Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Neuroscience of Thanks

The UK's Chief Rabbi, Lord (Jonathan) Sacks, is probably our favorite presenter on BBC Radio's "Thought for the Day" (Sorry, Giles Fraser, you would be a close second). Today Lord Sacks landed a theory squarely in the sweet spot between faith and science: He offered a plausible explanation for why expressing gratitude is good for you.

Thankfulness is one of the pillars of positive psychology and the happiness movement. Keeping a gratitude journal, in which you list a few things that you appreciate in each day, for example, has been shown by scientific studies of children and adults to improve positive outlook. Being thankful helps bolster happiness, a positive work and classroom environment, and assuages depression.

Expressing appreciation has also been a pillar of religions over the eons. Think of the psalms attributed to David, for example, or the classical hymns of thanksgiving (too often typecast and just used at Harvest or Thanksgiving Services). My Dear Husband points out that "Eucharist" comes from the Greek word for "thanks."

Sacks' insight about why gratitude makes your outlook more sunny was inspired by BBC TV's recent Horizon Show on the subject, "The Truth About Personality."  On the show, reporter Michael Moseley, a self-confessed pessimist, follows instruction from leading psychologists on ways to "worry less and become more of an optimist." The two techniques they lead Moseley through over two months are Mindfulness meditation and cognitive bias modification.

It was primarily the latter practice that was involved in Sacks' theory. Cognitive bias modification (CBM) starts with the premise that some people's brains are predisposed to pay inordinate attention to the negative. They inevitably see the glass as half empty--they worry excessively about potential hazards and pitfalls. They read negative, ominous messages into the innocuous. A storm cloud follows them around (like cartoonist Al Capp's jinx, Joe Btfsplk, shown here --->)

CBM subtly changes this negative-bias brain-setting through computer games that increase sensitivity to positive signals. The games might entail picking out a positive image, such as one smiling face in a field of frowns, for example. (You can try it here: Although there's not yet vast data to support CBM,  some evidence suggests it may be helpful in treating alcoholism, paindepression, recurrence of depression, and social anxiety, for example.

Sacks proposes that expressing gratitude works in the same way. It re-tunes our brains to focus on the good things in everyday life, increasing the odds that we'll notice positives more and negatives less.

This feeds my growing suspicion that where spiritual practices are beneficial to people's lives, there's some very good psychology involved, ancient magic and religious practice notwithstanding.

Sacks was impressed by statistics showing optimists live, on average, 7 years longer than pessimists. The fact that techniques like Mindfulness and cognitive bias modification can nudge people towards a sunnier disposition show this is not genetically determined from birth--at least not completely in all people. And, connecting the dots, or in this case the population studies with the disposition modification experiments, buying longevity through such practices seems a reasonable conjecture. It's certainly a testable hypothesis

But it hasn't been directly tested yet, much less scientifically proven. So if its really more years in life you're after, the evidence is much stronger for quitting smoking, avoiding obesity, eating healthily, and exercising daily.  What the studies say more strongly is Mindfulness, and other practices that raise optimism can at least put more life in your years, or at least happier life in your years -- "Stress less; celebrate more," as Sacks said. "Be surprised by joy."

 So, go on then, make your day: If you're a person of faith, count your blessings and thank God. If you're not religious,  just hone your gratitude attitude -- stop and smell the roses; tell someone you appreciate their hard work; start a gratitude journal; send a thank-you note or pay a visit to someone who positively influenced your life.

I end with a pictorial gratitude-journal entry (Father and son photo is courtesy of Lisa Morris-Moxham; Miracle Babe photo is courtesy of Char and Pete Herb; Sam 'n Jamie Jumpin' Jam and Camelia photos are by C. Kozlowski; Painting is Maxfield Parrish's, The Lantern Bearers, from FB "I Require Art" postings; other photographs by C. Kozlowski; Starry night photo from FB by unknown artist):

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