Journaling has always been a favorite pastime of mine. When I was a kid, I wrote in this rainbow paneled notebook every single night before bed—sure to jot down every little detail of my day. And a few years later, in the heart of my teenage years, I picked up the old habit again; only this time, it was a smaller, plainer journal that held my deepest secrets and desires. Flash forward another five years, and I’m a dedicated journalist once more (in more ways than one). I fell off for a few years in college, but now I keep multiple journals, which all serve a different purpose: one is for any and all thoughts; another is specifically for recording heart-rending song lyrics or quotes; and the third is explicitly for expressing my gratitude.
The latter quickly became my favorite journal. I’d read heaps of research about the benefits of journaling and the benefits of acknowledging one’s benefits, so I decided to combine the two and create a gratitude journal. In it, most nights, I make a list of everything I’m thankful for—sometimes they’re quick little notes, and at others they’re more in-depth acknowledgements. In either case, I always set my book down feeling less-stressed and overall better about myself: two of the research-backed effects of gratitude. And if that wasn’t enough to sustain my writing sessions, a new study “The Cultivation of Pure Altruism via Gratitude: A Functional MRI Study of Change with Gratitude Practice” reveals yet another benefit of journaling about gratitude: an increase in altruism or selflessness.
To reach these findings, researchers from the University of Oregon conducted a few experiments, which involved evaluating study subjects through questionnaires and brain scanning. In the first experiment, the participants went through an MRI while viewing different transactions: in one, money was transferred directly to them, and in another, money was donated to a local food bank. After this first session, the researchers observed that, “people who reported more altruistic and grateful traits (in questionnaires administered beforehand) showed a reward-related brain response when the charity received money that was larger than when they received the money themselves,” as explained by Christina M. Karns, director of the UO’s Emotions and Neuroplasticity Project in the Department of Psychology.
Then, the journaling came into play—the same participants were split into two different groups and then given specific writing prompts: one group was to journal online as guided by gratitude prompts, and the other was to journal online as guided by neutral prompts. After doing so for three weeks daily, the participants returned for another MRI scan, fit with the questionnaires and the transaction display. This time, the researchers observed an activity shift in the prefrontal cortex in those who belonged to the gratitude-journaling group. “This group, as a whole, increased that value signal toward the charity getting the money over watching themselves get the money as if they were more generous toward others than themselves,” Karns said.
Previous research has explored and shown the benefits of practicing gratitude, but this is the first designed specifically to explore the ripple effects of gratitude. Karns attributes the study’s success to the questionnaires, which she said discreetly explored the subjects’ feelings about altruism. She also went on to explain that the results suggest that the brain is flexible when it comes to processing or feeling a reward, and “that there’s more good out there when there is gratitude.”
Journaling is a therapeutic activity for me—especially when I write about my gratitude. It never fails to put my life into perspective, to ease my stress and worries, and to breathe some positivity into my entire being. I’ve observed these effects time and time again… but according to this study, there’s likely another benefit I didn’t even know to measure or pay mind to: and that’s an increase in altruism.
University of Oregon (2017, December 14). Journaling Inspires Altruism Through an Attitude of Gratitude. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved December 14, 2017 from http://neurosciencenews.com/altruism-journal-gratitude-8189/
Karns, C. M., Moore, W. E., & Mayr, U. (2017, December 12). The Cultivation of Pure Altruism via Gratitude: A Functional MRI Study of Change with Gratitude Practice. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. Retrieved on December 14, 2017 from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnhum.2017.00599/full