Updated: Dec 10, 2022
Practicing gratitude can be transformative. This simple practice gives me the lift I need to rise above challenges and weather uncertainties.
Gratitude is attentional. We direct attention to our blessings. Gratitude is also intentional. This practice counters the brain’s negativity bias, which refers to the tendency to focus on unpleasant thoughts, emotions, interactions or traumatic events. This bias affects our impressions, memory, decisions, and biochemistry. The negativity bias confers advantages (caution, prudence, and planning may stem from it), but when negativity becomes the dominant way of seeing, it can contribute to mental distress and physical dis-ease.
I learned this practice as a young man growing up in poverty. With eyes of gratitude, I saw that even in the most blighted neighborhoods, flowers bloomed, birds sang, children played, the sun warmed our skin. The most resilient among us offered proof that peace, love, and happiness were not contingent on income, education, status, or circumstance. True peace and joy could be cultivated from within. Gratitude promoted its growth. I made gratitude a habit, enumerating things for which I was thankful. In the beginning of my experiment, I listed the obvious: food in my belly, a roof over my head on rainy days, clothes on my back and shoes on my feet. Every day, I passed by homeless men and women who did not enjoy these blessings. Their suffering watered my compassion.
Growing up in the 'hood was itself a blessing. I learned compassion. There was suffering just outside our iron security doors and barred windows. The drug addicts and gang members who were demonized in the press were suffering human beings with names and faces and histories. They were our neighbors, members of the church we grew up with, classmates, kin- human beings just like us- not statistics, not monsters, not villains, not failures- but people just like me trying to find their own way. At the experiential level, I was cultivating empathy. Empathy grew out of pain. Because I suffered, I could stand in solidarity with those who felt defeated by despair, failure, and frustration. Those connections were often the most profound and enduring. There was beauty in it!
At the cellular level, prosocial neural circuits were being strengthened. The anterior cingulate cortex mediates empathy. It becomes more robustly engaged the more we practice gratitude. This encourages pro-social behaviors like altruism. At the physiological level, heart rate, breathing, and metabolism change. Inflammation decreases (i.e, there are significant drops in interleukin-6, an inflammation marker, and TNF-alpha, an inflammatory cytokine); immunity improves (Hazlett, 2021). The fear circuitry, which is usually primed when we see "otherness" and perceived threats, becomes less active.
Serotonin, a powerful neuromodulator, activates neural networks associated with pro-social behaviors and positive affect. The more we practice gratitude, the more serotonin we release and the more we release, the greater our sense of gratitude.
Gratitude cultivated resilience. Life was struggle. I learned how to hustle and grind and work hard. I learned how to cultivate self-respect and self-love in a culture that despised us for the color of our skins and our poverty. Indeed, studies show that a gratitude practice not only buffers people against the negative psychological effects of earlier traumas, but inoculates against any traumas that may occur.
We lived in "poverty," but we also lived in America. Paved roads, homes built to code, indoor plumbing, a reliable electric grid, clean tap water, free public education, sanitation and waste disposal, public libraries, the right to criticize and challenge government officials, and peaceful transfers of power were blessings many took for granted. Many people suffered for lack of just one of these. Access to clean water, for example, allowed girls in remote villages to attend school (as they no longer had to walk miles to fetch dirty water from a muddy river). We were "poor" by American standards, but we were better off by world standards. A poor child growing up in America could prosper. The same could not be said for the talented and ambitious of many other countries. When I looked through the eyes of a father or mother born into true poverty, the 'hood was not the bottommost rung, but a step up. The ghetto was part of the hazing immigrants were willing to endure in exchange for the opportunity to improve their circumstances.
In many respects, I lived better than 18th century kings. By historical standards, I was blessed. Kings surrounded themselves with learned ministers; I had the world wide web. Kings had their minstrels and orchestras; I could listen to all of the world’s music and stream video from the smart phone in my pocket. The king’s physicians practiced bloodletting; I had the advantage of modern medicine. In the 18th century, millions died from illnesses and suffered debilitating diseases I was vaccinated against.
Kings had their carriages. I had a car that could travel faster and over longer distances. Kings ate foods prepared locally or whatever could be transported without spoil from the remotest corners of the kingdom; my local supermarket imported foods from the most distant corners of the globe. We had refrigerators, indoor plumbing and heating, electricity and other blessings kings of old could never have imagined.
Although, by the standard of those who equated wealth with material assets, I was “poor,” I felt grateful for what I had and for what I did not have. As I continued on this journey, venturing further into the practice of gratitude, I included that which I did not have to endure: hunger, disease, war, extreme poverty, neglect, abuse or illness. Turns out researchers recognized the value of this technique of reminding ourselves of those things we do not have to suffer or endure (But, I trust that even if I must suffer, there might be purpose in it).
Practicing gratitude improved my moods. This habit, when applied, lessened the intensity and duration of my despair. Indeed, as my practice deepened, I found myself grateful for my sadness and anger, my failures and frustrations, my pain and suffering. With gratitude, I could hold my despair in a compassionate embrace. For behind the sadness and anger were beautiful needs to be seen, to be respected, to be understood. By tolerating failure and frustration, I could train resilience and cultivate equanimity.
With practice, I learned to integrate the broken and exiled parts of the self. This led to wholeness. With gratitude, I could thank the little self for its sincere efforts to do what it thought was best for the whole (however foolish or unskillful those efforts may have been).
Over time, my gratitude continued to deepen. The simplest things delighted the soul. One of the greatest gifts for which I was most grateful was the most humble and unassuming; it was literally right under my nose.
The breath was a gift. It was my ally. All other blessings came courtesy of the comings and goings of the breath. I did not create it. I had no hand in mapping the pathway from brain to diaphragm; I did not line the trachea with cilia to filter air, nor did I have a hand in designing lungs- one slightly larger than the other to make room for the heart; I did not imagine alveoli or create the gas exchange; I did not stock the atmosphere with the right composition of gases to support life. While I could not suspend the breath, I could control it. I could observe it. I could rest in it’s rhythm and constancy. Life danced within. Each breath could bring me back into the present moment. I was breathed into and gifted with life.
My appreciation grew deeper as my awareness grew more discerning. I felt grateful for my health. I was grateful for my eyes, a wondrous organ that evolved over millennia to detect light. The pupil contracted when exposed to light and dilated to capture light in darkness. It could zoom in or zoom out at the speed of thought. I’d notice and itemize those things I could appreciate with sight: colors, textures, shadows, depth of field, the empty space between objects, the filtered light that fell on the trees at dawn, the waxing crescent moon in a starry night sky, the stamens in a flower. I’d list the activities which sight enabled me to enjoy, like reading. Sight was but one of the wonderful gifts we were fortunate to receive at birth.
Then there was inner seeing. The sense organs recorded sight and sound, but the mind filtered and interpreted the data. There was perception and there was the Thought behind thought that processed the raw data. The mind created stories about what it was seeing, co-creating reality or submitting to the reality created by others, investing in the illusions of others. This sight allowed me to peek behind the veil of thought-forms to the Mystery beyond thought- from which thought emerged. This was a true seeing. With this sight, I could see the beauty in the tired eyes of the prostitute or divinity in the dirty face of a homeless man pushing a shopping cart.
I felt gratitude for my ears and received its gifts with deep appreciation. Sound waves travel through the medium of air. These vibrations create differences in air pressure. The outer ear, or pinna, with its sinuous shapes, amplifies these waves. As they enter the ear canal, they strike the tympanic membrane causing it to vibrate. The ossicles behind the eardrum move. As the ossicles move, the stapes press into a thin membrane known as the oval window. As the stapes presses into the oval window, the fluid inside the cochlea begins to move. As the fluid in the cochlea begins to move, hair cells are stimulated. These auditory receptor cells generate neural impulses that travel along the auditory nerve to the brain. Auditory information is shuttled to the inferior colliculus, the medial geniculate nucleus of the thalamus, and finally to the auditory cortex in the temporal lobe of the brain for processing.
I receive with an open heart the many gifts hearing allows me to enjoy: music, (one of my greatest passions), the pitch and timbre of my children's voices, the trill of a wood thrush, the roar of the surf, the rustling of leaves, the laughter of friends. Even the cacophony of thoughts and the inner chatter has its own rhythm and cadence and structure. Every thought has a beginning and an end, a color, a valence, an emotion. Our behaviors are reactions to the inner monologues we attend to.
I was grateful for my hands and found myself celebrating the simple things: brushing my teeth, the toothbrush twirling between nimble fingers and thumb; getting dressed, the fingers clasping and positioning the buttons through the button holes. I slip on my shoes and marvel at the complexity of tying shoelaces. I gesture to catch someone’s attention. I signal directions. I speak with palms open. I play piano, each finger working the keys. I cut open a loaf of bread. I clap along to a song. I caress my daughter's cheek. And like this throughout the day, I remain mindful of all I can express and create with my hands, receiving its many gifts with gratitude. With gratitude, I also recognize that everything I see was created with someone else's hands: every home (every door and glass pane and door frame and roof), every car (every windshield and door handle and engine and rim), every airplane gliding across the sky, every utility pole, all the roads, every fence and garden was worked by hand. Even the robots that automate manufacturing were once created by hands.
As my practice deepened, so too did my contentment. I found I needed very little to be happy. Indeed, I felt as if I had more than enough.
Facundo Cabral, an Argentinian singer and songwriter, told the story of a meeting between God and a poor cobbler. God takes the form of a wanderer and descends to a small village. He knocks on the door of a cobbler.
"Brother, I have no money on me. These are my only sandals. They need repair. Would you do me the kindness?"
The cobbler replied, "Im tired of people coming to me asking for handouts and giving me nothing in return."
"I can give you whatever it is you need," the wanderer replied.
The cobbler, puzzled, looked at the wanderer skeptically. "Do you have the million dollars that I need to be happy?"
"I can give you ten times that in exchange for something."
"In exchange for what?" asked the cobbler.
"...in exchange for your legs."
"What good is ten million dollars if I can't walk," replies the cobbler.
"Very well," the wanderer replied. "I can give you 100 million in exchange for your arms."
"What good is 100 million if I can't eat on my own or build with my hands or play my guitar?"
"OK," replied the wanderer. "I'll give you a billion in exchange for your sight."
The cobbler pauses to think, then replies: "What good is that if I can't enjoy the sunset with my wife or see my children or my friends?"
The wanderer replied: "Ah, my brother, how rich you are, and you don't even realize it."
I encourage you to give gratitude a try. Stanford neuroscientist Andrew Huberman suggests these 5 tips:
1. GET THANKS
That’s right. Get thanks. Neuroimaging, EEG (brain electrical recording) and psychology studies show that the positive effects of a gratitude practice primarily occur when we receive, not when we give, gratitude. Of course, for that to happen, someone has to give gratitude, but merely writing out gratitude lists or counting our blessings—while useful, pale in comparison to receiving gratitude. Thus, give gratitude and encourage those receiving it to really hear you. Hopefully, someone in your life (perhaps many people) will genuinely thank you too.
2. MAKE IT GENUINE
In the science of gratitude podcast episode, I discussed a study showing that the genuine intention of the gratitude giver (the thanker), has a direct impact on the degree of positive effect felt by the person receiving the gratitude (the thankee). So give thanks, but do so with honesty. It matters.
3. OBSERVE/RECALL OTHERS GIVING & RECEIVING GENUINE THANKS
Neuroimaging studies from Antonio Damasio's Lab show that observing or hearing the stories of others receiving help (or thanks) activates pro-social circuits that improve our mood and other health metrics. We are wired for social interactions and are wired to gauge the emotional state of others. Hence, billions of viral Instagram and Twitter posts of people helping each other, people helping dogs or other animals stuck in drainage ditches, even dogs helping people stuck in drainage ditches, etc. It’s not by chance these posts are so popular. As the psychologist and neuroscientist Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, says: we regulate each other’s nervous systems. Having a story you can recall in which someone received genuine gratitude is beneficial. Recall that story 1-3 times per week. Once it’s imbedded in your memory, you don’t have to recall it in great detail to receive the benefits.
4. INTROVERSION & EXTROVERSION REFLECT SOCIAL HOMEOSTASIS
We have brain circuits that drive a “social hunger” – an appetite for finding and reinforcing social bonds, and the release of the neurochemical dopamine from a special brain location (called the dorsal raphe nucleus; DRN) is involved in that drive. Studies on introverts and extroverts suggest that introverts like social interaction but are socially satisfied faster than are extroverts. This makes sense, based potential differences in the amount of dopamine they release from the DRN in response to social interactions. Don’t assume that introverts are quiet and that extroverts talk a lot. That can be true, but just as often, it is simply that introverts experience more dopamine release from less social interaction and thus are satisfied earlier. The takeaway is to offer (or take) opportunities to exit social interactions early and not feel guilty about it or take offense. The extroverts can keep at it until they get the DRN/dopamine they need. If anyone gets offended when you say, “all full… I’m ready to go”, feel free to cite me.
5. MERGE PHYSIOLOGIES
Elegant studies done earlier this year show that when people hear a story, their hearts begin to beat in a similar way even if they are not in the same room as one another. This is remarkable and holds up even for people with very different backgrounds and lives. Other studies point to the fact that when people have similar physiological experiences, they forever feel closer, which is familiar to many of us. Oxytocin (a hormone) appears to be involved. Narrative drives common physiological responses, which are powerful glue for relationship building of all kinds. The takeaway: Build social bonds by hearing, watching or sharing stories. Everyone being on their individual phones is not the way to do that. Watching movies, hearing someone tell stories, playing or listening to music, etc. are all excellent paths to this. Do those things together.Every day find 10 things for which to be grateful. You can write them down or count them off on your fingers. Go deeper and feel the gratitude. Savor it. Practice first thing in the morning and just before bed. The practice is simple, yet powerful. But don't take my word for it; experiment for yourself.
First published April 25, 2020. Edited and updated November 25, 2021