Remembering to Remember: Are You Grateful for Memory?

04/02/2015 11:39 am ET | Updated Jun 02, 2015
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From time to time I hear from individuals who have become aware of my research on the benefits of practicing gratitude and are now inspired to live more grateful lives and help others do the same.

Rhonda Blevins, a pastor from Loudon, Tennessee, is conducting dissertation research in a group of older adults in her community. She told me of a senior adult man who was not participating in the study approaching her and saying something to the effect of "Thank you for this project. My wife is participating in it. She has recently been diagnosed with early stages of Alzheimer's. She's been very angry. I have seen a remarkable shift in her emotional state since she started the gratitude journaling.

I have heard similar stories of other gratitude-driven transformations taking place in memory-care communities. Research examining how the practice of gratitude can impact Alzheimer's and cognitively impaired dementia patients as well as their caretakers is just beginning, but the potential for quality of life improvement is great.

One study of caregivers found that those who kept gratitude journals experienced an increase in overall well-being and a reduction in stress and depression levels from the beginning to the end of the study [1]. Gratefulness on a daily basis was related to higher levels of optimism and self-esteem in the caregivers and to fewer physical health complaints as they focused on small victories like their spouse remembering their name or getting the day and month correct when asked.

Another recent study found that older adults who tackled a daily crossword puzzle improved in their "phonemic verbal fluency" over time, meaning that they were able to generate more words starting with a specific letter within a given period of time [2]. This aspect of mental functioning falls off rapidly with increasing age, and is highly impaired in Alzheimer's disease. The cognitive stimulation that's produced by challenging oneself through crosswords can decelerate the effects of neurodegeneration that occurs with increasing age. But there's more to the story. A counterintuitive finding from the study was that the control group also improved in the verbal fluency over time. What was the control condition? Keeping a gratitude diary!

Sociologist Georg Simmel referred to gratitude as, "the moral memory of mankind.. if every grateful action.. were suddenly eliminated, society (at least as we know it) would break apart."

Similarly, a French proverb states that gratitude is the memory of the heart -- it is the way that the heart remembers. Gratitude is the adhesive that binds members of society together, the threads that stitch us together. This is why gratitude is the greatest of the virtues. One just needs to try to imagine human relationships existing without gratitude. They would unravel. We'd be talking contract law, not natural law. Gratitude, not cotton, is the fabric of our lives.

The memory of the heart includes the memory of those we are dependent on just as the forgetfulness of dependence is unwillingness or inability to remember the benefits provided by others. We should have a long memory when a gift is received, and a short memory when we give one. "Blessed are those who can give without remembering and take without forgetting," wrote British poet Elizabeth Bibesco [3].

Gratitude may be the memory of the heart but generosity is the forgetfulness of the giver. Gratitude is the link between receiving and giving, an invisible binding power that connects our fragmented and fragile world.

I'm incredibly grateful for my memory. Memory is a gift, one that is easy to take for granted. We need conscious reminders because paradoxically our memories make us who we are, but at the same time we are forgetful creatures. Forgetfulness is not conduciveness to gratefulness. To be grateful we need to remember the benefits we've received. We need to remember how others have gone out of their way to do or provide things for us that we could do or provide for ourselves. We need to remember to remember.

Neuroscientists have demonstrated that the brain is remarkably responsive to experience. Ask your brain to do algebra every day and it gets better at algebra. Ask it to worry you will find more things to be anxious about [4]. Ask your brain to give thanks and it will get better at finding things to be grateful for. Not only does your brain find these things easier, but it actually refashions itself based on what you ask it to do. Some parts of the brain growth denser, packing in more gray matter like a muscle bulking up from exercise. It's too soon to confidently say, but speculation is that the practice of gratitude, like meditation, could lead to increases in brain gray matter densities in regions involved in grateful feelings, such as the reward center and regions central to social awareness, learning and memory processes, and emotion regulation.

Gratitude is like fertilizer for the mind, spreading connections and improving its function in nearly every realm of experience.

That is something to be grateful for.

This blog post is part of a series for HuffPost Gratitude, entitled 'The One Thing I'm Most Thankful For.' To see all the other posts in the series, click here To contribute, submit your 500 - 800 word blogpost to

[1] Emmons, R.A. (2008). Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier. New York: Mariner.
[2] Murphy, M., O 'Sullivan, K., & Kelleher, K.G. (2014). "Daily Crosswords Improve Verbal FLuency: A Brief Intervention Study." International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 29, 915-919.
[3] Emmons, R.A. (2013). Gratitude Works! A Twenty-one Day Program For Creating Emotional Prosperity. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
[4] McGonigal, K. (2013). The Willpower Instinct: How Self-control Works, Why It Matters, And What You Can Do To Get More Of It. New York: Avery.