Those who know me well will be aware of why I have to pay attention to gratitude. The remembrance of gratitude is an oft-repeated mantra and it was coincidental that I read a piece in the NYT on the eve of this year’s Thanksgiving which set off a few parallel trains of thought. Firstly, do we actually have to feel grateful, thankful, or whatever, in order to actually be grateful? I stumble over this. On the one hand I think one should feel grateful in order to give thanks. To do anything else seems somehow dishonest or fake; a kind of bourgeois insincerity that one should reject. Surely it’s best to be emotionally authentic, Or, is it? Sincere fakery might achieve just the same result, if it does sound a bit oxymoronic. Doing the best for ourselves does not require fealty to feelings in the name of authenticity, but rather, rebelling against them and taking a stand against negative impulses tends to cause us to act right even when we don’t feel like it. In brief, acting grateful can actually make you grateful.
For many people, including me, gratitude is difficult, because life can be difficult. Having said that, to accompanying snorts of disapproval, how could my life be so much more difficult than, say, a rickshaw driver in Mumbai, but even for me, days of endless azure thankfulness doesn’t come easily to the melancholic personality. Even beyond deprivation and depression, there are many ordinary circumstances in which gratitude is elusive, an old fish that refuses to take the bait. Focusing on tragedy dissolves a grateful heart, as one pundit put it. Watching beheadings does not make us feel good.
I have been invited to a Thanksgiving dinner – hence this post – and events like this can all too easily be ruined by a drunken relative who always has to share his political views, usually at bellicosely high volume. It’s supposed to be a delightful, entertainingly warm fuzzy of a party, but…
Beyond rotten circumstances, or just a few too many “slings and arrows” having found their uncomfortable mark, some people are just naturally more grateful than others and there appears to be some science behind why this is so.
A variation in gene (CD38) seems to be associated with gratitude. Some people simply have a heightened genetic tendency to experience, in the researchers’ words, “global relationship satisfaction, perceived partner responsiveness and positive emotions (particularly love).” That is, those relentlessly positive people you know, the perpetually glass half full types, who seem grateful all the time may simply be, well, mutants.
But we are more than slaves to our feelings, circumstances and genes. Evidence suggests that we can actively choose to practise gratitude — and that doing so makes us happier. This is not just the usual self-improvement hokey-pokey, much as it might appear. For example, research carried out over ten years ago randomly assigned one group of study participants to keep a short weekly list of the things they were grateful for, while other groups listed frustrations, hassles or even neutral events. Ten weeks later, the first group enjoyed significantly greater life satisfaction than the others – my first question being ‘how was it measured’. Other studies have shown the same pattern and lead to the same conclusion. If you want a truly happy holiday, choose to keep the “thanks” in Thanksgiving, whether you feel like it or not.
Acting happy, regardless of feelings, appears to coax one’s brain into processing positive emotions. In one famous 1993 experiment, researchers asked human subjects to smile forcibly for 20 seconds while tensing facial muscles, notably the muscles around the eyes called the orbicularis oculi which create “crow’s feet”. They found that this action stimulated brain activity associated with positive emotions. If grinning for an uncomfortably long time like a deranged psychopath isn’t your cup of tea, try expressing gratitude instead, again whether you feel like it or not. Tell someone something affirming, for example. It stimulates the hypothalamus which helps to regulate stress and the ventral tegmental area which is part of our reward circuitry that produces the sensation of pleasure. In so doing, we become conditioned to repeat it.
But what if we can’t actually see anything that’s worth being thankful for? This is harder because we have to to some extent make it up. The reason why people put pictures of cats on skateboards on Facebook is because they stimulate pleasurable emotions. If this is a bridge too far, as an exercise, write down five beautiful things. They could be objects, places, memories or people.
It’s common sense as well as being scientific: Choosing to focus on good things makes you feel better than focusing on bad things.