude is good for your psychological well-being, your relationships, and possibly even your physical health. But the truth is that some people have more grateful dispositions than others. Research suggests that these differences may be rooted in our brains, genes, and even our personalities. But if you’re having trouble feeling grateful, don’t despair! Gratitude isn’t purely hard-wired, and there are things you can do to bring more gratitude into your life.
Genetics may help explain why some people find it easier to feel and express gratitude than others.
Perhaps the strongest evidence supporting this genetic basis for gratitude comes from a study of twins, identical twins—who essentially have the same DNA—had more similar self-reported levels of gratitude than did fraternal twins—who share only 50 percent of their DNA—suggesting that there may be a genetic component to gratitude. Other studies have explored what specific genes may underlie a person’s grateful disposition. One promising candidate is a gene, CD38, involved in the secretion of the neuropeptide oxytocin. Research found that differences in this gene were significantly associated with the quality and frequency of expressions of gratitude toward a romantic partner in both the lab and in regular daily life. Another gene that appears to influence gratitude is a gene called “COMT,” which is involved in the recycling of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain. A recent study found that people with one version of this gene reported experiencing more gratitude, while people with another version reported feeling less grateful. This result was consistent with the results of an earlier study that found that the brains of people with the “less grateful” version of the gene showed a greater “negativity bias”—they responded more to fearful faces as compared to neutral faces, and less to happy faces. Emotions are complicated things! These results do suggest, however, that genes may contribute to a person’s tendency to be more or less prone to seeing the world through grateful eyes.
Your grateful brain.
Research suggests there may be differences in brain structure and activity between more and less grateful people. So, for example, some parts of the brain might be anatomically different in more grateful people. One study found that people who are more prone to gratitude have more grey matter in their right inferior temporal cortex, an area previously linked to interpreting other people’s intentions. Brains of more and less grateful people also show activity differences. In a 2015 functional magnetic resonance imaging study, participants were asked to imagine they were Holocaust survivors who had received shelter or food from strangers. The participants who imagined that they would feel more grateful in these scenarios had more activity in brain regions associated with moral cognition, perspective taking, and reward. In another study people who expressed more gratitude in a lab setting—as measured by their willingness to give to charity more of the money that they had received from doing an experiment—had more active areas of the brain associated with making mental calculations. Another study found that more grateful people had more activity in brain areas associated with feelings of reward when they were told that a charity would receive money. Together, these studies suggest that differences in structure and activity across various brain regions may relate to differences in gratitude across individuals but consistently making an effort to be grateful can physically change our brains over the long run.
Our genes and our brains aren’t the end of the story; certain personality factors can also act as barriers to gratitude. In particular, envy, materialism, narcissism, and cynicism can be thought of as “thieves of thankfulness.” Envy and materialism both involve dwelling on what we do not have, so it should come as no surprise that these emotions may be antithetical to gratitude. Indeed, it may be difficult or even impossible for people to be both grateful and envious or materialistic at the same time. Narcissism appears to be another potent inhibitor of gratitude. More narcissistic people reported feeling less grateful towards their partners than did less narcissistic people.
How to build the gratitude muscle
While there is evidence that gratitude activities may work better for some people than others, research suggests that there are exercises you can do—like gratitude journaling or gratitude letters—that will build your gratitude muscle. Excitingly, there’s even some evidence from neuroscience that suggests how practicing gratitude can change your brain. Practicing gratitude may increase brain activity related to predicting how our actions affect other people. Practicing gratitude changes the brain in a way that orients people to feel more rewarded when other people benefit, and this change could help explain why gratitude encourages generosity toward others.
Gratitude might feel harder, or maybe just less natural, for some of us. The good news is that research suggests we may be able to actually train ourselves to become more grateful—and that’s something we can all be grateful for.