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Why Bother Being Thankful?

Most of us believe that gratitude is a good thing. After all, we are taught from an early age to say both "please" and "thank you." "It's just good manners!" we are told. Families who pray, as well as many who do not, often express thanks for the food (and more) just before a meal. And every year (in the United States) we celebrate Thanksgiving, which is based on the general belief that in 1621, the Pilgrims invited the Wampanoag Native Americans to a feast in Plymouth Colony to celebrate their first harvest, and a good time, with turkey and pumpkin pie, was had by all.

So what is the point of gratitude? Why do these themes exist in human cultures? And why do we human beings express it and enjoy receiving it? We can answer these questions by first understanding prosocial and defensive behaviors. In his podcast titled, The Science of Gratitude and How to Build a Gratitude Practice (see below), Andrew Huberman says, "Our brains are in a see-saw of prosocial behaviors and defensive behavior we use in an attempt to keep us safe." That is, we have brain circuitry for both these categories of behavior, and that circuitry is in place because it supports our survival.

Defensive behavior is the more obvious of the two. If a dog jumps at you, planning to bite, you instinctively jump back. If someone accuses you of something you did not do, you have the urge to set the record straight.

Prosocial behavior seems to imply behavior relating to other people. And that’s true, but prosocial behaviors also include the interactions we have with ourselves.

Why would prosocial behavior help us with survival? In the documentary Fantastic Fungi, Paul Stamets says,

A core concept of evolution is that through natural selection the strongest and the fittest survive. But moreover, communities survive better than individuals. Communities rely on cooperation and I think that is the power of goodness. Evolution is based on the concept of mutual benefit and the extension of generosity.

That is a secular view of why we have prosocial brain circuitry. Coming at it from another perspective, the Christian Bible has many passages instructing its followers to cooperate and be helpful to those around them. For example, "Carry each other’s burdens and so you will fulfill the law of Christ." Or, "Don’t forget to do good and to share what you have because God is pleased with these kinds of sacrifices." Other religions have similar messages.

Then how do we connect our prosocial instincts and beliefs to gratitude? Look at it this way: Expressing gratitude toward another (or yourself) is essentially a reward. It is a reward for behavior that binds the community.

Adopting a Gratitude Practice

People often think a "gratitude practice" is just writing or thinking about things they are grateful for. It turns out this is not as effective as receiving gratitude or experiencing empathy for yourself (self-compassion) or another person. This is covered in detail in the Huberman podcast, on the bottom of this page. A gratitude practice can be as simple as thinking about a story or movie where someone received help or a memory of when you received thanks. If you like to write, jot down what the struggle was, what the help was, and how it made you feel. You do not have to think up something new each time -- it will work even if you repeatedly use the same story or memory.

A regular gratitude practice can shift your prosocial circuits to dominate your mindset, suppressing the defensive circuits. It can increase your resilience to trauma, enhance your social relationships. It will have a positive effect on your brain chemistry, almost immediately.

The good news is that to be effective, you only need to do this practice for a few minutes, three times per week. But, it must be genuine and sincere to be effective.

If you doubt that witnessing, expressing, and receiving gratitude will help you, please refer to this article by Amy Morin on the website:

7 Scientifically Proven Benefits of Gratitude. In it the author covers these topics:

  • Gratitude opens the door to more relationships.
  • Gratitude improves physical health.
  • Gratitude improves psychological health.
  • Gratitude enhances empathy and reduces aggression.
  • Grateful people sleep better.
  • Gratitude improves self-esteem.
  • Gratitude increases mental strength.

Nature, Beauty, Gratitude - Ted Talk by Louis Schwartzberg

The Science of Gratitude and How to Build a Gratitude Practice by Andrew Huberman