Gratitude and the brain
Miley Cyrus wrote Nov 12 on Twitter: Completely devastated by the fires affecting my community. I am one of the lucky ones. My animals and LOVE OF MY LIFE made it out safely ...I am grateful for all I have left. Sending so much love and gratitude to the firefighters and LA county Sheriff’s department. / Grat*i*tude/ Noun The quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness. Derived from Latin word “gratia”: grace, gratefulness; a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. /THaNGksˈɡiviNG/ noun (in North America) an annual national holiday marked by religious observances and a traditional meal including turkey. The holiday commemorates a harvest festival celebrated by the Pilgrims in 1621. Few thanksgivings should prompt us to focus our attention on the state of gratitude more than this one. The nation feels divided and both sides feel mutual distrust for the other. Many of us are feeling lost, or experiencing actual devastating losses. We need each other more than ever, however the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley recently reported, in Greater Good Magazine, that fewer folks will be sitting down together for turkey dinner this year because of strong political differences. It doesn’t help matters that the majority of us are immersed in technologies and social media that can alienate us further. Posts that celebrate materialism and negativity often vastly outperform those that celebrate empathy and gratitude. To many, happiness feels like it is reserved for the wealthy and elite. I was moved to see the tweet by Miley Cyrus above. The devastation wrought by the California fires has destroyed lives and homes – including hers. Not everyone can rebuild as effortlessly as she can, but she made a powerful choice when she decided to not focus on the loss, and instead to be grateful for what she still has. That’s the key to gratitude: maintaining focus on plentitude and presence, not loss and absence. Instead of letting cynicism overtake us this Thanksgiving, we could consider the emerging science on the matter. New research suggests that acts and experiences of gratitude are actually good for the brain, one’s mood, and lead to higher reported levels of happiness and the increased ability to cope with life’s challenges. Positive Psychologists Dr. Robert Emmons (UC Davis) and his colleague Dr. Michael McCullough (U of Miami), are the world’s leading experts on gratitude. Their research has revealed potential causative factors between things like gratitude journals and higher degrees of optimism, and overall increased sense of well being. After 10 weeks of writing about gratefulness, subjects exercised more, and had fewer doctor visits than those who were tasked in the study to note their daily irritations. So what’s going on here? Dr. Emmons says that gratitude actually has two components. One is what he calls the “affirmation of goodness”. That’s the act we’re all familiar with -- giving thanks and expressing gratitude for the good things in the world and in our lives, and for the benefits we actually receive in spite of, or even during and in the face of, adversity. The second component recognizes that “the sources of this goodness are outside ourselves.” That’s where we recognize that “other people – or even higher powers […] give us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.” (Greater Good Magazine, Great Good Center, UC Berkeley, Why Gratitude Is Good). This recognizes that being connected to others and supportive of others, in a give-and-take way, is core to our survival and affects our wellbeing. It recognizes that we’re relationship-based beings, and that the characteristics we associate with mental unwellness are underscored by social isolation and disconnection. Gratitude changes your brain as well. Psychologists Joel Brown and Josh Brown found that greater neural sensitivity in the medial prefrontal cortex – an area of the brain associated with decision making and learning – occurred in research subjects who wrote gratitude letters for three months versus those who didn’t -- even after an equal amount of psychotherapy and “pay it forward” tasks were undertaken by both groups. While not conclusive, the authors noted that it suggests that “practicing gratitude may help to train the brain to be more sensitive to the experience of gratitude down the line…” It suggests, in other words, that the greatest benefits of gratitude come from the practice of focusing on gratefulness because these thoughts eventually get laid down as habitual ways of thinking in the brain (Greater Good Science Center, UC Berkeley, 2017). So, the more you practice gratitude, the more grateful you might feel. So how can we best cultivate gratitude beyond writing letters, making gestures and journaling our gratefulness? I love our Meditation Studio app because it has a meditation for virtually all of life’s challenges. If I could use a little extra support, for instance, in tackling sleep, prepping for a big meeting, or even dealing with feeling cranky -- there's a meditation for that. Through meditation, one focuses their attention on the present moment -- without judgment. We can train our minds to focus on what we’re grateful for – from the warmth of the sun to the blue waves of the ocean, to simply drawing another breath. Muse’s new Meditation Studio app has just launched a new suite of mediations called the Gratitude Collection. You can use it to explore guided meditations like Morning Gratitude Practice, Simply Thank You, Gratitude for Kids, and many more. Each was created to help people focus on the positive in life, and can shift a gloomy day into one filled with joy. For more: Get an in-depth overview of where gratitude comes from, what its benefits are, and how to cultivate it in a special white paper on the science of gratitude. Also check out the GGSC’s Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude project.
See also: Emmons RA, et al. "Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Feb. 2003): Vol. 84, No. 2, pp. 377–89. Grant AM, et al. "A Little Thanks Goes a Long Way: Explaining Why Gratitude Expressions Motivate Prosocial Behavior," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (June 2010): Vol. 98, No. 6, pp. 946–55. Sansone RA, et al. "Gratitude and Well Being: The Benefits of Appreciation," Psychiatry (Nov. 2010): Vol. 7, No. 11, pp. 18–22. For more references, please see www.health.harvard.edu/mentalextra. Ariel Garten is the co-founder of Muse/InteraXon.