Is Gratitude the New Bitcoin?
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What if gratitude is the new bitcoin? What if humans are wired to focus on darkness? And what if You are watering weeds instead of flowers?
This podcast is not about woohoo style gratitude where you feel into all the amazing things that you happen to have even though things are really terrible. This podcast is not about toxic positivity and denying real feelings either. Although writing down positive aspects of life has proven to be effective in daily journaling, we have better for you. Choosing to be grateful is changing the way your own heart beats and is changing the way you breathe. And this is not a weak sauce. Let's sauce it up with neuroimaging data, inflammatory markers, short term and long term effects and psychology-backed-up research and learn the most effective gratitude practice out there. The data show gratitude practice (GP) is a very very potent way in which you can steer your mental and physical health into a positive direction and the effects are very long lasting.
To understand gratitude and what is coming next, let me serve you a couple facts from the background of physiology on the topic. There are two types of neural circuits in our bodies:
- Pro-social circuits - allowing us to be more effective in interactions with other people including ourselves. Wired for pro social thoughts and behaviors, these circuits are bringing us closer to things and enhance the level of detail that we extract from experiences.
- Defensive circuits - that are linked with aversive behaviors, backing up, covering up, fear and freeze reactions.
These two types of human wiring are swinging on an imaginary seesaw. On one side, there is happiness and gratitude, on the other sits depression, struggle and concern about the future. Defensive circuits are designed to keep us psychologically and physically safe. That means we are born with negative bias and happiness for many does not come as easy. If You, for example, hear 100 compliments and a single insult, what do You remember? The insult. Journalist Gloria Liu describes this in an article for The Atlantic: “We have limited attentional resources, the UC Davis psychology professor Robert Emmons told me, so in the interest of survival, our brain tends not to waste them focusing on systems that are working well. Instead, our mind evolved to identify threats and problems (...) We direct our attention more to what’s wrong than what’s right. If your body’s in check, your brain seems to reason, better to stress about the project that’s overdue or the conflict with your friend than sit around feeling like everything’s fine.”
And because we are not in survival mode any more, it is very beneficial for us to use effective GP and rediscover our natural ability to shift our emotions of anxiety and fear to feelings of wellbeing and happiness. Gratitude can shift pro-social circuits so they dominate our physiology and mindset, by default.
What is this most effective gratitude practice? Directly receiving gratitude! Experience of receiving gratitude or listening to a story where people give and receive gratitude is a shortcut into the gratitude network, into pro-social circuits. The story based approach to gratitude has been proven as very effective in scientific research published in Cell Press Journal. In the study, different people around the globe were listening to the same story. They did not know each other nor were they anyhow related to each other. The data showed the subjects would undergo the same variation in heart rate (HRV - heart rate variability). In other words, the gaps between their heartbeats started to resemble one another in response to the same story! This is a coordination of the physiology of the body in response to a narrative in different people! This shows how powerful a story can be.
If you do not want to wait to receive gratitude from someone and still want to derive benefits from a gratitude practice, you have to find a story. Think into when somebody was thankful for something that you did and really start to think how you felt in receiving that gratitude. Another way is to experience somebody else's experience. Find a story that inspires you because of the beauty of a human spirit, the ability of humans to help other humans and start imagining or thinking deeply about the emotional experience of somebody else receiving help. After replaying the entire narrative at least once, list out reminders of the story: what the struggle was, what the help was and how that impacted you emotionally. It is clear that an effective gratitude practice has to be repeated from time to time. Now you have a story to go back to any time. The practice is effective when done 60 seconds or more 3 times a week!
This is very very different from simply writing out the things that you are grateful for, right?
With such a short practice, you get immense positive effects on your physiology. Very rapid reduction of inflammatory markers was recorded after the GP. Amygdala, the region of the brain that detects threats and is related to fear, showed less activation as well. A study on patients with diabetes showed how gratitude practice lowered blood sugar, improved focus and appetite. There are studies showing the drop of cortisol, the stress hormone that keeps us awake at night and causes digestive problems, preventing many to lose weight and rest well at night. The best part is, that you get a shower of positive chemistry linked with pro-social circuits - serotonin and oxytocin which land your body and mind in that zen zone you want to be in! This is why thousands of gratitude practitioners with chronic pain are able to cope with their tough diagnoses altering and reducing pain perception. Right gratitude practice brings a pervasive long lasting impact on subjective well being, joy and meaning and provides resilience to trauma. Enough said about that, it gets even better. I have great news for you. This is far better than bitcoin, because you are in control!
Gratitude and circuits associated with it appear to be especially plastic. By simply reminding yourself of the story you found earlier, where people receive and give genuine thanks, you easily stimulate these pathways in moments. The more you stimulate these neural pathways, the stronger and more automatic they become. Neurons firing together are wiring together. You may know this bias in your brain from buying a car. You want to buy your special model and suddenly you see the car all over the city. It works the same way with gratitude with positive thoughts. The more you focus on them, the more beauty you see in the world and the more positive you feel. As the saying goes, "Your mind is a garden, your thoughts are the seeds. You can grow flowers, or you can grow weeds." Over time, GP encourages our brains to more consistently search for the constructive themes in our life instead of the destructive ones, helping us water the flowers instead of watering the weeds.
The one thing all humans have in common is that each of us want to be happy, says Brother David Steindl-Rast, a monk and interfaith scholar. And happiness, he suggests, is born from gratitude.
This article is inspired by The Huberman Lab Podcast with its amazing host Dr. Andrew Huberman!