Several studies are showing that empathy and gratitude have been linked to the same brain region, namely the medial prefrontal cortex. Not only does expressing these emotions connect us as social creatures, but it seems to actually contribute to our overall mental health as well.
“Always count your blessings.” We hear this age-old adage often from parents or wise superiors who remind us to be grateful for the things in our lives. Even when times are tough, it is common for people to tell each other to “remember to be thankful for the things they do have.” Gratitude is powerful; this feeling of thankfulness can elicit more positive emotions such as happiness, security, and pride. We feel supported and cared for when someone thinks of us, and this makes us feel good!
Another important emotion we experience as humans is that of empathy, or the “ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” We need empathy to have successful personal relationships and perform well in the workplace. Expressing empathy allows others to know that we understand them. But just like gratitude, the feeling of empathy for another also impacts how we feel as well. To feel as if we are connecting with another, understanding their plight in some way, solidifies our bonds as social creatures. When we display empathy for another, we leave the interaction feeling better ourselves. To sum it up, gratitude and empathy are critical to our healthy functioning as humans and they make us feel good too.
Recent studies have shown that empathy and gratitude have been linked to the same brain region, specifically the medial prefrontal cortex (or the MPFC). The prefrontal cortex is the region of the brain that, broadly speaking, helps us with executive functioning. Executive functioning means anything from planning and carrying out a task, using language effectively, and maintaining attention. If we really simplify the parts of the prefrontal cortex, we can more specifically look at the lateral portion and the medial portion—the medial portion being more towards the middle, inner surface of the brain. The medial prefrontal cortex has been found to be the seat of where empathy and gratitude both seem to manifest in the brain. Moreover, the MPFC has linkages to our emotional brain (known as the limbic system). Putting this all into simpler terms: 1) empathy and gratitude seem to be tied to the same brain region and 2) this area is intimately tied to our emotional brain. Therefore, it’s no surprise that we “remember how it feels” when we receive a great gift or really connect with a friend who is going through a tough time—it’s how we are wired.
Lastly, a 2020 study in Aging and Mental Health showed that people who attempted to engage others in a more empathic way were less likely to be lonely. Loneliness has been implicated in a host of physical and emotional ailments later in life (chronic disease, depression, etc). More research needs to be done on the neurobiological mechanisms for these complex emotions. But what we can take away is that practicing gratitude and empathy regularly may contribute to our long-term brain health.