Let’s face it, this Thanksgiving will be in a class by itself.
It will be a unique experience. Some families will gather around tables, smaller than in the past, others will gather “virtually.” Whatever your plans, many of us will be changing the way that we celebrate this holiday.
Thanksgiving may seem like a challenging, perhaps ironic, undertaking in 2020. It is an important one. Our relationships and our families need to make time for this ritual, this year more than ever. You need this pause and this focus on gratitude as well.
Let’s look at gratitude from another lens and follow the science. How can a better understanding of the neuroscience of gratitude help us to pull through these difficult days?
Gratitude is a way to acknowledge the good things in life. Gratitude is a positive emotional response felt on giving or receiving a benefit from someone (Emmons & McCullough, 2004).
Robert Emmons is a psychology professor at the University of California, and perhaps the world’s leading expert on the neuroscience of gratitude
“When we experience resentments, we make ourselves envious, angry, bitter, and annoyed again and again. We are weighed down in negativity, prevented from accessing gratitude and serenity.”Robert Emmons.
These impediments to gratitude and serenity are often due to external stressors. Of course, this year that includes COVID. In this blog post, I’ll discuss the neuroscience of gratitude. You will learn how to notice and redirect negative thoughts and emotions. Doing so will protect your quality of life and relationship.
“Gratitude reduces all stress, big and small.”Robert Emmons
Bring this practice into your life and practice mindfulness with your partner. Take a moment to turn away from the distractions that are all around you. Take a moment to see, hear, taste, feel what is going on at this moment. Notice what you are grateful for in this fully present time. Notice what is going right in your life.
Pausing to find the positive outcomes in your life is time well spent. Gratitude is a powerful, yet sometimes subtle emotion.
If we wait for only the large events to feel gratitude, we miss out on so many little moments. That is what strengthens our relationships, many small deposits into our love bank over time.
Gratitude and humility are also related concepts. Humility reminds us of our interconnectedness and dissuades us from the myth of self-sufficiency.
When we can manage to lift our heads up and see the world with grateful eyes we’re invited to ponder the preciousness of life. We can also appreciate the gravity, and pervasiveness of our shared predicament.
I’ve been thinking a lot about humility lately. We live in decidedly ego-driven, un-humble times.
Perhaps that’s why it’s so damn hard to be grateful.
We’re used to laying claim to every good fortune that crosses our path. We’ve reveled in our independence. Now we are waking up to realize that the world is an uncertain place and that nothing is promised to us.
Telling people to buck up, count their blessings, and remember what they still have to be grateful for can do much harm.
Processing a life experience through a grateful lens does not mean denying negativity.
It is not a form of superficial “happiology.” Rather, it means realizing the power you have to transform an obstacle into an opportunity. Reframe a loss into a potential gain, recast negativity into positive channels for gratitude.Robert Emmons
“the more practice you give your brain at feeling and expressing gratitude, the more it adapts to this mindset — you could even think of your brain as having a sort of gratitude ‘muscle’ that can be exercised and strengthened … the more of an effort you make to feel gratitude one day, the more the feeling will come to you spontaneously in the future.” Christian Jarrett
The more we think grateful thoughts, the more we activate the “gratitude” circuits in our brain. The more often we activate our gratitude circuits the quicker these neural pathways will be able to see the positive. Our minds will be less inclined to problem-saturated thinking.
The neuroscience of gratitude helps us to recognize what’s going right not hyper-focusing on problems.
It’s become an axiom of neuroscience that “neurons that fire together, wire together.” This is called Hebb’s Law. That’s how neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to form new neural pathways, can deepen our capacity for gratitude.
The COVID Pandemic will deepen our capacity for gratitude as we stop taking things for granted.The history of Thanksgiving, our national day of gratitude, is a history of our shared social predicaments.
The first Thanksgiving took place after nearly half the pilgrims died after a horrific winter.
Thanksgiving became a national holiday in the middle of the Civil War and moved to its current date during the Great Depression.
As we face challenging times, remember that an appreciation for the neuroscience of gratitude may preserve your mental health.
Happy Thanksgiving from the team at Couples Therapy Inc. May you and your families find gratitude and health this holiday season.
Emmons, R. A. (2004). The Psychology of Gratitude: An Introduction. In R. A. Emmons & M. E. McCullough (Eds.), Series in affective science. The psychology of gratitude (p. 3–16). Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195150100.003.0001
Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410–421. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.60.5.410
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He is the Blog Editor. He currently works online seeing couples from Massachusetts at Couples Therapy Inc. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.