Last week we discussed the British defeat at the Battle of Isandlwana and the importance of receiving feedback from anyone, regardless of their “rank”. Last week we also celebrated Thanksgiving in the United States, so it seems like an especially appropriate time to hook ourselves up to the post-feasting liposuction machines and talk about the glorious power of gratitude. (Topics like gratitude can carry an inexplicable whiff of cheesiness, but keep reading!)
You see, our brains do not actually want us to be all that happy. In fact, human brains are wired at the deepest levels to keep us unsatisfied. Thanks to the optimism bias—the belief that the future will be better than the present—we find ourselves constantly unsatisfied with what we have now. Our brains get used to present circumstances—no matter how perfect—remarkably quickly. We then grow bored with what we have and begin looking for the next great thing. Researchers call this the hedonic treadmill.
These curious neurological quirks have given the human race a profound evolutionary advantage. A hope for a better future and a dissatisfaction with the present keeps us motivated and striving for more. Our satisfied, consistently-happy ancestors were weeded out of the population long, long ago, leaving behind a neurotic, unfulfilled species that is always eating yet never sated.
Researchers have found that those who regularly wrote a list of things they were grateful for experienced greater life satisfaction than those who did not. This is due in part to the fact that gratitude helps counteract the brain’s negativity bias, which is our tendency to focus on and remember negative events more than positive ones.
When showing gratitude (or even just thinking about it), there is increased activity in parts of the brain responsible for feelings of reward. Our brains release dopamine, one of the most rewarding happy chemicals our brains are capable of producing. Dopamine also plays an important role in initiating action, helping us pull ourselves out of cycles of procrastination or avoidance, and driving us toward greater productivity and success.
In addition, gratitude activates our brains’ stress-management centers. Feelings of gratitude release the neurochemical serotonin, which plays a significant role in keeping depression and anxiety at bay.
For it to work effectively, we don’t want to wait for feelings of gratitude to spontaneously appear. Instead it helps to take a little time out of each day to think about what we are grateful for, even if we don’t feel especially grateful at that particular moment. This is not merely some feel-good “let’s all hold hands and sing kumbaya” fluff. Small moments of gratitude have a genuine, measurable effect on our life satisfaction.
It also helps to show our gratitude to others. While many of the benefits of gratitude can be ours even if those thoughts never leave our heads, the benefits grow exponentially when we share our gratitude with others, and it boosts the wellbeing of the gratitude recipients as well. Take a moment to ponder the following: how many times in the last 24 hours have you heard someone (including yourself) say thank you? Let’s boost that number.
We want to be grateful for more than just the big things. We quickly run out of obvious targets for our gratitude, like family, a home, or not being dead. It helps to find little things to be grateful for, like the feel of soft carpet on your feet or the bright colors of a flower or the bizarre-yet-remarkably-fulfilling joy of checking something off a checklist.
Sometimes when we want to improve our lives and our happiness, we incorrectly assume that big shifts in satisfaction require big actions. Not so. Adding a little gratitude into our day is proven to have a significant impact on our health and happiness. All it takes is a little thinking.
For Your Consideration
- Make it a goal to show gratitude to others every day. For example, you might consider writing a letter of gratitude (or, if you happen to live in the 21st century, an email) to someone each morning. Or you could commit to saying a sincere “thank you” a certain number of times a day.
- What triggers your negative emotions? Is there a particularly frustrating time of the day or week, or a certain person you have to interact with who consistently brings you down? When you know you may have a downer coming, take a few minutes to think about some of the things for which you are grateful.
- Write your gratitude. When we engage our muscles in an activity, it strengthens memory consolidation in the brain. By writing what we are grateful for, we reinforce our memories of the positive in our lives, which is a great counter to the negativity bias.
- Try to be creative and specific. Instead of listing “family” as something you are grateful for, try, “The way my partner laughs at themselves when they do something clumsy,” or, “The picture of a dog my child drew today.”
- Sometimes gratitude in the workplace can seem in especially short supply. What can you do differently at work to help foster a culture of open, honest gratitude?