With the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, I’d like us all to reflect on another one of our positive emotions – gratitude.
Like a Swiss Army knife (or smartphone – whichever analogy works better for you), gratitude has the ability to do many good things for us. Let’s review.
1) It makes us feel good about things that are real. Unlike hopefulness or optimism, which are positive feelings about something in the future that may or may not happen, gratitude is the positive feeling we get when we direct our mental energy to reflect on experiences that are true in our lives. Things that have already happened. People that are part of our lives today. Experiences that made us feel good. It is a grounded feeling, reminding us of the positive components that make up our daily life experience.
2) It allows us to feel good again. When we reflect on gratitude, we re-experience the positive feelings of an event that has already happened. It felt good when it happened, and when we reflect on our gratitude, we feel it again. Recently, my 6 year old son and I have been practicing gratitude as part of his bedtime routine. Though it’s been an enjoyable experience for both of us, since we are still practicing, sometimes we forget. One night, after realizing that we hadn’t done our gratitude reflection for a couple of days, he insisted that we make up for it. So that night, instead of the usual “three things that we are grateful for,” we did nine each. And for each gratitude that he shared, I could see and feel his positive emotion in the present moment, as he recalled the fun things he had been doing in the past few days.
3) It changes our perspective to be more accurate. Like all things that we practice over and over again, our minds can integrate these new behaviors in such a way, that eventually they can become our new “normal.” As I alluded to above with my own practice with my son, when we are starting something new, we don’t have the habit of doing it yet and we have to work at being consistent. It also doesn’t feel “natural” in the beginning and requires repetition to have it be integrated into our minds. When I encourage people in my therapy practice or those attending my seminar to do a gratitude journal, I help them anticipate the inevitable few days early in the process where despite their best effort to come up with three new things they can write down, because they haven’t really been paying attention during the daytime, they don’t have much to write at night. This awareness plants a seed in our subconscious to then pay more attention. To scan the background noise of our lives as we are going about our day, to look for positive experiences that we might have otherwise overlooked. The interesting thing is that we do have a similar background scanner working all the time already, which is our amygdala, the organ in the limbic system of our brain that is responsible for our anxiety responses and implicit memories. Except rather than looking for good things, our amygdala looks for potential dangers and ways in which we might get hurt. This is one of the “normal” biases in our perception, which is that we all tend to perceive more potential harm than good in our lives. This also means that our “normal” perception is not particularly accurate, and leans towards the negative. However, if we can integrate this “gratitude scanner” into our normal perception, then we have a more balanced, and therefore more accurate view of our daily life. Studies have shown that somewhere around the third week of doing a daily gratitude journal, this does happen and we permanently change our ability to perceive more of the positive aspects of our life in real time.
4) It makes us feel more positive emotion over our lifetime. Once the “gratitude scanner” goes on, it isn’t just when we do our gratitude journals at night that we get to feel good. We automatically notice and therefore feel the positive experiences of everyday life more often and more deeply. In addition, for every moment where we are now feeling good, it replaces a moment when we otherwise would have felt neutral, ambivalent, or worried. So averaging over our whole lifetime, our baseline positive mood state is elevated.
5) It makes us less impulsive, more patient to wait for better things in the future. The classic marshmallow experiment, conducted in the late 1960’s with follow up with the same kids (now adults) decades later with brain imaging, showed that the ability to delay gratification as a child predicted greater prefrontal lobe functioning as an adult. This part of the brain is most developed in humans and in many ways, better prefrontal lobe functioning is connected to better mental healthiness. Gratitude is a way to help us pass the marshmallow tests of life. Dr. DeSteno and his colleagues conducted an experiment where volunteers were offered a real cash payout now, or a greater sum in 30 days. The conditions of the various arms of the experiment before the cash was offered, had different groups reflecting and briefly writing about one of three variables: something neutral, something that made them feel happy, or something that made them feel grateful. The results showed that in the neutral or happy groups, it made no difference and so most people chose the immediate cash payout. For those who reflected on gratitude, they were able to delay gratification and take the larger future payment. But this makes sense. The group that reflected on some past happy experience activated a part of the brain that feels presently unsatisfied and is wishing for a reward, so there’s a drive to have that unfulfilled need met immediately. Reflecting on gratefulness makes us feel satisfied, so our needs are already met, making it easier to wait for a better reward later.
So here’s a practical way to become more grateful:
1) Get a good journal that you can write in. Writing is better than just thinking. And writing in a journal is better than typing into your smartphone.
2) Every night, to end your day, write down three things that you are grateful for. Because this is a learning experience to make you more grateful than you presently are, you can’t repeat entries in your journal. That’s not to say that you can’t still be grateful for your health, family, or the roof over your head, but in order to grow, this is the way to stretch your mind – three new things everyday.
3) As you write and reflect, let yourself feel good. This is important.
4) Keep it up. As I mentioned earlier, in addition to the benefits of this daily practice, the repetition of this exercise will eventually improve your everyday, all day awareness of positivity. Also, on your worst days, having this journal and being able to read through it, will remind you that not every day is this bad, and being reminded of your past entries will help you have a better, more accurate perspective of the big picture of your life.
Happy Thanksgiving. Now would be an appropriately great time to grow in our experience of gratitude.