Gratitude isn't the turkey of wellness
Giving thanks was top of mind for many this week, but thanksgiving should be a habit rather than a holiday. This edition of The 5-Minute Recharge explores the latest science on gratitude with the goal to convince you that it's one of the easiest yet most powerful ways to improve your life. I’d be grateful if I didn’t receive another newsletter telling me to be grateful. What’s the big deal about gratitude? Ooooooh, somebody is in need of a gratitude intervention! But I understand your skepticism. Gratitude can seem like the greeting card of wellness, expressing pretty sentiments without substance, but a greeting card doesn’t rapidly decrease your number of inflammatory markers, make you more resilient to trauma, increase your motivation, improve your relationships with others—and yourself!—or reduce activity in your amygdala, your brain’s fight-or-flight panic button. I’m still skeptical. How does gratitude have such wide-ranging effects? You have a see-saw inside your brain: on one side of the see-saw is your defensive circuit tasked with managing all the bodily and mental mechanisms that keep you safe, and on the other, there’s a prosocial circuit that draws you closer to others. Guess which side of the see-saw tends to be stronger? If one side is keeping me alive and the other side is singing Kumbayah with friends around a campfire, I'd assume that the defensive circuit is more robust. Correct! The defensive circuit is the more powerful of the two, but it’s dark, fearful, and makes you want to back away from life. The prosocial circuit brings you closer to others, enhances the sensory detail you take from experience, and makes you want to lean into life. Guess which circuit—the circuit that gratitude lights up—is better for your happiness?
I'll take a wild guess. The prosocial circuit? Correct! Over time, a gratitude practice will shift the see-saw in your mind to default toward the happier, prosocial side. Okay, it makes sense that gratitude strengthens the wiring of the prosocial side of my brain circuitry and that this is a good thing. What’s the best way to practice gratitude? Please don’t tell me to write down 3 things that I’m grateful for and try very hard to feel grateful. The gratitude list is the most common gratitude practice but, based on the latest science, it may not be the best approach. Professor Andrew Huberman of Stanford University has reviewed the literature on gratitude and has made some startling discoveries. What did he discover? Can you fake gratitude? Absolutely not! Gratitude has to be genuine to have a prosocial effect. Your brain knows when you’re lying to it about how grateful you are to have had the opportunity to work out some interpersonal issues with a family member at the Thanksgiving table. What Huberman discovered is that gratitude has a stronger effect on the brain activity of the person being thanked than the person giving thanks. Do you mean that when it comes to gratitude it’s better to receive than to give? Yes! And this has implications for your gratitude practice. What am I supposed to do? Sit around and wait for someone to thank me? No, but there’s a way for you to hack the prosocial circuit. Okay, now this is getting interesting… The human brain is wired for storytelling. It’s how we organize information and make sense of the world. Huberman recommends that you find a narrative about struggle and gratitude that is powerful for you, then tap into your natural urge to identify with characters and get inside their minds. You will feel as though you are receiving gratitude through the narrative of giving and receiving help. So I'm supposed to find a story about humans helping other humans that I find inspiring and think my way into it as if I were the person receiving thanks? What if I have helped someone? Can't I use my own story? Using your own story is ideal. Think about the pain that you helped to alleviate or how you simply made someone's life better. If the person you helped thanked you, recall how it felt to receive genuine thanks. Really tap into the good feelings you get from helping someone. Is that it? You get bonus points for distilling your story into a few bullet points and reflecting on it a few times a week to bake it into your neural pathways. Any time you remind yourself of your story, a practice that can take less than a minute, you take a shortcut to activate your prosocial gratitude circuits. I think Andrew Huberman’s recommended gratitude practice is going to have unintended side-effects. Like what? Imagine a world where everyone is driven to do something powerfully good that’s worthy of receiving genuine thanks. A world in which everyone is focused on generating gratitude stories without the expectation of receiving thanks would be a much happier world. There are places where such gratitude stories are being generated right now, places such as flood-ravaged Princeton, British Columbia, the site of our 5-Minute Recharge quote of the Week… “In the town of Princeton, which was uncomfortably close to this summer’s wildfires, and was hit by record heat, bands of volunteers of all ages were roving the streets and helping out. There are a lot of tears in Princeton and other communities right now, but they’re not all grief over what’s lost. When flood victims described the kindness of those volunteers to me, some broke out in tears of gratitude.” - From Ian Austen’s Canada Letter
Some may be more potent than others, but any gratitude practice will help you strengthen your prosocial circuits. Here are a few excellent suggestions:
Find out more about Andrew Huberman’s story-based gratitude practice in his podcast “The Science of Gratitude and How to Build a Gratitude Practice.”
In “Where Happiness Hides” from the Hidden Brain podcast, psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky calls gratitude the “antidote for hedonic adaptation” — the brain’s annoying habit of becoming accustomed to wonderful things.
Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren presents “Five Ways to Exercise Your Gratitude Muscles.”
Two University of Florida scientists have found that “When giving thanks, don’t forget yourself.”
Arthur Brooks knows “How to Be Thankful When You Don’t Feel Thankful.”
Thank you for making it all the way to the end of my newsletter! Lynne