The emerging science of positive attitudes like gratitude and appreciation leaves little doubt that giving thanks is good for you and good for those around you. So what are you waiting for?
Ahh, Thanksgiving. Time to fight traffic and travel long distances to visit relatives we may not even like and gorge ourselves on factory-farmed turkeys to commemorate our ancestors’ conquest of Native Americans before rushing out to toss our dollars into the great black hole of corporate thievery…
Whoops…no, that’s not it. Rewind.
That’s the kind of attitude that will get you in trouble, physiologically speaking. Frustration, resentment, anger — these are the dark emotions that thrust our bodies into a state of stress and anxiety, triggering an evolutionarily ingrained response that floods our body with powerful, even toxic, hormones, puts our brain on alert, and throws our heartbeat rhythms into disordered chaos.
Positive emotions like love, compassion, and appreciation, on the other hand, counteract the physiology of the stress response. They send up feel-good hormones like norepinephrine. Dopamine flows in the brain’s pleasure pathways. Heart rhythms relax into a more stable, coherent order.
Gratitude, it turns out, may be one of the most powerful ways to get that “warm-glow’ feeling. Better yet, it seems like that warm glow may actually spread from one person to those in his near vicinity.
What Vibes Are You Emitting?
We’ve all experienced this, right? Someone so infectiously positive that you can’t help but feel good around them? Or expressing such heartfelt gratitude that you feel compelled to thank them for thanking you? Of course, sad or angry feelings can spread as well. We feel the “vibes” of other people, good or bad.
One scientific explanation behind that phenomenon is the idea that the heart emits an electromagnetic field that extends, according to some research, out several feet from our bodies, and is about 60 times stronger than the electromagnetic energy emitted by the brain. When we are interacting with people in close proximity, our heart energy field literally encompasses their body, and vice versa.
It turns out that positive emotions like gratitude and appreciation set your heart-rate pattern in a particular way – a smooth-waved rhythm of peaks – whereas negative emotions like anger and frustration send it into an erratic, disordered rhythm. The Institute of HeartMath , a non-profit organization that studies “heart intelligence,” has shown how different emotional states change the pattern of this heart-rate variability.
If you put this research together – and the HearthMath Institute is pushing the envelope on this idea – you can envision how your own emotional state affects those around you. In fact, there’s pretty good evidence that your particular heart-rate rhythm — your “heart-print,” if you will — shows up in the patterns of those around you.
The Power of Gratitude
A couple years back, Gregg Braden, an author and activist who draws on science to explain spiritual phenomena, demonstrated this vividly in a weekend workshop at the Omega Institute. He hooked up a woman volunteer to a heart-rate monitor, a simple clip placed on her ear that measured her heartbeat and displayed it on a projection screen the whole group could see. Then Braden gave the woman a difficult mental task, something like count backwards by 103 from 3,457, and quickly!, he ordered her. Immediately we saw the woman’s heart-rate jump all over the place, and it just got worse as she struggled with the arithmetic.
Mercifully, he stopped her. Then he had the 100 or so of us in the room do a simple, quick exercise. He had us put our hands on our hearts, focus our breath there, and think about something we were truly grateful for. The guinea-pig volunteer was wearing headphones and was not engaged in the exercise, so she didn’t know what we were doing, but her heart rate was still projected.
After just a minute or two, we opened our eyes to see that her heart rate had gone from jagged peaks and valleys to a relatively smooth, ordered rhythm – a pattern the HeartMath people call “coherence.”
This was, for me, a memorable demonstration of the power of collective positivity, via the simple act of feeling thankful. Gratitude, Braden said, is the most reliable way to bring your heart rate into a “coherent” rhythm indicative of a calm, relaxed state of mind– and to bring others right there with you.
The Key to Relationship Happiness?
This may explain some of the findings of social scientists who have studied the impact of gratitude on interpersonal relationships. For example, last year, researchers at the University of California-Berkeley published results showing that people who feel more appreciated by their romantic partners are in turn more appreciative of their partners and more responsive to their partners’ needs. They also are more committed and more likely to remain in their relationships over time.
Makes sense, right? You appreciate me, and I appreciate that you appreciate me, so I appreciate you in return. Gratitude flows both ways, and everybody’s happy. Could it be that gratitude is the simple key to relationship happiness?
To Be an ‘A’ or a ‘B’?
Much has been written about how our emotional makeup impacts heart health, positively or negatively. Fifty years ago, Friedman and Rosenman first described how people with the now-infamous “Type A” personality — marked by hostility, impatience, competitiveness and dominance – were more prone to cardiovascular disease and death from heart attack. In the decades since, researchers have attempted to narrow down the Type A traits that are most problematic, and guess what? Negative-affect traits like depression, anxiety, and anger/hostility turn out to be the most damaging pieces of the puzzle. Psychological scientists call it “Type D” (for distressed) personality.
Positive emotional traits, conversely, have been associated with better health overall and lower risk for heart disease. Relaxed Type B’s, social extroverts, and optimists tend to enjoy better quality of live and suffer less serious health issues. One study published in 2010 that followed 500 men for 15 years found that the optimists in the study had a 50 percent lower risk of heart-related death than those who had a more pessimistic view of life.
It’s easy to consider how gratitude fits in with a more optimistic, positive social personality. Who’s more likely to be grateful: someone who is angry, anxious, or depressed, or someone who is calm, content and feels blessed? Someone who sees the glass half empty or someone who sees it half full? Which kind of person do you feel better around?
What About the Brain?
As research progresses, science is beginning to tease out, gradually but inevitably, exactly how and why positive emotions impact general health and well-being. So what about the brain? How does something like gratitude affect the brain?
People like Candace Pert, a prominent mainstream neurobiologist whose book, Molecules of Emotion, helped put words like neuropeptide into the public vocabulary, have shed light on the neural correlates of various emotional states. Or neuroscientist Richard Davidson, whose groundbreaking investigations in the science of meditation have helped describe what happiness looks like in the brain. Or neurosurgeon James Doty, whose research center at Stanford University investigates the neural bases of compassion and altruism and how the conscious cultivation of compassionate states can literally reshape the brain.
On the other hand, neuroscience has barely nibbled on the question of how “gratitude” — a scientifically nebulous social construct — is represented in the folds and synapses of the brain. There is some evidence from brain-imaging studies that the brain’s “reward center” lights up when we’re feeling grateful. This is the same neural circuit that underlies primal drives like feeding and mating, you know, things that have been kind of important to the survival of the species. It’s also the circuit that is co-opted by drugs of abuse like cocaine or heroin, which push it into a hyperdrive of reward-seeking over all else.
Gratitude is like cocaine to your brain?
Well, not quite. Maybe more like chocolate. But the fact that it activates the reward center, the pleasure pathway of the brain, makes sense, doesn’t it? Gratitude is rewarding. Gratitude feels good, whether you’re the giver or the receiver.
And like the romantic partners who appreciated their partners more because their partners appreciated them, gratitude breeds more of the same. The pleasure pathway keeps getting a “hit,” making us crave more of that feeling so we direct our behavior to getting more – just like aq junkie seeks out that next rush of cocaine.
Dopamine is the neuro juice the good ole pleasure pathway uses to stay lubed up. It’s the feel-good neurotransmitter, the one you get a hit of from sex, drugs and…well, maybe rock and roll, but definitely from high-caloric foods like chocolate, which we all know can be addictive. But don’t go calling dopamine the “gratitude neurotransmitter” just yet. It’s certainly feasible that the rush we get when we offer heartfelt appreciation may be related to a little squirt of dopamine releasing deep in our mid-brain, but science still has a long way to go before anyone can point to a “thank you” part of the brain.
Could it be that they’ve been looking in the wrong place altogether?
Heart Over Head in Happiness
Richard Davidson, a scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, has led a ground-breaking series of studies with long-time meditators in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. At a conference on meditation and neuroscience last fall in New York, he told the story of when he and his scientific team traveled to India to perform a series of brain scans on the monks participating in the study. Displaying a picture of a group of the monks heartily laughing, Davidson said: “This was right after we explained, through a translator, that we were going to scan their brains as part of a study to understand happiness.”
The monks might be encouraged to see that more and more researchers are now moving a couple feet south of the brain to try to understand how and why an attitude of gratitude benefits health and well-being, in ourselves and in those around us.
If nothing else, it’s something to keep in mind as you’re sitting down with that family of yours and contemplating the true meaning and value behind the tradition of thanks-giving.