The urge to get away from the world for a while – to get closer to nature, and take some time for introspection – is nothing new. People figured out a long time ago that going on a retreat can bring peace and perspective to a busy mind.

These days, we tend to look at things through a scientific lens. This is incredibly useful, but it can also be good for a chuckle. Consider the recent “dopamine fasting” trend in Silicon Valley. As we know, dopamine is a brain chemical that produces feelings of pleasure and happiness. It motivates us, and makes us want to learn new things. When we pull out the phone every two minutes and look for a notification – any notification – it’s dopamine we’re after.

“Dopamine fasting” means avoiding screens and other forms of mental stimulation for a period of days or weeks in order to rebalance the dopamine receptors in the brain – but of course, this is just a clever repackaging of the same old instinct to slow down, sit with ourselves, and think about what really matters.

Enter gratitude

Gratitude is another kind of inner power that people have known about forever. There are countless ancient proverbs that speak to its power in daily life.

  • “When you realise that nothing is lacking, the world belongs to you.” –Lao Tzu
  • “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.” –Marcus Tullius Cicero
  • “Wear gratitude like a cloak, and it will feed every corner of your life.” –Rumi
  • “If the only prayer you said in your whole life was ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.” –Meister Eckhart

The list could go on forever. The question is, why did so many people throughout history write and say things about the power of gratitude? They may not have known that the earth revolves around the sun, but they did know the power of gratitude. They knew from their own experience that it made them feel happier, more grounded, and more connected to the people around them.

Science catches up

As with dopamine, scientists are beginning to draw a clearer picture of gratitude and how it impacts our lives. We know, for example, that a shift toward positive thinking causes the brain to release feel-good chemicals (dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, norepinephrine). We also know that people who feel more gratitude tend to feel mentally and physically stronger.

In fact, an extensive study led by the University of Manchester linked higher levels of gratitude to a wide array of wellness indicators – including everything from sleep to energy levels to overall life satisfaction.

So what is gratitude, according to the people in the white coats? The aforementioned study describes it as an “interpersonal emotion…caused by receiving help that is appraised as costly to provide, valuable, and altruistically offered (rather than provided through ulterior motives).” It goes on to suggest in great detail how “gratitude is related to a variety of clinically relevant phenomena, including…positive social relationships, and physical health.”

A simpler definition from another study is that gratitude is simply “recognising that one has obtained a positive outcome” and “recognising that there is an external source for this positive outcome.”

If we take these academic formulations at face value, gratitude appears when something is given and received with honest intentions and a positive result. Our body chemistry literally changes when this happens. Pro-social behaviour is reinforced. Stress and anxiety are reduced. A whole cascade of positive effects takes place between the giver and receiver.

A new take on an old truth

It’s nice to know there are brain chemicals involved – that the power of gratitude has a hard-scientific basis. At the end of the day, though, gratitude is an emotion, a feeling – something that’s hard to capture and put in a bottle. It’s what we feel when someone encourages us in a small way, or does something bigger to help us through a rough spot.

Gratitude is the recognition that help was given to us because we’re intrinsically valued by the people around us, not because something was expected in return. When this happens, everybody wins – and we’ve always known it.