The approaching Christmas season or, as my younger daughter persists in calling it “The Most Wonderful Time of The Year” invariably hooks me back to my childhood. My mother, having lived through a world war, felt that Christmases should not be taken for granted. She never tired of telling us (my sister, brother and myself) that rationing was severe during the Second World War and that we were able to enjoy Christmas now solely because Hitler had been defeated. To this day, I have been unable to fathom the exact relationship between the successes of the Africa Corps and portion sizes for plum pudding at Christmas.

There were certain grown-up phrases which came repeatedly to mind. One of her favourites was “Christmas is about giving not receiving”. That cracked me up every time. Sometimes I would even laugh openly when she said it, so absurd was the notion. After all, every Christmas for as long as I can remember I had received gifts aplenty. Train sets, tricycle, battalions of toy soldiers, a diecast model Luger and so on. And each year I prepared a long list of things I wanted for Christmas. I say “wanted” but what I really meant, of course, was “expected”. In one sense, my mother was right – Christmas was indeed about giving. Specifically my parents giving. To me.

Now before you say anything, or whisper words like “brat” and “spoilt”, let me reassure you that, over the subsequent half-century, I have reached different conclusions about the comparative merits of giving and receiving. And I can say with my hand on my heart that, this Christmas I am not expecting a train set, tricycle, toy soldiers or any  a sort of handgun, German or otherwise.

But then there was also my mother’s other favorite “the best things come in small packages”. As with the spiel about giving and receiving, this too was comically absurd. How exactly was the box my sister received, little larger than the Sindy doll it contained, meant to match up to my Action Man Armoured Personnel Carrier, which featured engine sounds and a functional turret gun and came in a box the size of a tea chest? So large a box in fact that my mother gave up wrapping it halfway, muttering about being unappreciated. She was. Just like other mothers. Why is it that we only learn to appreciate them once their work on earth is done?

I was seven then. I’m 62 now. And I acknowledge that these may have seemed greedy, and my expectations those of a spoilt child.

You would be correct of course. I was spoilt rotten. And in fairness, nothing much had happened in my life to dispel this rampant sense of privilege. Little Lord Fauntleroy I wasn’t. But I did still expect to be showered with gifts at Christmas. And, if I’m honest, I think my parents gained some vicarious pleasure from giving their children things they never had.

Gratitude is not a simple construct. Young children often have little sense of gratitude – their emotions being essentially “happy” or “sad”, the basics. They have no concept of “thankful”. That takes time. But there are good reasons – and I mean neuroscientific reasons – why gratitude is meaningful and important.

Gratitude, and the expression of gratitude, have some quite neuronally specific effects. We may feel that gratitude gives us a warm feeling all over but that’s not the case in the brain. Functional MRI studies show that the expression of gratitude causes particular activation of the medial prefrontal cortex [Kini et al, 2016]. Individual differences in the expression of gratitude also revealed differences in the fMRI scanner. Liu et al (2018) found some changes in the right middle occipital gyrus extending to posterior superior temporal sulcus and temporoparietal junction.

This probably means precious little to the man in the street – if I’m honest it doesn’t mean a whole lot even to me – but the point is that there are specific neuroanatomical differences between people who express little or much gratitude. And there are long-lasting neurochemical changes incurred by the expression of gratitude. And if that were not enough on its own, there is even some evidence that expression of gratitude makes heart rate lower and more stable. Gratitude, and the acquisition of gratitude, therefore probably has long-term benefits on health.

Gratitude is not a simple emotion and requires the activation of several brain areas in concert. We are just at the beginning of discovering how gratitude may have general health benefits but if you can say nothing else, one thing is clear. We should count our blessings.

Kini P, Wong J, McInnis S, Gabana N, Brown JW. The effects of gratitude expression on neural activity. Neuroimage. 2016 Mar;128:1-10. Liu G, Zeng G, Wang F, Rotshtein P, Peng K, Sui J. Praising others differently: neuroanatomical correlates to individual differences in trait gratitude and elevation. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2018 Dec 4;13(12):1225-1234.

Learning to count my blessings