You see the memes every day: ‘Have an Attitude of Gratitude’ or ‘What if, today, we were just thankful?’ They’re cute, and in some vague way we know they’re accurate. Yet, like a favorite song that’s been way over-played, we pay little attention to the instruction buried within these sweet little sayings. Besides—isn’t the whole ‘Attitude of Gratitude’ the same New Age schlock that Secret lady, Rhonda Byrne, made a bucket of money off when she wrote books that sold us on the idea that just imagining something will make it come true?
Except…the whole concept that gratitude-is-a-game changer? It’s actually true. On a biological, neurological level, it is 100%, scientifically proven, true.
Hormones, mostly. And a little bit of Reward Pathway—that highway in the brain that gets lit up when we do things (or relive things) we like. Here’s how they operate:
The DHEA – Gratitude Connection
DHEA is a hormone which does for the brain what a warm, weighted blanket does for the body. It soothes it. Fills it with a sense of well-being. It calms it down and evokes an inner sense of peace and pleasantry. DHEA is the hormone that courses through us whenever we experience something that fills us with joy or wonder or love. It surged through your body the first time you saw the majesty of the Rocky Mountains. The first time you held one of your children. That time when your friend made you belly-laugh over something so goofy and ridiculous that only the two of you would ever understand it, much less find it funny. DHEA is our feel-good hormone and, among the other cool things it does, here’s one more: the brain banks it whenever we feel it. That’s right—like a miserly money manager, the brain feels DHEA and does not want to let it go. So it snaps it up once it’s felt, and then stows it in a locked box in our heads where it stays.
Then, whenever we remember those times of internal magic, the brain opens that box, and lets the DHEA flow again and again, each time we relive that memory. Every time we are GRATEFUL for a moment in our life (however small) that made us feel wonder or love or joy. The brain likes that feeling. It stores that DHEA because it wants to feel that feeling again and again and again.
Because our brains, by design, are built to feel HAPPY.
Ergo, gratitude makes us happy. It has to. The brain is wired to release that DHEA it has so greedily banked during out good times. And, by design, it is hard-wired to release it, then re-bank it, for as many times as you are capable of accessing that memory.
So there’s that and, what’s more, whenever DHEA (banked or ‘fresh’) is flowing in our system, the brain is incapable of simultaneously releasing our more corrosive stress hormone, Cortisol (which is the hormone that give us the oomph to fight-flight-or freeze…and also does other things like constrict our blood vessels, shut down our immune system, hike our blood sugar, and turn off our metabolism).
Thus, the literal perfect storm that will not only make us feel good, but also shut off the hormone that makes us sick, is (voila!) being thankful. Practicing gratitude. Also
Gratitude is Addictive
Yes, you read that right. Our brains also have reward pathways—highways that light up then release endorphins, oxytocin, and yep, DHEA whenever we engage in something pleasurable. The brain LOVES those chemicals. It gets a high off how those chemicals make it feel. And so, as you reflect on one thing you’re grateful for, the brain will, quite literally, crave another. And another, and another. So many that, pretty soon, that list of things you’re grateful for reaches the bottom of the page. You have to flip it over in order to keep going.
For the brain that’s been traumatized, prescribing the practice of gratitude is not so easy as merely handing them a handsome journal and a collection of colorful gel pens. There is great risk in being grateful. Here’s why:
Optimism Spells Vulnerability
Believing—even for a moment—that things are good enough to be thankful for is like asking the traumatized brain to bet on the darkest horse in the race. For what if, assigned with this new task of feeling grateful, the brain’s old tried and true vigilance lets it guard down? Such a circumstance leaves the trauma survivor wide open to be wounded again—and that’s a risk the brain has learned to avoid at all costs.ALL COSTS. Including even reflecting on the times it’s been happy. As such, the brain will eschew this notion of gratitude and retreat back behind its battle lines, vigilant and prepared for danger once more.
It is a relentless existence within a fog of deep—yet protective—pessimism. I once had a historically traumatized family member tell me: “If you always expect the worst, you can never be disappointed.”This man truly never saw the sun, even when it was shining, and he went to his grave that way, cheated by his own well-oiled and long-practiced trauma response that kept him locked in a held-breath state of waiting for the next wrecking ball to annihilate anything good.
2. What the Hell Do They Have To Feel Grateful For?
For the person who has spun through orbit after orbit of chaos, turbulence, and tremendous pain, bouncily telling them to be grateful can be so much sanctimonious and emotionally tone-deaf schlock.
Life is hard, and some lives are much, much harder than others. Respect that. Acknowledge it. Consider that the brain chemicals for a traumatized person work the same as for a non-traumatized person, yet may be much, much harder to access. And so start small. As small as you need to. Did that first sip of coffee taste delicious this morning? Be grateful for that small thing. Did you catch the sunrise, and were the colors, even just for a moment, magnificent? Be grateful for that thing. Was your bed so warm when you opened your eyes that you did not want to get up? Be grateful for that small moment of comfort. Get the picture? Start tiny if you need to. Superficial if you have to. Put just one toe in the water if the risk of being grateful makes you worry that you’re taunting the Gods of Chance who have hijacked your life with despair again and again. For remember: your brain (all of our brains) is a machine. It has the capability to feel good. But yes, it will involve risk. And it will also require a whole bunch of practice.
The fact that DHEA exists, the fact that reward pathways are present in the brain, these scientifically sound factors tell us that we are, indeed, built and intended to feel joy.
But more…for those of you who are spiritual (and no disrespect to those of you who are not), I am always very interested in how the instructions within ancient texts are often made manifest by what modern science has to show us. For example, Galatians 5:22 says “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” In other words, there is no limit on how much we are allowed to feel this lengthy laundry list of very good things. Does that not sound awful similar to how the brain is built to greedily bank the good DHEA which is derived from that same list of things?
Hmmm. Maybe there is something to this whole Mind-Body-Spirit connection thing.
Also, how about this: “Devote yourself to prayer, be watchful and thankful.”- Colossians 4:2. Watchful of the good that comes your way? Thankful for how it fills you with that joy, wonder, and love we’re all built to be addicted to?
Sounds like a recipe we’d all be wise to follow. Add it to your Thanksgiving table today. And know that I, for one, am grateful for you.
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BY THE WAY: Shaynie, the heroine of Divinity & The Python, has a VERY COOL practice of gratitude. Want to discover it? read the book!
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