The Technology of Gratitude

collage art

We just celebrated a holiday devoted to giving thanks.  Doesn’t that seem a little weird?  Virtues don’t generally get holidays. Of course we make a big deal about love on Valentine’s Day, but hope and charity?  Bupkis.  If you stretched the definition, most religious holidays could be said to celebrate faith, and Veterans’ Day definitely honors bravery, but Chastity Day won’t be making an appearance soon.  Neither will Honesty Eve.

So, besides the traditional story of the Pilgrims and the Indians, why make a fuss about giving thanks?

I believe the celebration is left over from a time when the ancients understood the true power of gratitude.  Not just a virtue, or a Sunday School lesson, gratitude is actually a precise technology for creating health and happiness.  Only in the past few years has science caught up to this forgotten knowledge.

Gratitude is experienced in the same frontal regions of the brain that are activated by awe, wonder and transcendence. From these cortical and limbic structures come dopamine and serotonin, the “feel good” chemicals.  Dopamine is also important in initiating action, so it makes one more likely to do the thing they just did—what scientists term “a virtuous cycle.”

The brain cannot easily focus on both positive and negative stimuli, so if there’s a treat involved (dopamine), it will naturally seek the stimuli with a reward attached to it. In addition, the brain has a confirmation bias— it seeks proof for what it already believes to be true. Dopamine reinforces that as well. So once a person starts seeing things to be grateful for, the brain continues to look for more gratitude/dopamine inducing thoughts. That’s how the virtuous cycle starts.

The deepest and widest gratitude comes from the amygdala, the part of the brain that registers “soul” experiences.  Contemplating a starry night, feeling the unconditional love of a pet, or the unexpected kindness of a stranger have been described as “making one’s soul sing,” but are actually the technology of gratitude in action.

Dr. Daniel Amen, director of the Amen Clinics in California, uses SPECT scans to observe how the brain functions.  He asked Noelle Nelson, author of The Power of Appreciation, to let him scan her brain after concentrating on all the things she hated in her life.  He already had a scan of her brain while “under the influence” of appreciation, so wanted a comparison study.

Amen found that both Nelson’s cerebellum and left temporal lobe deactivated while concentrating on the things she hated. Decreased cerebellar activity is associated with decreased motor and thought coordination—people get clumsier and are less able to think their way out of problems. Lowered left temporal lobe activity is also associated with dark thoughts and memory problems. Amen concluded that negative thought patterns change the brain in a negative way.

Gratitude effects more than the brain.  Researchers discovered that it also triggers the parasympathetic nervous system. The electromagnetic heart patterns of test subjects became more coherent and ordered when they activated feelings of appreciation.  Over time, the more they paused to appreciate and show caring and compassion, the more order and coherence they experienced internally. When hearts are in an “internal coherence state,” studies suggest that subjects enjoy the capacity to be peaceful and calm yet retain the ability to respond appropriately to stressful circumstances.

So, how can we foster an  Attitude of Gratitude?

In an experimental comparison, people who kept gratitude journals on a weekly basis exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, were more likely to have made progress toward important personal goals (academic, interpersonal and health-based), and were more optimistic about the upcoming week compared to those who recorded hassles or neutral life events.

Christopher Peterson of the University of Michigan studied different gratitude methods and found the biggest immediate improvement in happiness scores was among people who were given one week to write and deliver in person a letter of gratitude to someone who had been especially kind to them, but was never thanked. That emotional health boost was large, but faded over a few days.

Peterson also asked people to write down nightly three things that went well that day and why they went well. The task took longer to show any difference in happiness scores over control groups, but after one month the results were significantly higher and they stayed higher through six months.

Peterson said it worked so well that he adopted it in his daily life, writing from-the-heart thank you notes, logging his feelings of gratitude: “It was very beneficial for me. I was much more cheerful.”

Want to give it a try?  This experiment takes about ten minutes.  Get three index cards (or scraps of paper).  On each card, write down one thing you’re grateful for.  Then, one at a time, hold each card in both hands, close your eyes, and focus on the word or words written there.  Pay attention to all the memories, associations, images, feelings, thoughts that rise when contemplating the card.  Breathe deeply into those sensations and thoughts.  When you’ve done all three cards, open your eyes, mark your state of mind, the sensations in your body and your emotional state.  Try to do this exercise daily for a week and just observe.

This is one instruction manual for the technology of gratitude.  Tinker with it and see what happens.

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24 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. JAPLM
    Nov 27, 2012 @ 18:20:27

    Love this. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply

  2. docrob50
    Nov 27, 2012 @ 22:26:56

    WoW!
    I am going to re-blog this and I’m gonna send it to some friends here. Good job SandySue. You got the references down .

    and thanks for all that pinning you’ve been doing .

    Reply

    • Sandy Sue
      Nov 28, 2012 @ 10:08:19

      Gee, Rob, thank you.
      And, you know I’m a Pinterest junkie now because of you. Joy dealer, that’s what you are!

      Reply

      • docrob50
        Nov 28, 2012 @ 23:22:03

        I don’t know what to say.

        That was a superbly written piece there. The way you laid it out, structured the reasoning, built the interest – I was knocked out.

        Pinterest all you want – the drug of joy is free……err something like that.

  3. docrob50
    Nov 27, 2012 @ 22:29:07

    Reblogged this on The Way of the Flower and commented:
    This just blew my socks off – how well researched, structured and written this post is – which isn’t ever mentioning the importance of the message.

    Reply

  4. Jinjer Stanton
    Nov 27, 2012 @ 23:09:41

    I posted this on Facebook and someone else shared it. Don’t know whether you participate, but I thought you’d like to know.

    Reply

  5. Penny
    Nov 28, 2012 @ 06:31:51

    You rock! (but this is not news to me, I’ve always thought so!)

    Reply

  6. judyrobbinsart
    Nov 28, 2012 @ 07:03:46

    Grateful for your writing about this. Thank you.

    Reply

  7. Kitty
    Nov 28, 2012 @ 10:02:34

    Well, this rocked my world this morning! Thank you. I can’t wait to share these insights with… everyone! Especially my beautiful, struggling son, Scott.
    Love you, Sissy!

    Reply

  8. littlesundog
    Nov 28, 2012 @ 21:45:00

    I believe this was meant for me to read today! You always seem to know just how to encourage me and give me a little boost, my friend! Thank you Sandy!

    Reply

  9. Fork in My Eye
    Dec 02, 2012 @ 12:12:21

    My second therapist introduced me to the power of regularly reviewing the things I had to be grateful for, though I thought it was corny at first, it was surpisingly effective. So I’ve used it for years now but I had no idea the neurobiology behind it. I thought it was just about altering perspective by becoming aware of negative channels of thought and redirecting them so as to see things in a different light. But I forget to view the brain as a biochemical machine. It’s more like Pavlov’s dogs. Think this way and get a reward. Cool in a way but kind of disturbing too, how much we’re at the mercy of biochemistry. Just the same, I really wish I could get my partner to do this. She’s in a dark place and isn’t good at gratitude.

    Reply

    • Sandy Sue
      Dec 02, 2012 @ 19:56:09

      Some people are hooked by the science and others by the psychology. Maybe science would work for your partner. Present practicing gratitude as an experiment (?)

      Reply

      • Fork in My Eye
        Dec 02, 2012 @ 22:59:10

        An excellent suggestion! My partner has a fascination with psychology that is matched by her contempt and distrust of those who practice it. So she stops listening as soon as I start talking about anything that sounds like pop psychology self-help hoo-doo to her. But science is her religion. Make the conversation about empirical observation and testable hypotheses and she starts listening. And she did! I told her about what I read here and she got interested in spite of herself. She didn’t exactly agree to try it, but I got my toe in the door. Coolness.

      • Sandy Sue
        Dec 03, 2012 @ 05:35:12

        Score!

  10. pictimilitude
    Dec 02, 2012 @ 21:06:28

    I try to be so mindful of having gratitude. I know sometimes I am not grateful enough and it’s so important to take a moment out and just breathe. Thank you for this post and the gentle reminder that really, being grateful DOES help us. 🙂

    Reply

  11. Miss Alexandrina
    Dec 03, 2012 @ 14:08:42

    I love the way that, in this post, you have combined the scientific side of emotion (of which I have a particular interest) with the idea of showing and fostering gratitude when it is needed. Nice!

    Reply

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