Gratitude, more than an Attitude.
“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend”.
“Please” and “Thank you” are simple words to which we often don’t pay much attention. They are expressions of gratitude. As recovering addicts, many of us already focus on the concept of gratitude on a daily basis, but why is this beneficial to us ? What does it mean, and what does the practice of gratitude do to our brains and our bodies?
Most psychologists categorize three types of gratitude:
- Gratitude as an “affective trait” (one’s overall tendency to have a grateful disposition which is influenced by genetics, personality and culture). Not everyone has the same innate ability to experience gratitude, it can however, be cultivated.
- A mood (daily fluctuations in overall gratitude), and an
- Emotion (a temporary feeling of gratitude that one may feel after receiving a gift or a favour from someone).
Professor Robert Emmons is the world’s leading expert on gratitude, having devoted over 20 years to the topic. He defines the state of gratitude as :
- Recognising that one has obtained a positive outcome and
- Recognising that there is an external source for this positive outcome. One can be grateful to other people, to animals, institutions, spiritual beings and to the world, but not to oneself.
The Evolution of Gratitude.
Gratitude is wired into our biology and it it seems that it is not a characteristic unique to humans. Darwin suggested that humans and other animals share the “same emotions, even the more complex ones such as jealousy, suspicion, and gratitude”. Research has shown that fish, birds, mammals and primates demonstrate what is called reciprocity. Reciprocity, is a concept from social psychology, referring to the exchanging of actions. Reciprocity is characterized as the the exchange of goods and services between two individuals over time. It is an arrangement that mutually benefits both parties and allows for the continuation of the species over time. Reciprocal altruism, the socio-biological root of gratitude, is when an animal helps another member of the same species, sometimes at a cost to themselves. It is presumed that the favour will be repaid in the future.
Studies have focused on primates such as chimpanzees and capuchin monkeys. Primates are unable to express appreciation verbally, so they return favours. One study found that chimpanzees are more likely to share food with a chimpanzee that had groomed them earlier in the day, and are more likely to help another chimpanzee with a task if that chimpanzee had helped them in the past. It would appear that there is an evolutionary advantage to co-operating with others. The evolution of reciprocity into gratitude means that our brains have evolved to recognise when someone has done something beneficial for you and you are then motivated to repay them. As our brains evolved, they became better and better at reading emotions, and more selfish individuals were identified, resulting in less co-operation with them. Thus, gratitude is beneficial to us from an evolutionary perspective, it creates pro-social behaviour which has a circular effect and reinforces the behaviour of reciprocity. Indeed, ancient philosophers Cicero and Seneca thought of gratitude as foundational to the success of a civilization.
How is Gratitude Beneficial to us :
According to Emmons, gratitude,
- Allows us to celebrate the present.
- Blocks/ reduces the impact of toxic emotions such as regret, depression, envy, resentment (reduces the frequency and intensity of depressive episodes).
- Grateful people are more resilient. They recover faster from stressful episodes. Gratitude has been shown to have an impact on PTSD and symptoms of anxiety.
- Strengthens social ties. This, in turn, adds to self-worth.
Actively practising gratitude, counteracts negative feelings such as :
- Social comparison
People who are more grateful are happier, more satisfied, more resilient, make friends easier, have better relationships, sleep better, are less prone to addiction, as well as being less prone to burn-out.
In terms of neuroscience, focusing on what you are grateful for, calms the amygdala, which is the part of the brain associated with how we experience stress, fear and anger. When the amygdala is overactive, it releases cortisol and adrenaline into the bloodstream. These are stress hormones which provide us with necessary energy in times of danger, but can have damaging effects on the body in the long term, if the body produces them too often. Gratitude acts as a catalyst for neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and noradrenaline which manage our emotions, anxiety, and immediate stress responses.
The effects of actively practising gratitude have been shown to last for months. Changing our thoughts and feelings can assist us in rewiring our brains and can change our behaviour. It is important to remember that gratitude is a useful tool to assist in our recovery from addiction.
“It is through gratitude for the present moment that the spiritual dimension of life opens up”.
– Eckhart Tolle.
An Antidote to Dissatisfaction : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WPPPFqsECz0&t=119s
What Is Gratitude? : https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/gratitude/definition
The Evolution of Gratitude : https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_evolution_of_gratitude
The Neuroscience of Gratitude and How It Affects Anxiety & Grief : https://positivepsychology.com/neuroscience-of-gratitude/
Stories of Recovery
- The encouragement, love and support from the team at Crossroads allowed me to eventually see that I was worth something - that my life could be turned around and that I could accomplish the things that had long been a forgotten dream.Oliver VGRead more
- On the last day of my stint at Crossroads I could only express gratitude towards all who works there. A wise councillor once commented on my question when one is ready for rehab by explaining that when one is ready for rehab, rehab is ready for you.Johan BRead more
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