Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Gratitude Tricks of the Week

JAN BROGAN -  So, we all know that this is the week to be grateful.  The raison d'être of Turkey Day. The time to stop thinking about how much we need and start thinking about how much we have.

But it gets a little bit boring to think of gratitude the way our  parents, teachers, and parish priests foisted it upon us.  It's much more interesting to think about it as a mental trick we must play on ourselves.

For many reasons, “taking in the good” is counter-intuitive to how our brains have evolved for the survival of our species; say the experts. Our brains have a bias like Velcro for the negative, Teflon for the positive.

That's why you have to be creative. You must come up with a way to push positive thinking upon yourself. And not just because you are trying to win some Jack Handy award, but because it's actually good for your brain.

Neuroscientists say that when we intentionally take in the good we are building resources in our neural circuitry to act as a buffer against stress, negativity, trauma, and to promote our brain’s flexibility and resilience.

Need more convincing?

This from the Huffington Post:  
"As Drs. Blaire and Rita Justice reported for the University of Texas Health Science Center, "a growing body of research shows that gratitude is truly amazing in its physical and psychosocial benefits."
In one study on gratitude, conducted by Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., at the University of California at Davis and his colleague Mike McCullough at the University of Miami, randomly assigned participants were given one of three tasks. Each week, participants kept a short journal. One group briefly described five things they were grateful for that had occurred in the past week, another five recorded daily hassles from the previous week that displeased them, and the neutral group was asked to list five events or circumstances that affected them, but they were not told whether to focus on the positive or on the negative. Ten weeks later, participants in the gratitude group felt better about their lives as a whole and were a full 25 percent happier than the hassled group. They reported fewer health complaints, and exercised an average of 1.5 hours more.

In a later study by Emmons, people were asked to write every day about things for which they were grateful. Not surprisingly, this daily practice led to greater increases in gratitude than did the weekly journaling in the first study. But the results showed another benefit: Participants in the gratitude group also reported offering others more emotional support or help with a personal problem, indicating that the gratitude exercise increased their goodwill towards others, or more tehnically, their "pro-social" motivation.

 Several studies have shown depression to be inversely correlated to gratitude. It seems that the more grateful a person is, the less depressed they are. Philip Watkins, a clinical psychologist at Eastern Washington University, found that clinically depressed individuals showed significantly lower gratitude (nearly 50 percent less) than non-depressed controls."

JAN: Goodness is good for you!! And not just gratitude. In a story about meditation I wrote for the Boston Globe, which will be in the September 26, I talk to a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital who has a new study that shows when people meditate on compassion,  they not only reduce their incidence of depression, they actually change the way part of the brain activates.

So I am not going to ask you to talk about what you are grateful for. That just gets a little too smarmy.  Instead I'm going to ask you what mental tricks you pull off to make yourself feel grateful.

For example, here's my gratitude trick of the week:.  I am not focusing on the fact that my daughter is going to HOUSTON for Thanksgiving with her boyfriend instead of coming home, (Here you must picture me as Mae,  Albert's overbearing mother in Bye Bye Birdie singing "A Mother Doesn't Matter Anymore") Instead, I'm focusing on just how grateful I am my son is arriving a whole day early and I'll get to see him later tonight!

 Now it's your turn.


Joan Emerson said...

I was in the Hallmark shop, getting books to record [which, my brain cheerfully noted meant I could read to any of the Little Ones, even if we weren’t in the same place] when the owner of the store began telling about tearing out the walls in his home to prevent mold from growing in the wet sheetrock. Instant reminder: after the past three weeks, my brain doesn’t need any tricks to remember to be grateful . . . all I have to do is look around and see how many folks are coping with their homes having been reduced to a pile of rubble.

Karen in Ohio said...

When I look at old photos I am always smiling and happy. Now I do remember my childhood; it was pretty awful. But for some reason I seem to have gotten wiring to be happy and grateful for what I do have, just naturally. It could very well be a form of mental illness.

The trick, I think, is to develop a "thank you" habit. As a long-ago boss once told me, you can never say "thank you" too many times. It makes us feel good to do so, too. Maybe that's why the positive brain effects?

You can even thank yourself: "Thanks for not being dumb enough to sleep with some other woman's husband and then sending an email, via a federal server, to yet another woman, warning her off your boyfriend". You know, like that. :-)

Jan, if this guy is "the one", you'll just have to invite his family to your house. That's what I did when my oldest daughter got together with Jeff, 18 years ago. His parents, and now just his mom, have spent every holiday since with us.

By the way, I'm grateful for the Jungle Reds, the many hours of happy reading of your work, and the fun environment your blog has provided.

Edith Maxwell said...

I'm right there with you, Jan. Instead of moping about having NO sons home for Thanksgiving, I'm grateful that I'll instead have most of a day to write, and still be able to eat turkey and pumpkin pie at the end of it. I'm looking forward to a quiet holiday for once.

@Karen in Ohio - I am also a congenital optimist. And have also wondered if it's really just denial, LOL!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for reminding us that we really really really need to remember all the things we are grateful for, especially when so many of our friends have lost homes, land, things, and in some caes, their people and animals in the last month! Thelma Straw in Manhattan

Hallie Ephron said...

They needed a STUDY to determine that: the more grateful a person is, the less depressed they are??? One seems like the definition of the other. Gotta love "science."

Having said that, it's so much more fun to be AROUND people with a positive attitude an a generous spirit, who aren't constantly carping about others and themselves.

Jungle Red Writers said...

That does seem fairly self-evident, but what is really interesting, at least with the compassion study, is that they MRI your brain before and after the 8-weeks of compassionate thinking/meditation and see actual physical structural changes in the brain


Hallie Ephron said...

Really? How interesting. Scary actually.

Jungle Red Writers said...

I love the thank-you habit. I do a meditation every morning that involves smiling on one of the breaths and just the act of the smile has a similar effect.

And you are absolutely right. That is the trick. We have had his family to our home forThanksgivings!! And they were lovely. And although the "Mae" in me is philosophically opposed to my daughter spending her Thanksgiving anywhere else, I also really like her boyfriend's family and understand that she needs to be there this holiday :( Well, sort of understand...)

Joan, I'm guessing you are in NY or NJ. I am from NJ and one of my friends has been showing me all the photos from the shore - it really does make us all remember how lucky we were not to be in Sandy's path.


Jungle Red Writers said...

Edith and Karen

You are lucky to be a congenital optimist. I wish I could say that. I'm more a really-really-working-at-it-hard-or-it=could-all-fall-apart optimist.

One of my oldest and dearest friends lives in Manhattan and when I talk to her, I realize how removed we are from all of it up here. Whether or not it hit your directly , you all are still reeling from Sandy.


Kaye Barley said...

I love this post. A couple years ago I went through the trick of weeding my life of negative people, and it has made a world of difference. These days one of the things I do when I need a kick in my fanny to remind me of all the things I have to be grateful for is look out my window at Elk Knob, which I've come to think of as "MY Mountain." I watch the sun come up behind it in the mornings from bed and watch it change from shades of green in the summer to gold and red in the fall and then to a magic vision of pure white all winter. life is good.

Laura DiSilverio said...

I have long told my children that the key to happiness is wanting what you have--and being grateful for it. I try to end each day by thinking of five things I'm grateful for. Often they're small things like the sunrise that morning or the sound of bees buzzing in the roses, but I can feel the exercise relax me, so I don't at all doubt the data from the studies you quote, Jan.

Karen in Ohio said...

Kaye, you and me both. I can't understand NOT appreciating the beauty and joys of the simplest things, like a sunset or the charming little flowers on our pawpaw tree. (They look like tiny, maroon fairy caps.)

Edith, love the term congenital optimist! Thanks for naming our condition. :-)

Jungle Red Writers said...

Your mountain sounds lovely!!

Laura, your kids are lucky! And I should try your nightly exercise.


Denise Ann said...

I was immediately drawn to Pollyanna's "glad game" when I saw Haley Mills in the movie. Small things gladden my heart, and I find joy in so many directions.

I have four daughters, and will be with two of them for Thanksgiving. When in-laws were first introduced into our family circle, I made the decision that I would never create a "demand appearance" day. Although I love Christmas Eve the most, we have not had our whole family together on that night since 1995.

Instead, we create the days we can. Boxing Day is our new family Christmas, and I get the whole family together in February in Florida during the school vacation.

Adaptation, and gratitude!

Thank you for Jungle Red!

Leslie Budewitz said...

Another benefit of the nightly gratitude list: if you wake up during the night and can't get back to sleep, start going through the previous day and noting everything you're thankful for -- from the hot shower in the morning to the comfy bed at night. A sure-fire way to fall back asleep quickly -- and happy!

Edith Maxwell said...

Leslie, I love that. Much nicer than slowly counting backwards from 1000, which is my usual-but-not-always-successful trick.

James Montgomery Jackson said...

I love and try to implement Kaye's practice of divesting myself of negative people -- who I refer to as "psychic bleeders."

Whether by nature or nurture I am a glass half-empty person. When I catch myself thinking that way, I refocus my perspective and consider that with a smaller glass I would be brimful.

More times than not it works and I start focusing on what's in the glass instead of what isn't.

~ Jim

Judy Alter said...

Nice post, Jan. I knew there was a reason I've been posting daily gratitutdes in November. And, yes, I've been focusing too much on the one negative about my holiday and not enough on the fact that most of my family will be around me, and I'm gratefulf or that.

Darlene Ryan said...

When one of us has had a bad day we sit around the dinner table and list as many "blessings" as we can come up with. Sometimes it can get pretty silly as in "I'm happy we have toilet paper instead of strips of newspaper," but it never fails to make us all feel better.

Lisa Alber said...

Years ago I read that every night Oprah journaled three things for which to be grateful. She called the journal her "grateful pages." I notice that when I do this, I feel better. If I don't write them, I at least think them through.

Also, I added this: I remind myself about three things for which to be proud of myself. I'm not a congenital optimistic (I wish!). Instead, I tend to be too hard on myself, so reminding myself of three things I accomplished during the day--even if it was only taking a shower, putting away the dishes, and not eating dessert :-)--boosts my morale.

Deb said...

Thanks for this, Jan. I've been a big believer in the gratitude journal for years, but I go through phases of falling off the wagon, which I've done lately. Getting my pen and notebook out for tonight!

I want to know how you do a "compassion meditation."

My current exercise in daily gratitude? One word: Puppy! And it's not just the joy of this ten-week-old furry bundle for whom everything is a grand adventure, but for the fact that life with a puppy forces you to just spend time BEING. We walk around the yard a lot, enjoying the sunshine, the leaves falling--even, literally, smelling the roses, as we are still in our late fall bloom here.

Karen, I love the smiling meditation, too. Am going to try it.

Deb Romano said...

On a really bad day, I tell myself that to try to find some sort of humor in the situation by the end of the day. At the very least, I tell myself "Someday you'll be able to laugh at this!"

And right now in the present moment, I am grateful that Sandy was a minor nuisance for me instead of a devastating change to my life. So many people in my town are homeless as a result of this storm. Some of them were still rebuilding from the damge inflicted by Irene last year.

Deb Romano said...

Sorry for extra word in the first sentence above. I sent before editing!

Jungle Red Writers said...

Oh Deb, we would have never known. In fact, I had to reread it twice to figure out what you were talking about!

Debs, I highly recommend Thich Nah Han, fabulous Vietnamese monk, who among his many teachings, introduces you to a really simple smiling meditation, which I do every morning.

Jim, it's all brain construction and in using Lisa's advice, I try to pat on the back for moments when I've forced myself to be more optimistic.
I have to say, though , that ever since I started meditating, positive thinking has come a lot easier. Or maybe it's that negative thinking is easier to stave off?

Denise Anne - I loved Pollyanna, too. I had forgotten about the game though!


Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

OH, thank ou for the kind words about jungle Red! YOu bring tears tom y eyes. Yeah, weird, huh, how long we've been hanging out here?

The grateful thing is very pivotal to me. Every morning as I come out of the house, I try to NOTICE what's around me..the new flowers, or the lights on the leaves, or how it smells. When we come home, I always look at the sky--the moon? The stars? The Clouds? Just that moment of being there is so..calming.

And being a reporter--I cant tell you how many opportunities there are to think--whoa. I am so grateful that's not me.

But I have to say--that's not how I really think bout gratitude. Not what I'm not--but what I am. Okay, hank, back to work.

And--so grateful for all of you..

lil Gluckstern said...

I'm with all of you. When things are hard, all the little things that make life worthwhile show themselves, and remind me of how lucky I am. And thank to the web which brings you all to me and light up my life. Hank, I get teary eyed too. Happy Thanksgiving all.

Annette said...

I do prayers and meditation every morning. And I start the prayers saying Thank You for certain things...some as simple as letting me get through the night, food, clothing, a place to live. That helps. And generally, I get to watch the sunrise, God does remarkable work. I have to work at being optimistic, but I do try. And I can look around and see things which make me grateful to be me.

Jungle Red Writers said...

Annette, that is beautiful.

Lil, we thank the web for bringing all of you here, as well!

Happy Thanksgiving!


Reine said...

Jungle Reds and Thanksgiving by Trader Joe's. Thankful for both. xo

Reine said...

Speech-to-text and Kendall. U..U

Anonymous said...

I just reread all this and want to share with all of you wonderful people a tiny thing that happened here the day after the worst of Sandy!!! The first night the wind blew so hard I put blankets on the windows and was terrified the windows would blow in! Of course that day they didn't deliver the New York Times!!!!. THEN - the next day - there was not only that day's Times but the day before !!! I still get teary thinking how nice that was!!!! In all the horror and danger - the grey lady came through!!! Thelma Straw in Manhattan

Jan Brogan said...

As a newspaper reporter I love that the newspaper brought you solace!!

Happy thanksgiving

Reine said...

Thelma, I love your story. Having the newspaper, the physical evidence of thought and observation, seems very solid during a time when nothing seems to be so.

Joan Emerson said...

Just in from the airport . . . l-o-n-g day. We are in the Pine Barrens in New Jersey, about twenty-five miles north of Atlantic City . . . and grateful to be in one piece.

Jungle Red Writers said...

Hi Joan,

Glad to hear it!! I am alway insanely grateful whenever the plane's wheels touch ground.

Reine, I am grateful for Trader Joes every time of year, but especially right before Christmas.