Today, I want to reveal something for the first time... Something I haven't revealed to anyone until now.
For the past 20 years or so, I've spent one day each month doing one thing – expressing gratitude.
I start the day thanking people and things. (Yes, things. For example, "thank you for being such a beautiful towel," or "thank you for being such beautiful raspberries.")
By late afternoon, I sit down and write a note to people I'm thankful for. Sometimes I "snail" mail it, sometimes it's a long e-mail. I'll even call someone if I know I will get their voicemail because I want them to be able to hear it over and over like they might with a written note. I started doing this because I once heard that the best way to make your world better is to thank it.
I truly believe that exercising gratitude has brought me everything I've ever wanted (and a little more). I wish I knew who got me started on this track because I'd love to thank them.
It might seem a little silly or pointless way to spend the day, but positive thinking has incredible health benefits.
In Rick Hanson's book, Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, he details the brain's "negativity bias." Essentially, negative memories overshadow positive memories, even if most of your memories are positive.
According to Dr. Hanson, practicing gratitude leads to changes in your brain, which in turn changes how you act and feel. Positive feelings have amazing effects on both adults and children: a stronger immune system, a cardiovascular system that is less reactive to stress, improvement in mood, and increased optimism, resilience, and resourcefulness. Such feelings can even counteract effects of trauma, as well as to support motivation, conviction, and wholeheartedness. Additionally, feeling grateful and good one day encourages you to continue to feel good the next day.
You cannot experience positivity and negativity at the same time. Our brains are wired to prevent the emotional confusion that would result from the simultaneous activation of opposite emotional states.
Psychologist Robert Emmons is considered to be a leading expert on gratitude research. A professor at University of California, Davis, Dr. Emmons suggests practicing gratitude by comparing your current situation with the past and by keeping a daily gratitude journal (or do what I do, and use a monthly journal).
Gratitude requires action and specificity... there are two key notions to gratitude according to Dr. Emmons: acknowledgement and recognition. The first step in gratitude is acknowledging the goodness in one's own life. The second step is recognizing that the source of this goodness lies at least partially outside of the self.
Research suggests that gratitude interventions help with chronic pain by engaging in self-compassion. A group of scientists at Duke University designed an eight-week program in which participants with low back pain engaged in an experiment to improve their chronic pain. They repeated the following phrases while in a 90-minute meditative state:
May I be free from suffering. May I find my joy. May I be filled with love. May I be at peace.
The phrases were said initially directed toward the participant themselves. Then participants repeated this six more times while being directed to a benefactor, then to a good friend, then a neutral person, then someone with whom they had a difficult relationship, then an enemy, then finally to the whole world. Analysis at the end of the eight-week program found that the participants' pain and psychological distress had significantly improved.
Other emerging research suggests that gratitude and positivity can be contagious from one person to the next. There's some evidence that the bioelectrical magnetic fields of humans and even heartbeats can synchronize from a distance or holding hands. It's a fascinating topic for another day. But the point is, gratitude is powerful, even from a distance.
Finally, I'd like to introduce you to a Benedictine monk named Brother David Steindl-Rast. Brother David grew up in Austria and was 12 years old when his country fell under Nazi occupation. His teenage years were spent witnessing horrible atrocities against humanity. He turned to the church in rebellion against the fascist movement.
Brother David describes gratitude as a practice consisting of three steps: stop (set up times to "stop" in your busy life), look (behold the gifts around you as you pause), and then go (take opportunities offered to you). He explains that you can't be expected to be grateful for everything – like war, oppression, or loss – yet you can choose to be grateful in every moment.
Gratitude, he explains, is inextricable from the notion of belonging... and deep down, we all want to belong. It is not happiness that makes us grateful, he says – it is gratefulness that makes us happy. He tells us that opportunity is the gift within the gift of every moment we are given, that opportunity is the key to happiness. And luckily, if we miss an opportunity, we will get another one.
So do what I do, and spend a little time each month being grateful. Not only will you reap the health benefits yourself, you might just spread a little joy to folks around you.
How do you incorporate gratitude and positive thinking into your life? Let us know your tips… feedbac[email protected].
What we're reading...
- All about gratefulness with Robert A. Emmons, PhD.
- Brother David Steindl-Rast's TED talk: Want to be happy? Be grateful.
- Something different: What's the difference between couscous and quinoa?
Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,
Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
December 8, 2020