I am often sceptical towards psychology research findings. Usually I consume it, acknowledge it, maybe even believe it — but then I ask myself: so what?
So what, that this specific process or mechanism worked for this specific group of people? What does it mean for me? How can I be sure that my body, mind or soul would behave as research indicated, under the circumstances defined by research?
In other words: what certainty do I have that something that happened a million times during a research will happen for a millionth-and-one time when I try it myself?
This is why I am much more keen on experimenting with my own mind, body and soul — especially when it comes to anything that is supposed to increase my well-being, improve mental health or enhance mindfulness. It is hard for me to believe that a certain diet is beneficial, until I try it and feel the positive impact it has on my body. Just about as hard as to imagine that we, humans, are merely a combination of complex matter and electrical impulses being transferred through our nervous system — because my inner experience indicates there is so much more to us than that.
But this is probably a topic for another article.
The topic of this one is something that manages to put my own experience in alignment with validated research. Something that is so intuitive, obvious, and easy to test — both experientially and scientifically — yet most of us still don’t take full advantage of this phenomenon.
I am talking about the gratitude practice, together with its short- and long-term effects on the quality of our lives.
The power of gratitude, or where experience and research meet
Let’s begin with some science stuff — shall we?
“As the mind changes, the brain changes. (…) Mental activity can produce changes in neural activity. (…) You can use your mind to change your brain to change your mind for the better.” — Rick Hanson
Rick Hanson is a renowned neuroscientist and psychologist exploring links between the physical structure of the brain and consciousness. Over years of research, he has found that cultivating certain mental habits and attitudes creates and strengthens certain neural pathways, which, in turn, influence our mental and emotional reactions. This happens due to neuroplasticity; the brain evolves all our life, according to what we feed it mentally and emotionally.
What is the meaning of that in real life?
The more you practice gratitude, the easier it will be for you to feel grateful in the future. The more you reinforce complaints and worries, the more of them are likely to bug you later on. Here is how Rick Hanson explains it in one of his presentations:
It sounds simple and straightforward — doesn’t it? Apparently, it is only you who gets to choose how you feel. So why is feeling good often so hard?
The neuropsychological explanation of this is a functionality of our brains referred to as negative cognitive bias. It is a biological conditioning our brain that has developed over the course of evolution to protect us from danger. Negative cognitive bias causes our brain to focus on potential threats and dangers, so that we can protect ourselves from them.
The things is, in the modern world, negative cognitive bias doesn’t seem to serve us anymore. If we let it run the show, it will simply cause us to focus on the negative aspects of life, rather than appreciating the positive.
When you have a lot of work to do — negative cognitive bias will make you think about how overwhelming it feels and how much better off you would be if you had less work. The fact that you have a job you love becomes secondary.
When your kids are all over the place and you have had enough of trying to put them in their places, negative cognitive bias is what makes you focus on your own tiredness, annoyance and anger. You forget to simply be grateful that you have healthy, happy and curious children, who are doing what kids are supposed to do at their age — play and explore.
You see what I mean? Negative cognitive bias, although developed for our advantage in the first place, can be a bastard in today’s busy world where natural dangers are not threatening for most of us. To fight this bastard, there is one simple and accessible way — intentionally pursuing gratitude.
This is where the self-directed neuroplasticity (as Rick Hanson would put it) comes into play. That means — using your mind, to rewire your brain, to change your future mind for the better. And this is the experiential part. This is where practicing gratitude becomes a very useful tool.
The simplest gratitude experiment
“Gratitude has been conceptualized as an emotion, a virtue, a moral sentiment, a motive, a coping response, a skill, and an attitude. It is all of these and more. Minimally, gratitude is an emotional response to a gift. It is the appreciation felt after one has been the beneficiary of an altruistic act” — Emmons & Crumpler
I have experienced very real consequences of gratitude, and therefore I feel I can testify to Rick Hanson’s scientific findings. The more I feel grateful and appreciative of what I have, the easier it is for me to progress and accomplish even more. Not to mention that feeling and expressing gratitude has an immediate effect on my perceived quality of life.
This is nothing new — we all know that gratitude is awesome, because we read it in many places on the Internet. But how can one “infuse” it, or “practice” it, as many self-help articles and books suggest?
In other words: how to make yourself feel grateful when… you don’t feel grateful at all?
Interesting question. If only we could make ourselves feel what we want to feel by taking some specific actions… Oh, wait. We can.
It is not just our mind and brain that are wired together. These two are also interconnected with our bodies. Remember the famous mantra of fitness coaches, who tell you that physical activity encourages your body to produce endorphins which make you feel happier? Or dietitians, who claim that certain foods benefit certain organs in your body, such as brain, nervous system or liver?
Science couldn’t be that wrong — and nor could be my experience. The simplest of gratitude practices that can be induced by a physical act is… smile.
I discovered it during my morning meditation, when I started listening to the recordings of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. In his guided meditation, he always tells you to smile. And it is for a good reason. You cannot possibly be smiling for 5 minutes straight, without it having an effect on your emotions!
A smile on your face invites your mind to smile along.
This blew my mind a few weeks ago, when I experienced it first-hand. And then my friends Sílvia and Michal came up with a simple gratitude experiment which shows how focusing on the negative or positive things in a conversation can affect our emotional well-being instantly. To be honest, I feel the effects just by watching the video they recorded to demonstrate their experiential findings.
What they do is they hold two experimental conversations. The first one focuses on the negative aspects of their lives and on what is currently bugging them. In the second exchange, they practice gratitude by verbalizing what makes them feel proud, strong, energized and… grateful. After each of the conversations, they take a moment to acknowledge the feelings that arise as a result.
You can watch the full experiment below:
In all its simplicity, the experiment of my friends allowed me to remember an important truth. It is one of these truths that I have known for years — yet I need a reminder in real life from time to time, in order to be able to implement it. This cliché truth was:
I create my own reality, which means that I am responsible for the quality of my experience.
In this case, I get to choose whether or not I put attention and effort into practicing gratitude — and later, I feel the effects of my decision. No matter how grumpy I feel, I always have the possibility of putting a smile on my face and initiating transformation of my experience. I always have the possibility of mentioning something positive in a conversation, instead of producing complains. These things are a matter of choice, and not some mysterious fate.
You have this choice, too — so are you going to feel grateful or grumpy today?