Grateful Wonder

With Grateful Wonder

Happy Thanksgiving to all of you who move me so much.

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.

A Few Days of Gratitude: My Boys

I would be lost without my companions.  They give me someone to talk to in the middle of the night when my brain chemistry misfires.  They remind me to think beyond my own fussing and fuming and make sure the food bowl is full.  They surprise me with subtle displays of affection and trust, like laying a small face in my outstretched palm.  They distract me.  They delight me.  They comfort me.

My boys.

May Thanksgiving be a part of your life today and always.

A Gratitude Journal Page on Thanksgiving

Cultivating a thankful attitude can be a challenge with bipolar disorder.  The illness tends to shun the finer energies of love, compassion, gratitude, forgiveness and acceptance for the heaviest emotions.  It twists truth into lies and reality into gruesome Grimm fairy tales. It takes vigilance to recognize The Dark Voice inside one’s mind, courage to reject the falsehoods it whispers, and superhero strength to open the mind to Light and Life instead.  It takes hard work to foster gratitude.

This Thanksgiving, however, I’m finding it easy to be grateful.  I may be uncomfortable and limited from my recent surgery, but the tumor the surgeon removed was benign, and I can look forward to healing completely.  This holiday season comes so soon after my dad’s death that the rest of the family still orbits the gravity well he occupied.  I’m so thankful that we can talk about him without awkwardness, that we can experiment with new rituals to see what might hold meaning for us now, and that we love and support each other as we hold Dad’s absence gently.

These are big blessings in gratitude.  But, I find I’m even more thankful for the moments of grace that dot my bipolar existence.  The sudden release of depression’s grip, an easing of anxiety, the way my thoughts untwist like a coiled rope let loose, a deep breath that tilts my head up to see the stars.  Like the illness itself, these gentle turns come without warning and in spite of anything I might do.  I don’t earn these moments.  They are Grace’s gift, a Mystery.  I can only lift my face to the sun and say, Thank You.

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