From the Moderator: The Science of Gratitude

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From the Moderator: The Science of Gratitude

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I teach English because the humanities are my passion, but I love science. More than a subject, science is a way of thinking through observation, experiment, repetition, and revision. Thinking this way, we can find interesting new ways of thinking about the human experience and set up our brains for useful habits. There was a time when I would have laughed hearing the phrase “the science of gratitude.” While I thought of gratitude as a fine art, and recognized some people are much more creative with their thanks than others, gratitude certainly never struck me as something so much more than a social mechanism. I also never thought too much about how gratitude could have measurable impact for scientists to quantify and evaluate. Now scientists across a range of disciplines including not only psychology, but also evolutionary biology, genetics, neuroscience, and biomedical science are testing the ways our minds and bodies feel gratitude and benefit from it.

If you think about it, every act of human communication began as a science experiment. Have you noticed children repeat sounds and gestures over and over again when they like the response they get—a smile, a laugh, a wave? From the earliest age, we learn how to communicate by observing the others around us. Eventually, we progress to experimenting meaningfully with sounds and gestures. Long before we are old enough to understand concepts like data collection and analysis, our growing brains are already at work collecting responses to our actions and analyzing them. From there, we embark on increasingly complex communication experiments: combining sounds into words, words into phrases, phrases into sentences. Eventually, we discover ways to create chemical reactions between words and sentences—yes, you can think of an oxymoron like Shakespeare’s “loving hate” from Romeo and Juliet like a chemical reaction between words to create a new substance!

I began today’s column by linking science to the humanities because I want to talk about the science of gratitude and how it can help add new dimensions to communicating more effectively. Let’s use the science of gratitude to make a chemical reaction between the words thank you and our brains so that we think better, speak better, and feel better mentally and physically.

Firstly, to improve a skill, we have to successfully identify it. Defining gratitude might be a deceptively simple task. A 2004 study terms gratitude as a twofold state: first is the recognition “that one has obtained a positive outcome”, and second is the (often difficult) recognition of having benefitted from “an external source” (McCullough, Tsang, and Emmons). Gratitude isn’t just a feeling, but suggests becoming a little bit vulnerable by acknowledging a debt to someone else.

Giving credit hard to do (I know my students feel this especially when citing their sources and writing bibliographies), and most people don’t like feeling indebted. Still, studies show we reap countless benefits from being grateful. The Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley University confirms that gratitude can improve and protect our mental well-being; openly grateful individuals “report being happier and more satisfied with their lives” (8). Studies suggest individual physical health benefits: “people with higher dispositional gratitude reported better sleep, less fatigue, and lower levels of cellular inflammation” as well as quicker illness recovery rates (28).

Therefore, I suggest one of the many things we can learn from the continuing scientific studies of gratitude is how to add value to our thanks to turn them from “just” words into a more profound expression of gratitude. Sweet words might not change the world, but meaningful sweet words can.

How often do you say “thank you”? For most of us, the answer is probably often! But do we put much thought into the majority of those times? I say “thank you” so often it becomes a blur, and I couldn’t name a —to the waiter when he refills my water, to a student as she hands me her essay, to my friends when they give me compliments. But “thank you” doesn’t always seem to say enough or capture quite what I mean, even in the smallest and most simple of moments. Sometimes it seems like a knee-jerk reaction or a perfunctory saying.

Even the most intentioned, genuine thanks can seem weak. Last year I tripped and broke my ankle. Of course I thanked the coworker who helped me up off the sidewalk and drove me to the doctor, but words were inadequate. And I often recall the perfect moment when my husband placed a tiny black kitten in my cupped hands and I fell completely in love with that precious creature’s impossibly fuzzy, sleepy little face! and his impossibly cute slow eyeblinks! and his little pink tongue curl when he yawned! AND his impossibly sharp little needle claws biting into my palms! I knew even as I said “thank you” that those words would not capture my appreciation for the gift—not just for the kitten but the years of love, joy, and companionship that kitten would bring.

This brings me to cake. I know, you’re thinking I’m going to suggest baking cakes to express thanks. (And that’s not a bad idea,either.) But no, that’s not where I’m going. The innovation which inspired the success of the cake mix industry tells us something about how to add value to our actions: icing. Putting the “icing on the cake” means to enhance something, but icing also enhanced the collapsing sales of boxed cake mix in the 1950s. Why? This is an interesting chemical reaction as well: not simply the way mixing butter, sugar, and cream create icing, but how adding the icing convinces us that we’ve made art! The more of ourselves we put into something—the painstaking effort of design, decoration, spread on with your own hands—the more invested we are.

So how do we make new magical combinations with our gratitude? First, experiment! Break out of the habit of saying the same words to make new brain habits. If you often say “thank you,” try “I appreciate you because…” Then say, “I love that you…” and be specific. Gratitude needs something more than words: it needs that extra touch of value added, the icing on the cake. That’s where the wonderful chemical reaction between words comes in: when you join “thank you” with “because,” your meaning changes and becomes more than the sum of its parts. Suddenly, you are being personal, specific, meaningful. Anyone can say thank you, but not just anyone takes the time to say why they’re thankful. Time and effort matters. When we put our personal touch of an extra five seconds to talk to someone, we also invest ourselves more into the world, and our brains benefit from that engagement.

How do we create real change using words? We start by turning sugar words into real icing.

There is much more to learn about gratitude, and if you’re interested in reading more on your own, this paper has much more insight to offer. This is my last column before the summer, so I hope you’ll have a wonderful summer enjoying a deeper sense of gratitude.

 

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