The Science of Gratitude
An emerging field is studying the link between positive emotion and physical health
Illustrations by Ryan Bauer-Walsh
The term “heart” is interwoven into our daily language. We use phrases like “follow your heart” and “I love you with all my heart” with no trace of sarcasm. We say the terms “heartsick” and “heartbroken” as if they were medically sound.
But try to spin a “heart” idiom with another organ: “I love you with all my liver.” “I’m gallbladder sick.” It just doesn’t work!
Aristotle thought that the heart was the human being’s most necessary organ because it controls all functions and is central to thought and emotion. Ancient Egyptians regarded the heart as the center of all life. Countless religions often refer to the heart throughout their sacred texts.
What is it about this organ that has caused it to become one of the most referred-to places in our bodies when describing feelings and emotions? Why do we use it when exploring topics of intuition, spirituality, and connectedness?
“When I think about my heart opening in my own body, I experience a feeling that connects me not just to humanity, but to everything. I think of levity,” says Nathaniel Gonzalez, yoga teacher, full-spectrum doula, intuitive energy worker, and Reiki Master of the Usui-Hyashi-Takata lineage.
A common place that many of us may experience this deep sense of connection is in yoga class. It’s also a place where we frequently hear the term “heart.” Yoga teachers will often say “lead with your heart” when folding forward or “lift your heart up to the sky” when bending backward. Why not just use the word “chest?”
A heart-opening yoga class can bring up a lot of palpable emotions. It’s not uncommon to experience tears, deep exhales, or even laughter in response to such postures and sequencing, according to Gonzalez. “As a teacher, when I tap into my heart, I feel like I have the capacity to understand more, to feel more,” says Gonzalez.
For some, this type of language can feel like ooey-gooey, new-age jargon. Before you roll your eyes and agree, consider that there may be some truth behind the power of the heart. Not only has this organ been revered throughout history by ancient civilizations, but it does appear to be the part of our body that’s mentioned frequently when talking about emotions. What does science have to say about it?
“I’m the daughter of a physicist and skeptic. I view the heart in a very literal way,” says Dr. Roxanne Prichard, professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of St. Thomas. “As somebody who studies the nervous system, I’ve been biased [for a long time] to think that the brain is everything. Then I had a professor in graduate school ask me, ‘How would you like to live without a motor system?’ Through the consistent pumping and flow of nutrient-dense, oxygenated blood throughout our bodies, the heart is literally what keeps us and our brains alive.”
Besides the obvious function of pumping blood throughout a network of arteries and veins, the heart also has its very own nervous system. It contains thousands of neurons, the same type of cells found in the brain. And the two organs share a very intimate connection, which scientists are continually learning more about in the emerging field of neurocardiology.
There are more nerve connections between the heart and the brain than any other system in the body—in fact, 90% of these connecting fibers ascend from the heart up to the brain. This means that the heart is sending more signals to the brain than the other way around. These neural pathways are constantly sending signals that interact with the brain’s higher cognitive and emotional centers, which, in turn, have a great influence on our overall health and vitality.
Checking in with our heart is one of the quickest ways to check in with how we are doing—the pattern of our heartbeat can inform us how we are feeling emotionally, says Dr. Prichard.
We imagine that our hearts beat in a more or less steady, consistent rhythm. Surprisingly, our heart rate actually can change from second-to-second, even when we are sleeping. Referred to as Heart Rate Variability, these variations in heart rate are a new factor physiologists and fitness companies are studying to help understand how they impact physiological resilience and behavioral flexibility in humans.
The HeartMath Institute, a nonprofit research and education organization, has published hundreds of peer-reviewed articles and presented at conferences worldwide on the topic of neurocardiology. Research shows that Heart Rate Variability is influenced by several factors—breathing patterns, exercise, even our thoughts. It has been shown that the way we experience our emotions has a powerful and significant effect on our heart’s changing rhythms.
“From a nervous system point of view, you can intentionally breathe or consciously practice a positive emotion to influence your heart rate,” says Dr. Prichard.
When you map the beat-to-beat changes over time, a pattern forms on a graph referred to as Heart Rhythm. Although the science is far too young to say categorically, according to HeartMath Institute, positive emotions can generate a smooth, rhythmic, coherent pattern and negative emotions can result in a sporadic, chaotic, incoherent pattern.
The most influential positive emotion in generating heart coherence? Gratitude.
“Gratitude is about appreciating the elements of any situation,” says Dr. Tom Pastor, a chiropractor who focuses heavily on the influence of emotions on physical conditions in his practice. “Denying negative emotions has become a part of American culture that is not serving us. It’s easy to be grateful for things that directly benefit us. It tends to be more difficult to be grateful for a struggle. If we can learn to develop the ability to be appreciative of the things that challenge us, we will be stronger and more adaptable in the long run,” he explains.
According to the HeartMath Institute, accessing coherent heart rhythms through the conscious generation of gratitude has numerous health benefits, including increased resilience to stress, a higher degree of foresight, improved memory, clearer thinking, more energy, and even greater hormonal balance.
Gratitude, when consciously generated amidst challenging experiences, has the power to literally retrain the brain. “The nervous system is plastic. It can change throughout our entire lives as we learn and unlearn. Practiced gratitude can be a major interrupter to neural pathways that have resulted from negative experiences,” says Dr. Prichard.
The conscious, regular practice of gratitude is free, simple to learn, and incredibly influential on our physiological wellbeing, according to HeartMath Institute. With a little dedication, we can learn to cultivate this powerful emotion in any situation. We can feel gratitude for our loved ones, healthy food, deep sleep, beautiful nature, clean water, and our struggles.
Want to increase your own heart coherence? The HeartMath Institute has created the QuickCoherence© Technique, which contains two surprisingly simple steps.
Step 1: Focus your attention in the area of the heart. Imagine your breath flowing in and out of your heart or chest area. Breathe a little slower and deeper than usual.
Step 2: Make a sincere attempt to experience a regenerative feeling such as appreciation or care for someone or something in your life.
Using these steps, you can activate heart coherence in less than 60 seconds. If you are curious to learn more, the HeartMath Institute has a wide array of resources, tools, and exercises on their website, as well as several courses and videos that are available to the public. If you are curious about further exploring the neuroscience behind the heart-brain connection, I’ve developed a curriculum called Science & Magic that utilizes neuroscience, yoga, and meditation to cultivate more ease and alignment in everyday life.
Over time, if we consciously shift our perspective from negative, fear-based thinking to more positive, constructive thinking, we can retrain the way we react to these emotions. When this happens, we will start to experience appreciation not only as a practice but as a natural way of being in the world.