It may seem a dubious proposition when much is not going well, but please allow me to make a case for gratitude. Gratitude?!? Yep, gratitude. (Thanks for reading! Always good to practice what I preach.)
First, a quick caveat: I will not lecture about the reasons anyone should be grateful. Rather, I’d like to discuss how gratitude can improve your life — how a pattern of seeing and expressing thankfulness can create a beneficial circle.
Why focus on gratitude? For three reasons. One, there is important science behind how a practice of gratitude can help you. Two, further research finds that gratitude not only benefits you but also helps you to help others. Three, because I figure that any advice, should you choose to use it, that helps you improve the world could have a lasting broader effect.
So, here it is.
First, a word of gratitude for William James, for his career of thinking about thinking and for offering one of my favorite quotes: “Our experience consists of what we choose to attend to.” Who, you might ask, is William James? (Glad you asked!) “William James was an American philosopher and psychologist, and the first educator to offer a psychology course in the United States.” Oh, and he founded the Department of Psychology at Harvard. He also observed that, “If you can change your mind, you can change your life.”
So, let’s look at what neuroscience tells us about gratitude. The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is the part of the brain we employ when we are engaged in decision-making, goal-setting, and problem-solving. It’s also the part of the brain that helps us put things in perspective. When we are in our “right minds,” the prefrontal cortex runs the rest of our brain, including the amygdala, the “threat detector” part of the brain, which perceives and reacts to threat. The more our PFC can regulate our amygdala, the better we can handle stress and get back to building the lives that we want and to solving problems that stand in the way.
OK, great, but what does that have to do with that gratitude thing?
Oh, right. Thanks for reminding me! Cortisol, the principal stress hormone, disrupts the functioning of the PFC, weakens the connections between the PFC and amygdala, and makes the amygdala more reactive, even hysterical. Too much cortisol makes us nuts! Simply put, a lot of cortisol, particularly on a daily basis, does not do good things for our bodies or brains, especially the developing brains of teenagers. Being too stressed for too long is a proven way to make yourself vulnerable to anxiety and depression.
The good news (and there is a flip side to this) is that anyone taking on worthy challenges will have some stress, but that’s the good stress that we experience as excitement when we are at the edge of our abilities and “growing” those abilities. Our goal is to stay in balance, and a practice of gratitude helps by keeping us in balance.
Our amygdala, in trying to keep us safe, tends to focus on the bad stuff, but it’s harmful to focus constantly on “bad stuff.” That’s why paying attention to, and expressing gratitude about, good things pulls our attention away from the bad stuff and puts it on the good stuff or, even, on the “not so terrible.” Our brains are malleable, so developing a practice of focusing on things to be grateful for can wire us to be “glass half full.”
So, here’s what else the experts say about gratitude. Richard Emmons, one of the world’s experts on gratitude, offers two suggestions. The first is recognizing things to be grateful for outside of ourselves — for example, other people, nature, great weather, higher powers, good fortune. The second is expressing that gratitude. In a nifty study done with high school students, Emmons found that the social dimension of expressing gratitude has a big impact “as a relationship-strengthening emotion because it requires us to see how we’ve been supported and affirmed by other people.” We feel better. The people we thank feel better. And our relationships grow stronger. How great is that?
So, my advice is this: In all the ways that you feel comfortable (or at least not too uncomfortable), express it. Tell your friends you’re happy that they are your friends, and, ideally, tell them how or why. Let your parents (yes, really) know the things you’re thankful for, and thank your teachers, thank the weather, thank trees, your dog, whatever or whomever you can think of. Consider writing down those thoughts in a journal or in your phone, post them in sticky notes for your parents, or text them to your friends.
And, finally, it turns out that expressing gratitude is not only good for you and, of course, the friend, or parent, on the receiving end, but it’s good for anyone who is observing you. Yup! You might literally be changing the world for the better, or at least your corner of it, by expressing gratitude.
For more, check out these nine tips taken from the University of California Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, for which I am, naturally, grateful.