Gratitude is the fairest blossom which springs from the soul.– Henry Ward Beecher
Gratitude is as a positive emotion resulting from the positive recognition of benefits received from another person. Beyond its role as a significant value in life, gratitude as a discrete positive emotion has intrigued many scholars due to its complexity and uniqueness compared to other discrete positive emotions. For instance, unlike other positive emotions, gratitude is categorized by a lack of nonverbal cues; such as the absence of expressive visual display and nonverbal vocal expressions.
Furthermore, the experience of gratitude is inherently relational; it extends beyond the individual experiencing it; Importantly, gratitude is benefits for physical health, emotional well-being, and social outcomes. Gratitude influences cognitive flexibility; which is the ability to shift attention among relevant ideas.
Gratitude enhances cognitive flexibility through the following mechanisms;
The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions
Gratitude as a positive emotion can broaden the scopes of attention and cognition; by expanding an individual’s focus to process a wide range of information. In turn, this enhances a range of probable thoughts and actions beyond what the individual was initially capable of; it also increases access to novel ideas.
On a neurological level, this broadening effect may be associated with the release of mesolimbic dopamine into brain regions in the prefrontal cortex; a brain area related to cognitive flexibility. Therefore, cognitive flexibility is likely to be implicated and enhanced when one experiences a state of gratitude.
Secondly, gratitude may enhance cognitive flexibility via its adaptive function as a motivator of self-improvement. Gratitude is an active emotion that motivates and energizes individuals to exercise effort in executing a range of positive self-improvement behaviours. Studies have demonstrated that the state of gratitude may facilitate positive effortful behaviour, such as engaging in healthy eating behaviours and physical exercise.
Such self-improvement behaviours require individuals to utilize critical executive functions, such as inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. These core executive functions enable individuals to inhibit undesirable behaviours and update their working memory with goal-relevant behaviours, while adjusting and changing their behaviours in a meaningful manner, respectively.
Activation of brain areas related to cognitive flexibility
Neuroimaging evidence points to the activation of brain areas related to cognitive flexibility when one experiences gratitude. These studies have linked gratitude to the activation of brain areas that implicate higher-order cognitive functions, including cognitive flexibility.
Using the “pay it forward” paradigm to manipulate gratitude, Kini and colleagues found that participants in the gratitude condition displayed significantly greater neural modulation in the medial prefrontal cortex. Given that the medial prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex have been consistently reported to be involved in cognitive flexibility.
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