The Biological Reason to Practice Gratitude
Imagine a day when everything seems to be going wrong. You overslept. You put salt in your coffee instead of sugar.
There was no hot water so you had to quickly shower with cold water.
You have 24 missed calls from work – you are late, and you have a presentation to make, which you haven’t finished preparing.
You can’t find a matching pair of socks – or your dress zipper is stuck at the bottom.
When you leave the house, you step into mud and a bird poops on your forehead.
That sounds like a day from hell, right?
For most people, such a start to the day would ruin the rest of the day, or perhaps even the entire week.
But does a bad start really mean that the rest of the day will be as bad?
Think about it. The day is still young. Things could change.
However, most people become grumpy because they choose to focus on the bad things that have already happened.
Now, what if you changed your focus on the good things that could happen over the rest of the day, or the good things that are already in your life?
Is that even possible. Is there a way to find positivity in a day that has started out that bad?
Turns out that you can, and that is made possible by an attitude of gratitude.
Let’s get back to our nightmare morning. Despite all the bad things that have happened so far, you decide that there is no reason to get grumpy.
Before you start your drive to work, you breathe in deeply, relax, and stop frowning.
You start thinking about the things you are grateful for.
For one, you are alive, right?
That’s really something to be grateful for. You are healthy. You have a car.
Sure, there was salt in your coffee, but having coffee and sugar and enough food to eat is a blessing. You have a job.
Sure, there was no water, but at least you have a shower, so you can keep clean. You have enough clothes and so much more…
As you run through your list of things to be grateful for, you will progressively grow calmer, more confident, and you might even smile, ready to face the day, seize the moment.
This is the power of gratitude.
Very often, people disregard the importance of being grateful for the good things we have in our lives.
However, gratitude has a lot of benefits in our lives, both mentally and physically.
What’s more, gratitude is not something that should only be reserved for the big things in our lives – I’m talking about things such as buying a home, getting your dream job, and so on.
An attitude of gratitude requires that you show gratitude even for the small things, such as having food to eat or money to buy nice clothes.
In this article, we will take a look at some biological reasons to practice gratitude.
However, let us first start by understanding what gratitude is.
WHAT IS GRATITUDE
When most people hear the word gratitude, they think about saying “thank you” to someone who has done something good or helpful to you, or someone who has gifted you with something.
However, gratitude is more than the act of saying thank you.
It is also a positive emotion that is deeply rooted in our biology. It is a deep appreciation towards someone for something positive they did for you that was not essentially their obligation. It is the positive emotion of appreciation that someone feels after being the beneficiary of an altruistic act.
According to researchers, gratitude involves two main steps. The first one is recognizing that an action has led to a positive outcome.
The second step is recognizing that an external source was responsible for the action that led to the positive outcome.
This means that gratitude is focused on the other, rather than the self.
GRATITUDE REQUIRES A CHANGE IN ATTITUDE
Our ingrained habit is to look at what we don’t have, gripe over what we lack, and hate ourselves for our deficiencies and flaws.
Gratitude reverses that, and instead shines a light on what we do have, our advantages, our best qualities, and our blessings.
When you focus on what you lack, you feel angry, lonely, ashamed, hopeless, unhappy, stressed, and this can end up harming your health.
On the other hand, when you focus on what you should be thankful for, you feel cheerful, confident, hopeful, happy, relaxed, beautiful, and this ultimately has a beneficial impact on your health and wellbeing.
Gratitude is basically a superpower.
Some of us have it naturally – the empathic, sweet, rosy souls among us.
Some developed it after they went through something in life – for instance, surviving a car accident or cancer.
As for the rest of us, we have to work hard and willfully to develop this superpower.
THE EVOLUTION OF GRATITUDE
The theory of evolution is the basis of much scientific thought these days, particularly in the field of biology.
It would therefore be amiss to discuss the biological basis of gratitude without considering how this emotion/practice evolved from our early roots.
One of the insights made by evolution theory originator Charles Darwin is that our emotion-depicting facial expressions are universal.
This suggests that all humans, regardless of race, have a common descent.
In his 1872 book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Darwin identified six emotional states: happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, and disgust (if you have watched the Pixar movie Inside Out, you can recognize five of these emotions as the main characters of that movie).
Using this assumption of universality of emotions, we can infer that gratitude too is a universal feeling. People in China, Congo, New Zealand, Canada, and Latvia… they are all capable of feeling gratitude.
Studies of the ancient literature and oral literature of various cultures also reveal that gratitude is not a new phenomenon.
For instance, a big part of religious worship, both in ancient and modern times, has always involved giving thanks to a something higher than ourselves: a deity, the universe, ancestors, dead kings, and so forth.
A case study of this is ancient Egypt, where gratitude for life and its blessings was an important facet of the culture. Hathor was the goddess of humanity, motherhood, and joy of life – to be inducted into her cult, a person had to mention five things that they were grateful for in their life.
These five things were known as “the five gifts of Hathor” and the person was instructed to remain grateful for them.
Furthermore, a form of gratitude is observable in animals, particularly in primates such as chimpanzees.
However, we cannot tell what animals are feeling. They do not say, “thank you” in a language we can understand. The best we can do is observe their behavior.
In doing so, researchers have observed a behavior that they believe reflects gratitude in animals. This behavior has been named reciprocity.
Reciprocity is expressed through exchange of kindness and good deeds. It is the old “scratch my back and I scratch yours”. Having such a mutual arrangement benefits both parties. Reciprocity makes the two parties less fragile and more likely to survive.
For instance, let’s assume I am hungry hungry, but I have water. On the other hand, you are thirsty, but you have food.
If I give you my water, you will feel grateful and share some of your food with me. In this way, we both benefit/survive – we don’t die of hunger or thirst.
This pragmatism of sharing and expression of gratitude through giving back may be a reason for the emergence and evolution of gratitude in society.
It is a principle in evolutionary biology known as reciprocal altruism.
According to gratitude researcher Michael McCullough, the positive feeling that arises from gratitude reminds us of benefits gotten from others and encourage us to show our appreciation. Our reciprocation in turn encourages them to help us again in future.
In this way, gratitude inspires the building of social bonds and friendships.
For instance, it has been observed that adult chimpanzees are more likely to share food with individuals who have groomed them previously that day.
Sociologist George Simmel has called gratitude “the moral memory of mankind”, referring to how it encourages appreciation and repayment (or paying forward) of gifts.
This benefit of gratitude may explain how it evolved – through the strengthening of bonds between members of a species who mutually assisted one another.
EFFECTS OF GRATITUDE ON THE BRAIN
Researchers in the department of psychology at the University of Southern California did a study to observe the effects of gratitude on our brains.
The study provided insights into the complexity of gratitude and its relation to other cognitive processes.
The experiment took a group of participants and induced gratitude in them.
The researchers achieved this by sharing stories of Holocaust survivors, talking about how these survivors received shelter from strangers, along with food and clothing.
Naturally, the Holocaust survivors developed strong feelings of gratitude towards these strangers.
These Holocaust accounts were presented in 48 brief vignettes, which each of the 23 participants read as he or she lay in a brain scanner.
For each vignette they read, the participants were instructed to imagine themselves in the Holocaust.
What would their experience feel like if they were in the same situation and received those gifts?
For each gift they received, the participants were expected to rate the level of gratitude they felt. Meanwhile, the fMRI machine was recording their brain activity.
These are areas which have in the past been associated with functions such as bonding with others and rewarding social interactions, processing of emotions, understanding other people’s states of mind (empathy), and moral judgment.
This pattern of brain activity demonstrates that gratitude is not merely a simple emotion you feel after receiving a nice thing.
The brain activity pattern of the effect of gratitude shows that it is a complex social emotion that emphasizes how others seek to benefit us.
What these findings reveal is that gratitude is not just about reward – for that reason, it doesn’t only show up in the brain’s reward center.
Gratitude also encompasses our sense of right and wrong, connection with others, and the ability to see things from their perspective.
What this suggests is that gratitude is indispensable for social cohesion.
Perhaps human society would never have evolved into our complex social structures if not for gratitude.
Our bonds with people around us would not be as deep.
Gratitude binds us to the people we feel grateful to or for.
Mutual gratitude binds us together. If you think about it, even macro-level relationships such as the ones between countries are built on gratitude and reciprocity.
Gratitude is a recipe for building strong, enduring ties between individuals, families, communities, organizations, and countries.
Furthermore, this study justifies the belief that gratitude is a moral emotion.
There was brain activity in areas of the mind which have been established as the centers of our morality by different studies.
This makes sense considering that gratitude can make us re-evaluate what is right.
For instance, if a person you consider an enemy does a nice thing for you without expecting anything in return, how do you react? Do you do something in return, or say thank you?
Chances are, you will stop viewing them as an enemy.
Our own interpretation of these findings vis-à-vis morality is that gratitude encourages us to do what is right/just.
If we were planning to do something wrong, let’s say play a prank on a rigid fellow but then we remember that one time he helped us out when we were broke, there is a high chance we won’t play the prank on them.
However, this can also create a moral dilemma.
Is it okay to give someone a pass just because you feel grateful to them? For instance, as a judge, should you be impartial or let your feelings of gratitude to the plaintiff sway you?
The study also showed that gratitude activates our ability to see other people’s perspective. This is empathy.
If gratitude activates empathy, this has huge implications on social bonding and on our self-worth and confidence.
Empathy through gratitude enables us to consider that the other person is human too and might appreciate a “thank you” or a gift.
By putting ourselves in their shoes, we anticipate how they will receive our “thank you”. Grateful people are more empathetic and friendlier. They like people and people like them.
Lack of gratitude, on the other hand, cultivates selfishness and arrogance.
Rather than see what the other person needs, we only see what we want, what we don’t have, what we deserve.
As a result, such a person is cranky, irritable, and people may find them irritating.
Lack of gratitude makes you unlikeable.
Practicing gratefulness focuses your attention on what people have done for you as opposed to what they have taken from you.
When you consider what they sacrificed to do the things they did for you, this makes you appreciate them.
It also builds your self-confidence and your ability to socialize and relate well with others.
EFFECT OF GRATITUDE ON THE BODY AND PHYSICAL HEALTH
Research on the effects of gratitude on our physical health is still inconclusive.
Preliminary research suggest correlation (not necessarily causality) between gratitude and good health.
Generally, grateful people, regardless of age and nationality, report fewer health problems than less grateful people.
Still, this is not enough to conclude that gratitude is the cause of better health. It could as well be a case of healthy people being more grateful than unhealthy people.
More research is required before conclusions can be made and gratitude incorporated in doctor’s prescriptions.
Researchers therefore have to investigate whether practicing gratitude causes an improvement in health.
The Thnx4.org project discovered that people who wrote an online gratitude journal during a two-week period reported less stomach pain, fewer headaches, reduced congestion, and better health in general.
Still, people tend to overestimate the powers of a new treatment, so these findings, though instructive, are not exactly rigorous.
We cannot ascertain how many of these positive reports were due to gratitude and how many were due to the placebo effect.
In a 2003 paper published by Michael McCullough and Robert Emmons, college students who put down in writing what they were grateful for just once a week during a ten-week period reported fewer symptom of ill health than the students who wrote about the daily hassles and events in their lives.
However, the findings are not conclusive, considering that college students who wrote in their gratitude journals daily over a two-week period (rather than ten) did not experience better health.
Furthermore, the Emmons and McCullough study found that people suffering from neuromuscular disease did not experience better health after keeping a daily gratitude journal over a three-week period than people who only filled basic daily surveys.
A study done on middle school students had similar findings: no health benefits. The test group was asked to perform a “counting blessings activity” for a period of two weeks. This group did not report superior physical health to other groups.
However, these mixed results do not imply that gratitude journals and gratitude letters don’t improve health. Not all the parameters have been tested.
Note that in the studies which showed no health benefits, participants practiced gratitude activities for short periods of time.
Perhaps stronger effects would be observable if the studies were carried out over a longer period – like several months.
We need more evidence before we can make any real conclusions about the effects of gratitude on health.
However, that does not mean we should assume it doesn’t have any impact until it is proven that it does.
Note that anecdotal evidence as well as ancient wisdom and common sense place a high premium on gratitude. Earlier, I talked about the ancient Egyptian goddess Hathor.
The worship of Hathor was centered on the practice of gratitude.
You were expected to keep in mind the five things in your life you would miss most if you died at that instance.
An example response for the five gifts of Hathor might have included things like “My wife, my children, my job, camels, and dancing.”
Gratitude towards the gods is a recurring theme in all religions and cultures around the world from time immemorial.
Furthermore, children were expected to be grateful to and for their parents and to respect them.
People were also expected to be grateful for the rains and the bountiful harvest they brought. To this day, praying before meals is basically giving thanks for the food.
We all know of people who have been diagnosed with a terminal illness, after which they completely change their outlook in life and start to be grateful for even the little things.
As a result, they start to live their best life and start ticking things off their bucket list, thinking they will die anyway… only they don’t. Inexplicably, they get better.
The benefits of gratitude on health could be a result of the positive outlook on life that comes with an attitude of gratitude.
A positive attitude reduces stress, which in turn increases life span, improves cardiovascular health, gives you greater resistance to the common cold, and generally improves your psychological and physical wellbeing.
As with gratitude, there is no conclusive evidence on why positive thinking causes these health benefits.
It is theorized that positive thinking helps you cope better with times of stress and that reduces the harmful effects stress causes to your body.
Furthermore, it has been observed that people with a positive attitude live healthier lifestyles, which may also explain their good health.
They work out, eat healthy, and avoid smoking or imbibing alcohol in excessive amounts.
It is impossible to practice gratitude without altering your attitude from negative to positive. In fact, gratitude can be considered a gateway to positive thinking.
If someone tells you, “Be positive” when times are tough, you might find it difficult to actualize this in practice.
“Positive attitude” is an abstract concept. Gratitude, on the other hand, is a concrete, simple, actionable concept you can practice.
If someone tells you, “Write down ten things you are grateful for”, you will likely go beyond ten. In the process, you are rewiring your brain, focusing it on your blessings rather than your misfortunes.
In this way, you can see that gratitude is inseparable from “positive thinking”.
You cannot be grateful if you have a negative attitude, and you cannot have a positive attitude if you are ungrateful.
Therefore, it is only logical that all the health benefits of positive thinking should also be attributed to gratitude.
EFFECT OF GRATITUDE ON PSYCHOLOGICAL WELLBEING AND MENTAL HEALTH
A study was done to investigate what effect gratitude has on the psychological and subjective wellbeing of hospital staff.
The researchers chose hospital staff as the subjects of the study because theirs is one of the most stressful careers.
It requires strong personal and mental capacities. For that reason, psychological wellbeing is necessary for people working in healthcare.
The 70 participants of the study were randomly split into two groups. The test group underwent 10 group sessions during which they were given 90-minute gratitude training. The control group, on the other hand, received no such intervention.
The findings showed that gratitude training had a significant effect on wellbeing.
The participants in the test group had higher scores in the following domains:
- Personal growth
- Purpose in life
- Relation to others
- Environmental mastery
The only domain that gratitude did not affect was “autonomy”.
Looking at these domains, it is clear that for you to be successful, happy, satisfied, and forward-moving in life, you have to practice gratitude.
It is simply impossible to live your best life if:
- You are not growing.
- You don’t accept yourself.
- You lack life direction.
- You can’t relate well with others.
- You feel awkward and helpless.
Just as we said earlier that gratitude is the gateway to positive thinking, we could also say that gratitude is one of the paths to environmental mastery, good relations with others, purpose in life, self-acceptance, and personal growth.
These five are necessary for people handling stressful situations, as in the case of hospital staff.
If stress is one of the causes of poor mental health, then it is clear that gratitude is one of the antidotes.
If you want to live your best life, to be healthy, happy, relaxed, and confident, you need to incorporate gratitude into your lifestyle. It may be difficult at first, but it’s doable.
A good way to start practicing gratitude is to write down the things you are grateful for every night before you go to sleep.
Think of it as your own version of your “gifts of Hathor.”
Think about the things that happened that day that you are grateful for, the people in your life you are grateful for, and so on.
Whenever you find yourself battling with negativity, counter it by thinking about things you are grateful for. It always works!
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