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The Power of Gratitude

7 min read
27/09/23 13:20

In the wise words of the ancient philosopher Epicurus, “Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not”.  This profound message serves as a reminder of a timeless wisdom that often eludes us. In the midst of the ceaseless demands of our modern lives, characterised by fleeting moments of happiness and an insatiable desire for more, lies the simple yet transformative practice of gratitude.

The Happiness Equation

The quest for happiness appears to be deeply embedded in the fabric of human existence, yet the concept of happiness varies greatly from person to person. What may bring joy to one individual could potentially bring dissatisfaction to another.

Happiness can be seen to be derived from the relationship between what we have, both tangible and intangible, and what we want. If we were to think of this relationship formulaically, the happiness equation can be expressed as: 

Happiness = What You Have ÷ What You Desire. 

At a first glance, this equation presents two seemingly straightforward pathways to increase our happiness quotient: (a) increase what we have, or (b) curtail or refine our desires.

Most individuals, influenced by societal norms and popular culture, inadvertently veer towards the first option. We're conditioned to believe that the acquisition of a new item, reaching a new milestone, or obtaining societal approval (in the form of 'likes', for instance) will unlock new levels of contentment. We visualise these objectives and make sacrifices, fuelled by the belief that achieving them will usher in the long-anticipated joy we've been seeking.

However, this happiness acquired from achievements or possessions is ephemeral. Consider the transient joy of unboxing a new gadget or the fleeting satisfaction of positive feedback on social media. Such happiness tends to be transient, dissolving back into our baseline emotional state after the initial euphoria subsides. This phenomenon, where our happiness levels adjust back to a certain baseline regardless of positive or negative events, is termed "hedonic adaptation".

To place this into perspective, consider lottery winners. The elation of a monumental win should, in theory, elevate their happiness permanently, as they now have greatly more than they had previously. Yet, research suggests that their euphoria is often short-lived. Once the initial exhilaration dissipates, their levels of happiness revert to baseline, or sometimes even lower, revealing the transient nature of happiness that's anchored to external events or possessions.
This insight beckons a deeper exploration into the second part of the happiness equation: re-evaluating what we truly want. 

Gratitude and Wellbeing

In the vast tapestry of emotions we experience, gratitude stands out as a unique and potent force. Gratitude can be defined as an affirmative recognition, an acknowledgment of the positive aspects, gifts, and benefits we receive in life, often from external sources. This could be anything from appreciating the beauty of a sunset to being thankful for a loved one's unwavering support. 
The act of acknowledgment and appreciation holds immense potential to profoundly impact our wellbeing.

Tracing back to the earliest days of our species, focusing on harmful, perilous, and negative elements in our environment was crucial for survival. Those with a heightened sensitivity to danger and a predisposition to concentrate more on the negative were more likely to live and thrive. Consequently, our brains have developed an inherent inclination to seek out and emphasise the negative aspects of our surroundings. However, in our modern lives, this evolutionary "negativity bias" can often work against us to the detriment of our wellbeing.

When we regularly cultivate gratitude, we can help to rewire our brains to focus on the positive, diminishing the overshadowing effect of bias towards negativity. Cultivating gratitude helps us to focus on the positive aspects of our lives, which can in turn help to build resilience, enabling us to handle challenges more effectively.

Engaging in gratitude exercises, such as journaling or mindful reflection, has been linked to a plethora of benefits. These can include enhanced mood, reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression, better sleep, and even physiological improvements like lowered blood pressure.

On a societal level, gratitude can also help to build connections between people. It acts as a bridge, strengthening relationships, promoting empathy, and encouraging reciprocity. People who regularly express and experience gratitude tend to nurture healthier relationships, which, in turn, further bolsters resilience and wellbeing. In essence, gratitude can be a profound emotional catalyst. It not only enriches our present moment and improves our connections with others, it can also be a powerful tool to improve our wellbeing. 

The Science of Gratitude

Gratitude isn’t just a simple emotion, it has a complex neurochemical basis, rooted in our evolution, that affects our brain's function. From an evolutionary standpoint, the development of gratitude as an emotion likely had significant survival value. In primitive societies, cooperation and mutual support were essential for survival. Gratitude, by reinforcing altruistic and prosocial behaviours, helped in the formation and maintenance of social bonds and cooperative alliances, thus increasing the chances of survival and reproductive success for individuals within a group.

When a person experiences gratitude, there is an activation in the brain's regions associated with social bonding, moral cognition, and value judgment, primarily in the prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and hypothalamus. This activation suggests that gratitude has evolved to reinforce prosocial behaviours and strengthen interpersonal relationships.

When we feel grateful, our brains release a cocktail of beneficial neurotransmitters and hormones, including dopamine and oxytocin. Dopamine, often termed the ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitter, plays a crucial role in our brain's reward system. It provides a sense of pleasure and reinforces behaviours crucial for survival, like eating but also social bonding. In the context of gratitude, dopamine release makes the act of giving and receiving feel rewarding, which subsequently encourages repetition of these positive behaviours. Oxytocin, also known as the "love hormone", strengthens social bonds and trust. It is released during positive social interactions and acts to reinforce social bonds and affiliations. The release of oxytocin during moments of gratitude facilitates closer bonds and more harmonious relationships, underlining the social and relational essence of gratitude.

Stress Reduction and Resilience

In addition to the aforementioned chemicals, gratitude also reduces cortisol levels, the primary stress hormone. High cortisol levels are linked to numerous health issues, including anxiety, depression, heart disease and poor sleep. By mitigating cortisol production, gratitude can support a more balanced and resilient mental state, helping individuals cope with stress and adversity more effectively. In essence, the science of gratitude paints a picture of an intricate, multifaceted emotion, deeply intertwined with our neurochemistry, social behaviours, and evolutionary past. 

Gratitude and the Mind

The human mind, with its intricate processes and emotions, is in many ways shaped by the experiences we encounter. Among these emotions, gratitude stands out for its profound ability to help transform our mental landscape in a number of beneficial ways. 

Cognitive Reframing and Positivity Bias

Gratitude often acts as a catalyst for cognitive reframing. When we consciously recognise and appreciate the good in our lives, our mental focus shifts from what's lacking or negative to what's abundant and positive. This reframing is not just a momentary bright spot but can lead to a long-term "positivity bias". In essence, our brains become more attuned to recognising good events, leading to an upward spiral of positive emotion. Research found that participants who wrote about things they were grateful for felt better about their lives as a whole and were more optimistic about the upcoming week compared to those who wrote about daily hassles or neutral events.

Enhancing Emotional Regulation and Resilience

Gratitude plays a pivotal role in emotional regulation. By focusing on positive experiences and appreciating them, individuals can dampen the intensity of negative emotions like envy, regret, or resentment. Moreover, gratitude has been linked to resilience, acting as a buffer against stress and trauma

Deepening Social Bonds and Empathy

Gratitude has an inherently social dimension. When we feel grateful, we often direct this emotion towards others, fostering a sense of connection and reducing feelings of loneliness and isolation. This sentiment nurtures empathy, as we become more attuned to the feelings and needs of others. Dr. Robert Emmons, a leading gratitude researcher, found that people who practice gratitude consistently show enhanced empathy and reduced aggression, emphasising the vital role gratitude plays in social harmony and interpersonal relationships.


Enhancing Wellbeing

Research has indicated that those who engage in gratitude practices can benefit from increased subjective wellbeing and a higher overall satisfaction with life. One notable study at the University of Pennsylvania found that when participants wrote and delivered a letter of gratitude to someone they felt they hadn't properly thanked, they immediately exhibited a significant increase in happiness scores.


Strengthening Connections With Gratitude 

The tapestry of human evolution is woven with threads of mutual reliance and social cohesion. As social beings, our ancestors' survival often hinged on collaborative efforts. Gratitude played—and continues to play—a pivotal role in this landscape. This emotion serves as a 'social cement,' fostering bonds of trust, enhancing reciprocity, and deepening our sense of belongingness. Research suggests that expressions of gratitude bolster social bonds, engendering cooperation even in non-reciprocal situations.

One of the most delicate aspects of human relationships is trust. Whether forming new bonds or mending fractured ones, gratitude can serve as a potent tool in trust-building. By focusing on mutual appreciation and the good in others, gratitude provides a positive lens through which we can view our social world, encouraging trust-based interactions.

The Power and Simplicity of Gratitude

Genuine gratitude is not just a fleeting emotion; it's a transformative force that shapes our perception, relationships, and overall wellbeing. In the race for more—more achievements, more possessions, more milestones—we often overlook the value of the present. Gratitude brings our focus back to what we truly value, allowing us to find contentment with what we already have, right where we are. 

Furthermore, in our relationships, gratitude acts as a glue, fostering trust, understanding, and mutual appreciation. It’s more than just saying "thank you"; it's about recognising value, both in moments and in people. Embracing gratitude is about recognising life's gifts, big or small. It’s a choice to focus on what we have rather than what we lack, on connection over division. By cultivating gratitude, we are able to pave the way for a life filled with more happiness and stronger connections. 

The beauty of gratitude is both its simplicity and accessibility. It doesn't require monetary investment, extensive training, or any particular circumstance. Whether riding the crest of joy or trudging through the trough of adversity, every moment presents an opportunity for gratitude. In recognising the goodness present in our lives, even in the most challenging situations, we are able to tap into a reservoir of happiness, positivity and resilience.

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