Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning

Brain Fact Wednesday on ”The Neuroscience of an Effective Gratitude Practice”

November 23, 2021

Did you know that there is crucial component of mental, psychological, and social health that is often overlooked[i] and that “Gratitude is a mindset that activates your prefrontal cortex and sets the context for your experience such that you can derive tremendous health benefits?”[ii] Dr. Andrew Huberman

On this episode you will learn:

✔︎  Why your gratitude practice might be outdated, like mine, without brain-science in mind.

✔︎  The physical, psychological and social benefits of an effective gratitude practice.

✔︎  The most effective way to practice gratitude, with your brain in mind.

✔︎  5 STEPS for an effective Gratitude Practice that will help you tap into the mental, psychological and social benefits. 

If you are like me and have a gratitude journal that sits on your desk, and you might have heard of the many health benefits that being grateful can have on you and your life, but you aren’t really sure if your gratitude practice is truly an effective one—then, this Brain Fact Friday is for you.

Welcome back to the Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning Podcast for EPISODE #181 on “The Ingredients of an Effective Gratitude Practice.”  I'm Andrea Samadi, author, and educator from Toronto, Canada, now in Arizona, and like many of you listening, have been fascinated with learning and understanding the science behind high performance strategies that we can use to improve our own productivity in our schools, our sports, and workplace environments. We can achieve outstanding and predictable outcomes with whatever it is we are working towards, when we act intentionally, with our brain in mind.

For those of us in the United States, we are approaching Thanksgiving, where we traditionally think of what we are grateful for. I know our Canadian listeners have had this holiday last month, as I watched friends and family celebrate, but I always wonder why there is just one holiday that puts an emphasis on practicing gratitude, especially when there are so many studies that show the clear benefits that gratitude has on our life. You can see for yourself. Go to www.pubmed.gov and type in the word gratitude and fMRI and you will see many recent studies that show how “gratitude leads to benefits for both mental health and interpersonal relationships”[iii] and when you look at the researchers immersed in this work, you will see University Professor and Chair in Neuroscience, Antonio Damasio’s[iv] name come up often with his contributions to the understanding of brain processes that underlie emotions, feelings, decision-making and consciousness, in addition to his work with gratitude.

I’m sure those of you listening to this podcast would know that gratitude is good for your brain, and if you dig deeper into it, you would have discovered that “scientifically speaking, regular grateful thinking can increase happiness by as much as 25%, while keeping a gratitude journal for as little as three weeks results in better sleep and more energy.”[v]

But as I dug deeper into the research behind this episode, I started to see there was much more to creating the benefits of a gratitude practice when you dive into the Science of Gratitude like the impressive and respected podcaster, Dr. Andrew Huberman[vi] who covered this topic on his podcast this week. I highly suggest listening to his podcast, where I had many AHA Moments, for a thorough look at the why gratitude has such a profound impact on our health and well-being.

Then I came across professor of psychology, at the University of CA, who has studied more than one thousand people, from ages eight to 80, and found that people who practice gratitude consistently report a host of benefit that go far beyond helping us to be happier and well rested.

Robert Emmons, a leader in the positive psychology movement, editor in chief of the Journal of Positive Psychology and Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Davis, is the author of over 200 original publications in peer‑reviewed journals and has written eight books, including The Psychology of Gratitude (Oxford University Press), Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier (Houghton-Mifflin), Gratitude Works! A Twenty-One Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity (Jossey-Bass) and The Little Book of Gratitude (Hachette).

Robert Emmons’ research focuses on the psychology of gratitude and how gratitude is related to optimal human functioning, improved health and overall life happiness. His research that began with college students, found that those who kept a gratitude journal for 3 weeks had the following benefits

Physical Benefits

  • Stronger immune systems
  • Less bothered by aches and pains
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Exercise more and take better care of their health
  • Sleep longer and feel more refreshed upon waking

Psychological Benefits

  • Higher levels of positive emotions
  • More alert, alive, and awake
  • More joy and pleasure
  • More optimism and happiness

Social Benefits

  • More helpful, generous, and compassionate
  • More forgiving
  • More outgoing
  • Feel less lonely and isolated.[vii]

 

DOES A GRATITUDE JOURNAL OR LIST REALLY WORK?

I’ve had a gratitude journal on my desk since October 5th, 2008 and this journal is hard covered, with an Introduction to Gratitude by Jack Canfield[viii].  I remember joining a training class that Jack was teaching, and he used this practice as a part of creating a positive future, by keeping your mind focused on what you were grateful for, with this journal. So I bought one, and have used it since then (not daily but often enough I can open it up and get a pretty good idea of what made me happy at a certain time in my life.

I remember when I first started this practice, I was working for a corporation that was going through some difficult times, and I was always looking for new ideas to infuse happiness and optimism into our work life. I shared the ideas with the importance of looking at the positive side of things with my teammates, and writing out everything we were grateful for on a daily basis, since I knew there were benefits to doing this. Fast forward to 2014, when I first began learning about the brain, and wrote the Level Up book, if you attended one of my presentations, you would have received a notepad where you could write your Daily Gratitude List when you sat down to hear my presentation.

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Is There a Better Way?

So what’s wrong with a gratitude journal or list? I didn’t know there was anything wrong with this method until this week when I listened to Dr. Andrew Huberman’s podcast on “Gratitude.”

Dr. Huberman did mention that some researchers like Kelly McGonigal[ix] have done some incredible work with students around this topic, and I if I think about it, EPISODE #109 on “The Reticular Activating System”[x]  that explains why writing out what we are grateful for is not too far off the mark when we understand that there is a part of the brain, our Reticular Activating System[xi] which is a filter that helps you to focus on what’s important to you.  When we write our list of what’s important to us, or if we are writing things that inspire us, this practice will keep our mind away from thinking of the negatives in our life, or our defensive brain circuits, helping us to lean towards a more positive way of thinking.

HAVE I BEEN DOING IT WRONG FOR THE PAST 13 YEARS?

But what was I missing? What did I not understand until I wrote this episode about creating an effective gratitude practice? Dr. Huberman’s podcast explained the missing link of what I’ve been doing wrong the past 13 years with my gratitude practice, with ideas for improvement. If you want the deep dive explanation, I highly recommend listening to his most recent episode on gratitude.

Here’s what I learned:

DID YOU KNOW THAT “we have pro-social circuits in our brain that are designed to bring us closer to ourselves, others and things (like our pets and certain foods) or anything that we want to be closer to and want more of? They actually reduce defensive circuits that involve areas of the brain and body associated with freezing or backing up, when these pro-social circuits are activated?” (Dr. Andrew Huberman)

Dr. Huberman went on to explain the positive psychology movement where Robert Emmons’ research comes in, and that there are parallel universes (happiness/unhappiness) where positive psychology urges us towards practices that tap into our neuro-circuits for happiness, away from sadness. I think of the speaker I worked with in the late 1990s, Bob Proctor[xii], who was always pointing us towards possibility thinking to find solutions to problems and away from the negative thinking of lack and limitation. This is much like what Dr. Huberman was saying exists with neuroscience, as our brain has these parallel circuits—the pro-social circuit that brings us closer to others, and the defensive circuit that backs us away, and is designed to keep us safe.

What’s important for us to all know is that gratitude is an important tool that leans us towards these pro-social circuits and all of the benefits associated with them so that they become dominant in our mindset and with regular practice, we will default towards this way of thinking. This is when the true power of a gratitude practice comes into play. When you are faced with a challenge in your life, where would you prefer to go with your default reaction to this challenge? To the defensive circuits that our brain has wired to keep us safe where we freeze and back away from the challenge, or to the pro-social circuit where we look for solutions to our problem that brings some sort of understanding, allowing us to move closer to others, and therefore experience the mental, psychological, and social health benefits. I’m sure you’ll agree with me with the choice to take the pro-social circuit for learning, growth and the health benefits any day, over the defensive circuit.

WHAT ELSE?

It was Antonio Damasio who we mentioned earlier, who discovered that these pro-social and gratitude circuits are activated when we feel resonance with another. This can be explained with an understanding of Theory of Mind that we covered on EPISODE #46[xiii] where we are able to experience the mind of another, knowing how another person feels, and Damasio found strong links in the Prefrontal Cortex with ToM that will lift our gratitude and pro-social circuits.

BUILDING A GRATITUDE PRACTICE WITH YOUR BRAIN IN MIND

The way I learned my gratitude practice from Jack Canfield in 2008 was missing some key ingredients and this is precisely why I host this podcast. These episodes are not just for you, the listener, but I’m learning and growing as well. If I hadn’t of chosen this topic this week, and tuned into Dr. Huberman’s podcast, I would have moved into another year of practicing gratitude without my brain in mind.  I would never have known that the old way “is not particularly effective in shifting your neuro-circuitry, neurochemistry, or the circuits in your body towards enhanced activation of your PFC, or enhanced activation of these pro-social circuits” (Huberman) and would have been missing out on the myriad of health benefits.

WHAT’S A BETTER WAY TO PRACTICE GRATITUDE?

Think of how gratitude activates your prefrontal cortex and sets the context for your experience so that you can gain access to those health benefits that Robert Emmons discovered with his research. Dr. Andrew Huberman affirmed that “a gratitude practice is not wishy washy…and that the neurochemical, anti-inflammatory and the neural circuit mechanisms that gratitude evokes are equally as important as potent forms of intervention like HIIT (high intensity interval training) and can steer your mental and physical health in positive directions, and that those effects are very long-lasting.”[xiv]

The most effective way to do this, and shift your pro-social circuits towards these health benefits is when you are able to put yourself into the mindset of another (ToM or the ability to attribute or understand the experience of another, without actually experiencing it), is one way to do this by giving gratitude to another, but we can’t just sit around and wait for others to tell us how grateful they are for us, so Dr. Huberman suggests a way that we can recreate this experience. This shift will take some thought on your part, as you shift from the old way (writing out everything that made your day) to now thinking about how someone else’s story, made THEIR day, and impacted you.  It’s a distinct shift, and will take some practice.

 

Here’s How to Do This:

To fully activate these gratitude circuits, one must be able to put themselves in the mindset of another person who is “receiving” (Dr. Huberman) gratitude, not just write out what you are randomly grateful for.  

STEP 1: THINK OF A MEANINGFUL STORY THAT INSPIRES YOU, THAT YOU REPEAT OVER AND OVER AGAIN: Think of a story that is powerful to you, or inspired you in some way, where a person overcame a struggle. The person receives genuine gratitude for the work they did in this process.  This could be you, or someone else who has received gratitude for overcoming a struggle or challenge.

STEP 2: ACTIVATE YOUR GRATITUDE AND PRO-SOCIAL CIRCUITS AS YOU JOT DOWN SOME NOTES that go along with your story. As you are doing this activity, for just 1-3 minutes/day, think about how you are activating the pro-social circuits in your brain that will tip you towards physical, psychological, and social wellbeing.  

Think of the STRUGGLE/WHAT HELP WAS RECEIVED/AND THE IMPACT THAT OVERCOMING THE STRUGGLE HAS HAD ON YOU. I took one of my GRATITUDE notepads and wrote these tips at the top of the page. STRUGGLE/HELP and IMPACT. Then I picked a story that moved me that I will repeat as I my build my gratitude practice with my brain in mind.

STEP 3: THINK ABOUT HOW THIS STORY OF STRUGGLE IMPACTED YOU EMOTIONALLY? Using ToM (feeling resonance, empathy, or even sympathy with the person). Think of how the person who experienced the struggle felt as they overcame their challenges. How does this make YOU feel? Imagine your gratitude circuits lighting up in your PFC as you are doing this.

STEP 4: REPEAT this same story again for 1-3 min/day (3x/week) and with each time you activate your neural circuits, it will become easier each time, and won’t require as much effort. Essentially you are training your brain to look for the lessons learned from overcoming struggle, and the impact that this has on you emotionally. Did it inspire you to work harder, keep going, try something new? What did you learn from watching someone else overcome their struggle?  

STEP 5: BE CONSISTENT with your gratitude practice. During my interview with Sun Sachs[xv], the CEO of Rewire Fitness, he talked about the fact that the brain training component of the app only needed 3 times a week to generate the benefits.  Keep your Gratitude Story Notes somewhere you can quickly glance at them, (either on a notepad on your desk, or on your phone) and look at them 3 times/week.

REVIEW

To review this week’s Brain Fact Friday, DID YOU KNOW THAT there is a crucial component of mental, psychological, and social health that is often overlooked?[xvi]  Even with a gratitude journal on my desk for the past 13 years, I know that gratitude is a practice that could be improved, but until this week, I didn’t know exactly how to refine my gratitude practice.

I’m only on day 2 of looking at my Gratitude Story Notes, and know it will become easier with time and practice, and truly am grateful to have learned this new way of practicing gratitude from Dr. Huberman, and hope that you find it useful as well.

For those celebrating Thanksgiving this week in the US, see if you can put this new gratitude activity into practice and tell a story over the holidays using the STRUGGLE/HELP/IMPACT Model, and activate those pro-social circuits with those around you. Then, my challenge is to continue this practice, and make it a habit, so that you not only recognize the lessons learned from those who overcome struggle and adversity, but that you let others know when they have inspired you with their story, lighting up their brain, and providing them with the health benefits that research shows are possible when we offer genuine gratitude to others.

Happy Thanksgiving for those in the US, and for everyone tuning in, I’m grateful that you have taken the time to join me.

See you next week.  

REFERENCES:

[i] Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier by Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D. Published November 1, 2008 https://www.amazon.com/Thanks-Practicing-Gratitude-Make-Happier/dp/0547085737

[ii] Huberman Lab Podcast with Dr. Andrew Huberman “The Science of Gratitude and How to Build a Gratitude Practice” https://hubermanlab.com/the-science-of-gratitude-and-how-to-build-a-gratitude-practice/

[iii] Neural Correlates of Gratitude Published Sept. 30, 2015 by Glenn R Fox, Jonas Kaplan, Hanna Damasio, Antonio Damasio https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26483740/

[iv] Antonio Damasio https://dornsife.usc.edu/cf/faculty-and-staff/faculty.cfm?pid=1008328

[v] Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier by Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D. Published November 1, 2008 https://www.amazon.com/Thanks-Practicing-Gratitude-Make-Happier/dp/0547085737

[vi] Huberman Lab Podcast with Dr. Andrew Huberman “The Science of Gratitude and How to Build a Gratitude Practice” https://hubermanlab.com/the-science-of-gratitude-and-how-to-build-a-gratitude-practice/

[vii] Why Gratitude is Good by Robert Emmons Published November 16, 2010 https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_gratitude_is_good

[viii] Gratitude Journal by Jack Canfield and D.D. Watkins Published December 4, 2007 https://www.amazon.com/Gratitude-Daily-Journal-Jack-Canfield/dp/0757307108

[ix] Kelly McGonigal on Gratitude http://kellymcgonigal.com/gratitude

[x] Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning Podcast EPISODE #109 on “Activating the Reticular Activating System to Set Your Intent and Achieve It”[x]https://andreasamadi.podbean.com/e/brain-fact-friday-on-using-the-reticular-activating-system-to-set-your-intent-and-achieve-it/

[xi] What is the Reticular Activating System May 2013  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QCnfAzAIhVw

[xii]Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning Podcast EPISODE #66 on “Expanding Your Awareness with a Deep Dive into the Most Important Concepts Learned from Bob Proctor Seminars” https://andreasamadi.podbean.com/e/expanding-your-awareness-with-a-deep-dive-into-bob-proctors-most-powerful-seminars/

[xiii]Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning Podcast EPISODE #46 “As Close to Mind Reading as Brain Science Gets, Using Theory of Mind in Your Daily Life”  https://andreasamadi.podbean.com/e/as-close-to-mind-reading-as-brain-science-gets-developing-and-using-theory-of-mind-in-your-daily-life/

[xiv] Huberman Lab Podcast with Dr. Andrew Huberman “The Science of Gratitude and How to Build a Gratitude Practice” https://hubermanlab.com/the-science-of-gratitude-and-how-to-build-a-gratitude-practice/ (12:20)

[xv] Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning Podcast EPISODE #179 with Sun Sachs from Rewire Fitness https://andreasamadi.podbean.com/e/sun-sachs-ceo-of-rewire-fitness-on-their-first-to-market-neuro-performance-mobile-app-for-athletes/

[xvi] Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier by Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D. Published November 1, 2008 https://www.amazon.com/Thanks-Practicing-Gratitude-Make-Happier/dp/0547085737

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