Huberman Lab - The Science of Gratitude & How to Build a Gratitude Practice

Welcome to the Huberman Lab Podcast,

where we discuss science

and science-based tools for everyday life.

I’m Andrew Huberman,

and I’m a professor of neurobiology and ophthalmology

at Stanford School of Medicine.

Today, we are talking all about the science of gratitude.

In part, we’re doing this

because of the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday,

which of course is all about giving thanks, gratitude,

but also because there’s now a wealth of data

showing that having an effective gratitude practice

can impact a huge number of health variables,

both mental health and physical health in positive ways.

Things like cardiovascular health,

things like relationships,

things like mental health,

things like physical and cognitive performance,

and these are not small effects.

These are very large positive effects.

However, in researching this episode,

I was completely surprised as to what constitutes

an effective gratitude practice.

I, I think like many of you,

would have thought that an effective gratitude practice

simply involves writing down a few things

or many things that we’re grateful for,

or thinking about those,

or really making an effort to somaticize

or feel some of the elements of gratitude

while writing out that list or thinking about that list.

It turns out that an effective gratitude practice

doesn’t resemble that at all.

The neuroimaging data, the physiological data,

looking at things like inflammatory markers,

other studies purely looking at the psychology

and the long and short-term effects

of an effective gratitude practice

point to a completely different approach

to using gratitude to positively impact health metrics.

Fortunately, these are things that we can all do very easily.

Some of them are actually fun.

You can do them in a variety of contexts.

So today we’re going to talk about

the science of effective gratitude practices,

and we’re going to describe what those are

and how you can incorporate them into your life.

Before we dive into today’s topic,

I just want to highlight

a particularly interesting set of findings

from the literature.

This is a study that came out in the journal Cell Report,

Cell Press Journal, excellent journal.

It’s very relevant to today’s topic.

In fact, we’re going to spend more time with this paper

a little bit later in the episode.

The study involved having subjects listen to a story.

The subjects are all listening to the same story,

but those subjects are not listening to it together.

They’re not rounded up in a circle or all in a room.

They’re in separate rooms

or entirely separate locations on the planet,

or they are actually brought into the laboratory

on separate days.

What this study found is that different subjects

listening to the same story

undergo the same variation in heart rate.

In other words, the gaps between their heartbeats

start to resemble one another

in response to the same story.

Now, this is very interesting.

This is a coordination of the physiology of the body

in response to a narrative, a story.

In different people,

and yet when they line up the heart rates

of these different people

who listen to the story at completely different times,

they find that those heart rates map onto one another

almost identically.

It’s really remarkable.

We’re going to talk about what this means

in terms of coordination of neural circuits in the brain

and neural circuits in the body

and the organs such as the heart,

but also the lungs and other organs of the body,

and what this means for changing one’s overall state.

A key theme that’s going to come up today again and again

is the distinction between traits,

which are pervasive aspects of who we are

and how we tend to react

to different types of circumstances,

and states, which are more transient.

They tend to, you can invoke a state in somebody,

a state of fear or a state of relaxation,

but what this study really starts to point to

is that there are specific approaches

that any of us can take

in order to really rewire our nervous system

such that we are calmer,

if we want to be calmer in certain circumstances,

that we are more responsive in certain circumstances,

if that’s our goal.

So we’ll return to how one would go about doing that.

I think these results are just beautiful

in the sense that they really show

that our brain and our body are highly coordinated

because people are listening to the story

and the heart rate is changing in response to the story,

but that there is a, what we call a stereotypy,

a sort of stereotyped response to a given story.

In my mind, there was no reason

why the results had to be this way.

Two people listen to the same story,

why should their heart rates

be almost identical to the same story?

Very, very interesting

and points to the power of narrative and story

in coordinating our physiology.

And this is something powerful that we can leverage.

Before we begin, I’d like to emphasize

that this podcast is separate

from my teaching and research roles at Stanford.

It is, however, part of my desire and effort

to bring zero cost to consumer information

about science and science-related tools

to the general public.

In keeping with that theme,

I’d like to thank the sponsors of today’s podcast.

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Let’s talk about gratitude.

And to begin, I’d like to emphasize the various aspects

of mental and physical health that have been shown

to benefit from a regular gratitude practice.

There are studies showing

that performing a gratitude practice twice or three times,

or even just once a week, can lead to a pervasive,

a long-lasting impact on subjective wellbeing.

People report feeling happier, more meaning, joy,

even awe for their life experience,

simply in response to adding a gratitude practice.

The key thing is it has to be the right gratitude practice,

and we’re going to talk about

what the right gratitude practice looks like

in just a little bit.

But there are additional benefits of a gratitude practice.

There are studies showing

that a regular gratitude practice

can provide resilience to trauma in two ways.

It can provide a reframing and resilience

to prior traumatic experiences,

so buffering people against the negative physiological

effects and psychological effects of earlier trauma,

but also inoculating them in many ways

to any traumas that might arrive later in life.

So that’s a powerful thing.

And today, we will talk about

how that’s actually accomplished.

It’s actually accomplished by shifting the way

that the fear and defense networks

in the brain actually function.

We’ll get right down into the details of that.

The other thing that a gratitude practice does

is it’s been shown to benefit social relationships,

but not just for the relationship

in which you express gratitude, right?

So on the face of it, you might think,

okay, if I express gratitude for somebody over and over,

over and over, over and over,

then I’m going to feel better about that person.

And indeed, that is one effect of a gratitude practice

that’s called a prosocial or intersocial gratitude practice.

But there are now several studies,

recent studies in good journals,

pointing to the fact that a regular gratitude practice

can also enhance one’s social relationships

across the board, in the workplace, at school,

with family, in romantic relationships,

and even one’s relationship to themselves,

which is really what the subjective feelings

of wellbeing are.

So it’s clear to me that an effective gratitude practice

has an outsized effect on many, many aspects

of mental and physical health.

And for those of you that are coming to this conversation

thinking gratitude practice,

oh, that’s kind of wishy-washy or woo,

it’s going to involve putting your hand on your heart

and feeling into all the amazing things

that you happen to have,

even when things are really terrible,

that’s not where we’re going at all.

And equally important is to understand

that the neurochemical, the anti-inflammatory,

and the neural circuit mechanisms

that gratitude can invoke are equally on par

with some of the effects of pharmacology,

of things like high-intensity interval training

and exercise, and other things that we think of

as kind of more potent forms of self-intervention.

So if you are of the mindset that a gratitude practice

is kind of weak sauce, buckle up,

because the data actually point to the fact

that a gratitude practice is a very, very potent way

in which you can steer your mental and physical health

in positive directions,

and that those effects are very long lasting.

Before we dive into the tools and mechanisms

and scientific studies around gratitude,

I’d like to just set the framework for the discussion.

Gratitude is what we call a pro-social behavior

or a pro-social mindset.

Now, you can be grateful for something

without it involving anybody else.

So the social part isn’t meant to convey anything

about interpersonal relations, although it can.

And today we’re going to talk a lot

about how interpersonal relations can be incorporated

into a gratitude practice in really powerful ways.

But pro-social behaviors are basically any behavior

or mode of thinking that allow us to be more effective

in interactions with other people, including ourselves.

Now, pro-social is not just a name

that we give these different tools

and practices and mindsets.

They’re actually neural circuits in the brain

that are specifically wired

for pro-social thoughts and behaviors.

And these are distinctly different

from the circuits in the brain

that are involved in defensive behaviors.

So without getting into too much detail just yet,

we will later, we have circuits in the brain

that are what we call appetitive.

They are designed to bring us closer to things

and to bring us into closer relation

to the details of that sensory experience.

Now, that could be a delicious food that you’re eating.

It could be interacting with a loved one.

It could be interacting with a friend

or anyone that you happen to like.

It could even be in relation to yourself.

These circuits that we’re calling pro-social circuits

light up in the brain in neuroimaging,

meaning the neurons are firing more actively,

more electrically, robustly,

sort of like turning up the volume

on these neural circuits in the brain.

And the neural circuits in the brain

that are associated with aversive or defensive behaviors,

things like backing up,

things like covering up the vital organs of the body,

things like a quaking of the voice,

all of the things that are associated

with defensive behaviors are actually antagonized,

meaning they are reduced

when the pro-social circuits are more active.

So the framework here that I’d like to set

is that we have this kind of seesaw

of neural circuits in the brain,

one set that are pro-social

and are designed to bring us closer to others,

including ourselves,

closer to certain sensory experiences, right?

Because a lot of pro-social behaviors

can also be geared towards things like pets or food

or anything that we find we want to be closer to

and want more of.

Whereas the defensive circuits involve areas of the brain,

yes, such as areas that are involved in fear,

but also areas of the brain and body

that are literally associated with freezing

or with backing up.

So the way to think about gratitude

is that it falls under this category of pro-social behaviors

which are designed to bring us closer

to different types of things

and to enhance the level of detail

that we extract from those experiences.

Now, the existence of these two neural circuits

that I’ve placed on this sort of metaphorical seesaw,

if you will,

runs counter to a lot of the messaging

or the ideas that were put forth in the last century

about the psychology of happiness and gratitude

versus the psychology of depression and struggle

and concern about the future.

In fact, I’d like to read a quote from the great,

and we really should call him the great Sigmund Freud

because despite having certain traits

that people criticize him of,

Freud was indeed a genius about many aspects of psychology.

But I just want to read you Freud’s stance on happiness

and this invokes elements of gratitude as well.

And then you can gauge for yourself.

Quote, our possibilities of happiness

are already restricted by our constitution.

So he’s saying that we’re basically wired

to not have happiness easily.

Unhappiness is much less difficult to experience.

We are threatened with suffering from three directions.

One, from our own body,

which is doomed to decay and disillusion

and which cannot even do without pain and anxiety

as warning signals.

Two, from the external world,

which may rage against us with overwhelming

and merciless forces of destruction.

And three, and finally, from our relations with others,

the suffering of which from this last source

is perhaps more painful to us than any other.

That’s Sigmund Freud.

And not all of his writings were that pessimistic,

if you will.

What Freud is referring to there

are those defensive circuits.

And of course he talked about psychological defensives.

And in full disclosure,

I am a huge fan of much of the psychological literature

and psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud

and his descendants, Jung and others.

I think there are strong elements of truth there.

But it gives you a sense of the kind of mindset

of psychology early in the last century.

And then of course was the emergence

of the positive psychology movement,

which was really about invoking the understanding

and eventually the elucidation of the neural circuits

for things like happiness and awe and affiliation

and things that we are calling pro-social circuits.

So the field of psychology has a darkened light,

if you will.

And the field of neuroscience has a darkened light.

You have these, what we call parallel pathways in the brain.

And we have parallel pathways in the mind

that set us up for feeling good about things

or for feeling less good about things.

I think what’s really salient from the quote from Freud

is that what he’s saying is our default

is to be concerned about the future,

to be wrapped in our defenses.

And to some extent that’s true.

And the reason we can say that’s true

is because most of us need a gratitude practice.

We need to do certain things

in order to feel good and to feel happy.

We actually have to put work into it.

It is quite possible that there’s an asymmetry

in the way that these pro-social

versus defensive circuits are set up,

such that because defensive circuits

are designed to keep us safe,

psychologically and physically safe,

that they have more robustness

or they can actually drive our behavior more easily.

I’ll give you an analogy in the system

that I’m most familiar with as a neuroscientist,

which is the visual system.

In the visual system, we have parallel pathways.

We have neurons in our eye that respond

when things in our environment get brighter.

Literally, when the lights go up,

these neurons start firing like crazy.

And we have neurons in our eye

that respond when things get darker,

when things start dimming or go from white to black.

The circuits for detecting darkening

are much more robust and much more numerous

than are the circuits for brightness.

And that is probably related, probably,

to the fact that dark objects

or experiencing looming, meaning incoming objects,

and being able to perceive them

is something that’s vital to our survival.

Whereas being able to perceive the brightening of things

might be important to survival in certain contexts,

you know, car lights coming at you at night

or something of that sort,

but not as often in a kind of a evolutionary

or ethological context as the darkening of things.

So I think Freud’s quote and the field of psychology

now point to the fact that,

indeed, we have the capacity for happiness

and we have the capacity for great worry and concern

and depression and unhappiness.

And the neural circuit literature also supports that.

The key thing for today’s discussion

is that gratitude turns out to be

one of the most potent wedges

by which we can insert our thinking,

and as you also see the physiology of our body,

between these two circuits

and give a little more levity, if you will,

to the side of the seesaw that’s associated

with positive pro-social feelings.

And if you keep imagining this seesaw imagery,

what’s really beautiful about gratitude practices

is that if they’re performed repeatedly,

and not even that often, but repeatedly,

then one can actually shift their neural circuits

such that the seesaw that I’m calling

pro-social versus defensive behaviors

can actually start to tilt,

and the little hinge, if you will,

on the seesaw in the middle

can be adjusted in a little tighter

when the side for gratitude and for wellbeing

and for feelings of happiness is a little bit higher.

What this means is that

whether or not Freud was right or wrong,

whether or not the neuroscientists in one camp

or another are right or wrong,

we now know with certainty

that a regular gratitude practice

can shift the pro-social circuit

so that they dominate our physiology and our mindset

in ways that can enhance many, many aspects

of our physical and mental health by default.

So we don’t always have to constantly be in practice

trying to be happy.

So the succinct way of saying all this is,

yes, indeed, we might be wired

or in such that we have a greater propensity

for unhappiness than happiness,

but gratitude practices,

provided they are the effective ones

and they are performed regularly,

can shift those circuits

such that we are happier on average

even when we are not performing those practices.

Now I’d like to talk about some of the neurochemistry

and neural circuits associated with gratitude

and pro-social behaviors.

Numerous times on this podcast,

I’ve talked about so-called neuromodulators.

Those of you that might’ve forgotten

or have never heard of neuromodulators before,

neuromodulators are chemicals

that are released in the brain and body

that change the activity of other neural circuits.

They make certain brain areas more likely to be active

and other brain areas less likely to be active.

These neuromodulators have names like dopamine, serotonin,

acetylcholine, epinephrine, and so on.

The main neuromodulators associated with gratitude

and pro-social behaviors tends to be serotonin.

Serotonin is released from a very small collection

of neurons in the brainstem called the raphe,

R-A-P-H-E, the raphe nucleus,

and a few other places in the brain.

And the raphe neurons send these little wires

that we call axons out to numerous places in the brain.

And they tend to increase the activity

of particular neural circuits

that lend themselves to more approach

to particular types of experiences.

That makes total sense if you think about it.

Have a chemical that under certain circumstances

is released in the brain

that triggers the activity of neural circuits

that makes the organism, you,

more likely to stay in an interaction with something

or even lean in and seek a more detailed interaction

with that person, place, or thing.

Beautiful work from a cognitive neuropsychologist.

His name is Antonio Damasio.

He’s a world-class neuroscientist

who’s been in the game a very long time,

has explored the so-called neural correlates of gratitude.

And two main brain areas are activated

by these serotonergic systems.

And when people experience something

that makes them feel gratitude,

even if it’s shallow gratitude or deep,

and if it’s all the way to deep gratitude,

they see activation of these particular brain circuits

I’ll mention in a moment.

And the amount of activation scales

with how intensely the person experienced

the feeling of gratitude.

And those two areas have particular names.

You don’t need to know the names,

but for those of you that want to know,

they are the anterior cingulate cortex

and the medial prefrontal cortex.

And of course, these brain areas are connected

to a number of other networks in the brain.

In fact, that’s how they get you or others

to lean into certain experiences,

because when these areas are active,

certain thought processes get invoked.

Those thought processes probably resemble something like,

hmm, I’d like to experience more of this,

or hmm, this feels really good.

And then they literally feed onto your muscles

via the neurons, making you happy to stay stationary

if you’re experiencing something you like,

or to move closer to something

that you find attractive to you, literally.

So these are powerful circuits.

Of these two brain areas,

the one I’d like to focus on the most

is the medial prefrontal cortex.

Many of you have probably heard

of the medial prefrontal cortex,

because this is the area of the brain

that is involved in planning and in deep thinking

and evaluation of different types of experiences,

past, present, or future.

It seems actually that pretty much every study

of a human anything seems to involve

the medial prefrontal cortex,

or at least one could get that impression

just by looking at scientific abstracts

and papers these days.

So I think it’s worth us taking a step back

and asking what does the medial prefrontal cortex

really do, right?

How could this one piece of neural real estate

that we all have right behind our forehead,

how could that be involved in so many different things?

And the reason it can be involved

in so many different things,

and the reason it’s especially important for gratitude

is that medial prefrontal cortex sets context, okay?

It sets context,

and it literally defines the meaning of your experience.

Now, this is not at all an abstract phenomenon.

I’m going to give a very physiological example of this,

and then we’re going to translate it to gratitude.

But I really want everyone to understand

how is it that medial prefrontal cortex

sets the context of everything in your life?

Well, it does it the following way.

You have a number of circuits deeper in your brain

that simply create some sensations,

or they allow you, I should say,

to perceive certain sensations.

Let’s use the example of cold exposure,

something that we’d sometimes talk about in this podcast

for other reasons.

If you were to deliberately place yourself into an ice bath,

it would be uncomfortable,

even if you’re adapted to cold and so forth.

The discomfort is non-negotiable.

However, if you are doing it because you want to,

or because you have knowledge

that there are particular health benefits,

the medial prefrontal cortex can then control areas

of your deeper brain, like the hypothalamus,

to positively impact the neurochemicals

that are released into your system.

You’ll still get a lot of adrenaline

by getting into the ice bath,

but the fact that you are doing this deliberately

and your knowledge that you are making the choice,

that it’s you that’s deciding

to put yourself through this discomfort,

has been shown to create a very different

and positive effect on things like dopamine,

on things like anti-inflammatory markers

in your immune system, et cetera,

compared to if someone pushes you into an ice bath,

or if you are doing it because someone insists

that you do it and you really, really don’t want to.

So there’s a very subtle distinction here.

It’s just the distinction of motivation and desire

or lack of motivation and being forced into something.

And there are a number of other effects

of this that have been described.

In the episode with Robert Sapolsky

that I did earlier this last year,

he talked about a study in animals,

which has also been shown in humans.

If you take a mouse, for instance,

and it runs on a running wheel,

which mice really like to do,

there are many positive effects on reducing blood pressure,

improvements in neurochemistry, et cetera, in that mouse.

However, if there’s a mouse in the cage right next to it

that’s trapped in the running wheel

and it has to run every time the other mouse runs

because the wheels are linked,

well then the second mouse that’s forced

to do the exact same running

experiences negative shifts in their overall health metrics.

Blood pressure goes up, stress hormones go up, et cetera,

because it’s not actually making the choice.

Medial prefrontal cortex is the knob,

or the switch rather, that can take one experience

and allow us to frame it

such that it creates positive health effects.

And the exact same experience framed

as something we don’t want to do

or that we are forced to do

can create negative health effects.

Now, how exactly the neurons

in medial prefrontal cortex do that is rather complicated

and frankly, not completely understood.

But it’s somehow able to adjust the activity

of other neural circuits that are purely reflexive.

As we say in neuroscience,

like really dumb neural circuits

that are just like switches and place a context onto it.

So gratitude is a mindset

that activates prefrontal cortex

and in doing so sets the context of your experience

such that you can derive tremendous health benefits,

which leads us to the question,

what kind of gratitude practice

is going to accomplish this, right?

Because it is not simply the case

that I could take a knife,

don’t, please don’t do this experiment,

and cut my hand and say,

oh, you know, I’m going to enjoy this.

I’m doing this because this is good for me

and it won’t hurt.

Of course, it’ll hurt just like the ice bath is cold

no matter what.

But I can’t lie to myself, right?

If I have some knowledge

that cutting myself is bad for me,

that’s very hard to override.

And so the medial prefrontal cortex

has a tremendous capacity to set context

and it does that beautifully with respect to gratitude,

but you can’t simply lie to yourself.

You can’t simply say,

oh, well, every experience is a learning experience

or, you know, a terrible thing that happens,

oh, good, I’m just going to say good,

and that your body will react as if it’s good for you.

That’s a myth.

And frankly, it’s a myth that’s fairly pervasive

in the self-help and self-actualization literature.

We have the opportunity to reframe

and set context on our experiences,

but that requires a very specific set of practices.

We can’t simply lie to ourselves

or quote unquote fake it until we make it.

Neural circuitry is very powerful and very plastic.

It can be modified and it’s very context dependent,

but it’s not stupid.

And when you lie to yourself

about whether or not an experience

is actually good for you or not,

your brain knows.

So what does an effective gratitude practice look like?

Well, let’s examine what an ineffective,

what a poor gratitude practice looks like,

because therein lies some really important information,

including the fact that I,

and I think millions of other people out there

are doing it wrong.

Most gratitude practices that you see online

and that people talk about in various talks and so forth

involve something like writing down or reciting

or thinking about five or 10 or three or 20 things

that you’re especially grateful for.

And then really trying to feel into some of those,

really try and think deeply about the emotions,

the sensations, the perceptions that are associated

with those particular people, places,

and things on your list.

Most studies actually point to the fact

that that style of gratitude practice

is not particularly effective

in shifting your neural circuitry,

your neural chemistry or your somatic circuitry,

the circuits in your body,

because you literally have organs and neural circuits

that are connected,

the circuits of your brain and body

toward enhanced activation of prefrontal cortex,

enhanced activation of these prosocial neural networks

that we were talking about earlier.

Now that may come as a surprise to many of you

and certainly came as a surprise to me.

There is some evidence that if there’s a shift

in so-called autonomic arousal,

during these gratitude practices,

these ones that I’m calling ineffective,

that they can be made slightly more effective.

So what do I mean by a shift in autonomic arousal?

Well, very briefly, we have a aspect to our nervous system,

both within our brain and body

that we call the autonomic nervous system.

It’s a little bit of a misnomer

because autonomic means automatic.

And in fact, we can take control

of the autonomic nervous system.

It has one branch,

meaning one set of connections and circuits

that are associated with making us more alert,

the so-called sympathetic nervous system,

or I should say sympathetic arm

of the autonomic nervous system,

but that’s really a mouthful.

It’s really associated with enhanced alertness

of any kind for excitement or fear.

And it has nothing to do with sympathy.

It’s just about enhanced alertness.

And then the other arm of the autonomic nervous system

is the so-called parasympathetic arm

of the autonomic nervous system,

but that’s also a mouthful.

So let’s just say it’s the calming aspect

of the autonomic nervous system.

So it’s associated with decreased heart rate,

decreased breathing rate, et cetera.

So we have these two aspects to our autonomic nervous system

and it has been shown that if people are brought

into a state of heightened sympathetic tone,

meaning more alertness,

then the intensity of the emotions that they experience

in their gratitude practice is enhanced

and the effectiveness of that gratitude practice

can be enhanced.

This is seen nowadays somewhat commonly

as having people, for instance,

cyclic hyperventilated breathing,

as we call it in my laboratory.

Breathing that’s very intense of the inhale, exhale,

inhale, exhale very deeply for 25 or 30 breaths.

Then people will sit in a meditative stance

or they’ll focus on their notepad and paper

and they’ll write out the things that they’re grateful for.

And then they’ll really try and feel into those things

or they’ll think about those things.

And it makes perfect sense

as to why enhancing autonomic arousal

toward more alertness would create more robust feelings

or more robust impact of these gratitude practices.

Because in that state, you are more alert

and therefore you are able to bring more detail,

more richness to the perception and the understanding

of what those things on your list happen to be.

But, and I should say that there are numerous

other approaches to this,

sort of self-help type stuff

and self-help actualization seminars,

people will do things like cold baths

or they’ll do chanting

or they’ll have any number of different experiences,

all of which are mainly geared

towards increased autonomic arousal.

You know, there are even practices out there

using pharmacology to create increased autonomic arousal

and then drop into gratitude.

Across the board, those increase the potency

of the gratitude practice of listing things out on paper

or in one’s mind or saying them out loud.

But somewhat surprisingly, at least to me,

that form of just expressing thanks, expressing gratitude

is not the most effective way

to shift these pro-social circuits in positive ways

for one’s physiology and anatomy and psychology.

Turns out that the most potent form of gratitude practice

is not a gratitude practice where you give gratitude

or express gratitude, but rather where you receive gratitude,

where you receive thanks.

And this, to me, was very surprising.

There are a number of studies about this now.

One in particular that I think is interesting

is called prefrontal activation

while listening to a letter of gratitude

read aloud by a coworker face-to-face, a NIRS study, N-I-R-S.

I’ll explain what all this means.

You now know what the prefrontal activation part is.

This is activation of the prefrontal cortex.

The NIRS, N-I-R-S study, that’s just a technical term.

It’s a form of imaging brain activity.

It’s non-invasive.

So it’s kind of a skull cap.

It looks like a hoodie with a bunch of wires

coming out of it, basically,

that can measure neural activity

without having to remove any parts of the skull

or put a person into one of these tube-like fMRI machines,

which is very invasive.

It’s also a wonderful tool

because it allows human subjects in the laboratory

to move around and to engage with one another.

So in this particular experiment,

what they did is they had coworkers

write a letter of gratitude, of thanks,

to another coworker, unbeknownst to the other coworker.

And then they sat down together

and then they imaged brain activity

as this letter was being read

and as the letter was being heard, received.

And it showed very robust effects

on these prefrontal networks

that pointed to the fact that receiving gratitude

is actually much more potent

in terms of the positive shifts that it can create

than giving gratitude.

So this raises a couple of important points.

First of all, if you are somebody

who is prone to write letters of gratitude,

ideally, I think it’s requisite

that these be genuine letters of gratitude

or saying things that are genuine expressions of gratitude.

This could be by text or in person or by phone.

You have within you a very potent form

of shifting somebody else’s neurology.

Now that’s wonderful.

And I think there are many people like that out there.

But for many people who want to experience

the positive effects of gratitude,

it’s probably not the most advantageous approach

to just sit around waiting,

hoping that someone’s going to deliver

all these letters or words of gratitude.

How is it that you can create that sense

of receiving gratitude for yourself

and thereby derive the effects of gratitude

as outlined in this particular study?

And there we go back to the important work

of the great Antonio Damasio,

who explored these neural correlates of gratitude

to define the areas of the brain

that are associated with prosocial behaviors

like the prefrontal cortex.

And what’s really interesting about the work

that Damasio and colleagues did is,

first of all, they used functional

magnetic resonance imaging.

So this is a very high resolution approach

to exploring what areas of the brain are active

and it has very high, what we call temporal resolution,

meaning you can see things in time at very fine scales.

So a lot of mechanistic detail

can emerge from these sorts of studies.

What they did was interesting,

rather than have people express gratitude,

they had the subjects go into the scanner,

so their brains are being imaged,

and they watched narratives, stories about other people

experiencing positive things in their life.

And in this case, these were powerful stories.

These were stories about survivors of genocide.

So that’s what they’re watching.

The subjects were subjects

that were not survivors of genocide.

So they were watching these videotapes

of people that had survived genocide

and had people help them along the way

as part of their story of survival,

either psychological and, or obviously they survived

long enough to make the video, or physical survival.

So within these stories,

there was a conveyance of a lot of struggle.

These people talked about the horrible situations

they were in, but also small,

but highly significant features of their history

that had led to their own feelings of gratitude.

So for instance, you know, it says a woman at the,

this is literally from the scientific paper,

you know, somebody had been sick for weeks.

So the woman’s describing how she’d been sick for weeks.

And then another prisoner who was a doctor

finds a particular medicine somehow,

it doesn’t describe how, and literally saves her life.

Or an ally who was also in a stricken circumstance

gave this person a pair of glasses

when their eyesight started to falter.

So these sorts of stories.

Now, just hearing this in the context

of nothing but a scientific paper and discussion,

these probably don’t, aren’t that impactful.

What’s really important about this study

and is really important for all of us to know

is that these stories of other people receiving things

that were powerful for them in their life trajectory

is embedded in story.

And the human brain especially

is so oriented towards story.

We have neural circuits that like to link together

past, present, future, have different characters,

protagonists and antagonists.

From the time we’re very young

until the time we’re very old,

story is one of the major ways

that we organize information in the brain.

There does seem to be storytelling

and story listening circuits in the brain.

So what’s important is not simply

that these people survived genocide,

that’s obviously important and wonderful,

but it’s not just that they were helped along the way,

it’s that the description of their help

is embedded in a larger story.

So the human subject in this scientific study

is watching these powerful stories.

And the neural circuits associated with pro-social behaviors

and with gratitude become robustly active

when they start to feel some affiliation

with the person telling the story.

They start to feel some resonance.

We might call that empathy,

but it doesn’t necessarily have to be empathy.

Empathy is a somewhat complicated thing to define

because it involves literally a setting aside

of one’s own emotions and really focusing almost entirely

or experiencing almost entirely the emotions of another.

It could be sympathy, it could be empathy.

What we do know is that the stories themselves

were able to shift the physiology of the subjects

in this study and activate these,

what we’re calling gratitude circuitry

that involves the prefrontal cortex.

So if you think about the earlier study

that receiving gratitude is the most powerful way

to activate these circuits for gratitude,

the subjects in this study in many ways

are receiving a sense of gratitude,

but through the narrative of one of these other subjects,

which I find fascinating.

I would have thought a great gratitude practice

would be to sit down and list out

all the things you’re grateful for.

That just seems so logical to me,

but it turns out that these neural circuits

don’t work that way.

That to really activate these circuits for gratitude

and the serotonin and probably the oxytocin system as well,

and it’s prefrontal networks,

one has to powerfully associate

with the idea of receiving help.

Okay, the subjects are associating

or experiencing empathy or sympathy

for somebody else who received help.

In the other study we described a few minutes ago,

the person hearing the letter was receiving gratitude

and that would amplify the activity of these circuits.

And that takes us to a larger theme

of what are these pro-social circuits?

And an important concept to emerge from this

is one that’s most often associated

with the autism literature, frankly,

which is this idea of theory of mind.

So just very briefly, theory of mind

is the ability to attribute

or to understand the experience of another

without actually experiencing

the thing that they’re experiencing.

Again, it kind of sounds like empathy,

but this was actually a term

that’s now been demonstrated

in the psychology and neuroscience

that’s been linked to some very robust findings

associated with brain areas and so forth

that was looking at autistic kids and non-autistic kids.

The person largely responsible

for developing theory of mind is Simon Baron-Cohen.

I believe he’s either the brother or the cousin.

I can’t recall which, to the comedian, Sasha Baron-Cohen.

Simon Baron-Cohen is a professor at Oxford University,

or at least he was the last time I checked.

And the theory of mind test

can be done on adults or on children.

And we can sort of do that experiment right now if you like,

and you can think about how you would behave

if you were a subject in a theory of mind test.

Theory of mind test involves you or a child

or some other adult sitting down

and watching a video of a child going into a room

or a person going into a room,

opening up a desk or dresser, a drawer, for instance,

or a desk drawer, and placing something in it,

like a pen or a toy, and then leaving.

And then another person walking into the room

and clearly looking for something in the room.

And one presumes it’s the toy or the pen,

depending on the context.

People who have strong theory of mind

make the obvious conclusion

that the person looking around for the pen or the toy

is confused or they’re perplexed.

They don’t know where the toy is.

They’re looking for the toy.

Someone who is fairly far to one side of the autism

or Asperger’s spectrum

will simply focus on the location of the object,

on the location of the pen or the toy.

And this is especially true in children.

They will say, well, it’s in the second drawer.

It’s in the second drawer.

And they’ll say, well,

how does the person who comes into the room feel?

And they’ll say, well, it’s in the drawer.

So they tend to focus on the specific factual elements

of the scenario rather than place their mind

into the mind of the other person,

so-called theory of mind.

Now that doesn’t mean that people with autism

and Asperger’s don’t have empathy.

In some cases they can.

It sort of depends on where they are

on the spectrum and so forth.

But theory of mind has very strong basis

in these prefrontal cortex neural circuits

that we were talking about,

because as you now know,

the prefrontal cortex sets context

on what we see and experience.

And the theory of mind task that I just described

very briefly is a pure example of context setting, right?

It’s not about the fact,

just the factual elements about the location of the objects.

It’s about the context.

Someone is looking for something

that someone else put someplace that makes it such

that that object is hidden.

So basically theory of mind is your ability

to put yourself into the mindset of another.

And in order to get activation of these gratitude circuits,

one needs to put themselves into the mindset of another

or to directly receive gratitude.

So let’s just take a moment and start to think about

how we are going to build out

the ultimate gratitude practice,

meaning the most effective gratitude practice

for us to do because of all the many positive effects

that an effective gratitude practice can have

if it’s the proper one.

It’s very clear that receiving gratitude is powerful,

but it’s also very clear that waiting around

to receive that gratitude is an impractical approach.

Now, there are methods that have been developed

by my colleague at Stanford, Kelly McGonigal and others

that actually have developed things for the workplace,

for school, for coworkers,

and students to write out particular worksheets

related to what they’re thankful for from others

and exchange them.

And so those are very useful practices.

I don’t want to take anything away from the important work

that Kelly and others have done.

But in the absence of having other people

to do these practices with,

what we know for sure is that there has to be

a real experience of somebody else’s experience

and that the best way to do that is story.

So in thinking about how to build out

an effective gratitude practice,

it’s very worthwhile, I believe,

to find someone’s narrative that’s powerful for you.

In many ways to think about this

is it’s got to be a story that inspires you

because of the, for lack of a better phrase,

the beauty of the human spirit

or the ability of humans to help other humans.

And I find this remarkable

because what this really means

is that the circuits for gratitude

are such that we can exchange gratitude.

We can actually observe someone else getting help,

someone else giving help.

And that observation of our species

doing that for one another

allows us to experience the feeling of a genuine chemical

and neural circuit activation lift, if you will.

Very, very different than simply writing out the things

that you’re thankful for, right?

And so how would you do this?

Well, people digest story in a number of different ways.

People watch movies, people listen to podcasts,

people read books.

There are tremendous number of stories out there.

It’s clear that an effective gratitude practice

has to be repeated from time to time.

So what I would not suggest is that we build a protocol

in which you’re constantly foraging

for inspirational stories over and over again.

You know, social media and the internet

are replete with those.

That’s not going to be a very potent protocol or tool

because the most potent protocol or tool for gratitude

is going to be one that you repeat over and over again.

Rather, the most effective protocol or tool

is going to be either to think into,

and you could write this out if you like,

but think into when somebody was thankful

for something that you did

and really start to think about how you felt

in receiving that gratitude,

or, and or, I should say,

imagining or thinking about deeply

the emotional experience of somebody else receiving help.

Now, what narrative you select

is going to be very dependent on you and your taste.

It’s going to be very dependent on what resonates with you.

But again, I want to emphasize that

the story that you select does not have to have

any semblance to your own life experience.

It’s just about what happens to move you.

And so the way that one could do this,

and actually I’ve started this practice for myself

on the basis of the learnings I’ve had

in the last few weeks around preparing for this episode,

is to find a story that’s particularly meaningful for you,

and then to just take some short notes,

bullet point notes about maybe list out, for instance,

on a just a small sheet of paper or in your phone,

if that’s your preference,

just list out, for instance, you know,

what the struggle was, what the help was,

and something about how that impacts you emotionally.

This is something just for you.

You don’t have to share it with anybody.

That kind of shorthand list of bullet point notes

serves as your shorthand for getting into this mode

that we’re calling gratitude,

and actually closely mimics a lot of what was done

in these various studies.

Because even though the studies I’ve talked about

up until now were really focused on

what we call acute imaging studies,

where someone watched a story or received gratitude

while the experiment was done,

and then that’s it, one and done,

there are other studies looking at gratitude

in this context over many weeks, up to six weeks.

And what one observes is that there’s

so-called neuroplasticity of these circuits.

Neuroplasticity is the brain and nervous system’s ability

to change in response to experience,

and that these neural circuits start developing

a familiarity with the narrative,

so that, for instance, let’s say you sit down

the first time you’ve found a story

that you find particularly compelling,

you’ve written down a few notes about what that story is,

just to remind you, and then you read those out

and you think into the richness of that experience,

that receiving of gratitude,

or if you prefer, you’re doing the protocol

where you’re thinking about when someone was deeply grateful

or was genuinely grateful to you,

that you’re thinking about that,

the neural circuits become activated more easily

with each subsequent repeat of the practice.

Now, this could be done literally for one minute,

or two minutes, or three minutes.

This is not an extensively long practice.

And that’s another beauty of gratitude practices,

is that they have these outsized positive effects

on so many aspects of our physiology,

but these are very short practices.

They’re the kind of thing that you can do

walking to your car,

the kind of thing you can just sit down for a minute

and set a timer and do,

because they are really about changing

your state of mind and body,

and if you have an experience of receiving gratitude

or a story that’s very potent for you,

it becomes a sort of shortcut into the gratitude network,

these prosocial networks,

meaning the activation of these circuits

becomes almost instantaneous.

And that’s very different

than a lot of other practices out there.

You know, I’m not aware of any meditation practices,

for instance, that you can do only a few times,

and then within a week or so,

you just have to do them for one minute,

you immediately drop into the kind of optimal state

that that meditation practice is designed to create.

There are some shorter meditation practices

that are very potent and very effective like that,

but gratitude and the circuits associated with it

appear to be especially plastic,

meaning especially prone to being able to be triggered

in the good sense of the word triggered,

just by simply reminding yourself

of this particular narrative.

Now, there’s another very clear and positive effect

of using this narrative or story-based approach

to a gratitude practice,

and that’s what story does for our physiology.

Now, earlier in the episode,

I mentioned this really incredible study

in which listening to a story

coordinated the heart rate of different individuals

and literally changed the way that their heart was beating.

The title of this study

is Conscious Processing of Narrative Stimuli

Synchronizes Heart Rate Between Individuals.

The first author is Perez,

again, published in Cell Reports, Cell Press Journal,

excellent journal, and it’s a really elegant study.

They looked at instantaneous heart rate.

They use electrocardiogram to do that,

which is simply a way to look at heart beats

with very fine precision.

They also looked at the breathing of subjects

as they listened to these stories.

Some of you may know that breathing and heart rate

are actually linked to one another

in a really interesting way.

The simple way to put it is that when you inhale,

your heart rate speeds up a little bit,

and when you exhale, your heart rate slows down,

and this is because of the movement of the diaphragm

in your thoracic cavity,

and the physicians and medical types

call this respiratory sinus arrhythmia.

There’s a mechanism there we could get into,

but I don’t want to distract us from the main theme here,

so just remember when you inhale,

your heart rate speeds up,

and when you exhale, your heart rate slows down.

They looked at breathing,

they looked at heart rate in different individuals,

and listening to a story

produced very consistent gaps

between the heart rates of the people who are listening.

Different individuals in the study

who were not located in the same place

when they listened to the story,

listening to the story in different times,

different days entirely,

had very similar heartbeat patterns

listening to this story.

What this means for your gratitude practice

is that having a story that you can return to

over and over again,

even if it’s not the entire story,

you’re just using the shorthand bullet point

version of your story,

will create a perceptible and real shift

in your heartbeat and in your breathing.

And actually that’s been demonstrated over and over now

that an effective gratitude practice

is one that can rapidly shift

not just the activation of these circuits in your brain

for pro-social behaviors,

but also activation of particular circuits in your heart

and in your lungs and the other organs of your body

such that you can get into a reproducible state

of gratitude each time.

So an important component here

is that there be some element of story.

Again, you don’t have to listen to or read

or think about the entire story start to finish

in order to extract these benefits

and that it be the same story over and over.

And as a consequence,

that’s going to shift your physiology

into presumably a more relaxed state

because typically that’s the one

that’s associated with gratitude.

Although activation of these gratitude circuits

has also been shown to create sense of awe or sense of joy.

There are a few studies looking at

and kind of parsing the difference

between gratitude and joy.

I was able to find a few studies about that,

but in general,

the neural circuits that are activated

tend to overlap quite a lot with those

that create a sense of gratitude.

So we don’t want to split hairs unnecessarily there.

The key thing is that you want to use the same story,

even if it’s your own experience or somebody else’s

and keep coming back to it over and over again.

That makes it a very potent tool

that you can get a tremendous amount of benefit

from with even as short as 60 seconds of practice.

Earlier, I talked about how you can’t lie to yourself

and say, you know,

I’m so grateful for this thing that I actually hate.

And in a moment,

I’m going to tell you about some scientific data

that proves the statement I made is true

and that you can’t just lie to yourself

and derive the benefits of a gratitude practice.

The data are also going to point to the fact

that if you are giving gratitude,

not just receiving it, but giving gratitude,

that too has to be genuine.

There’s a really interesting studies

published in Scientific Reports,

which is a nature research journal.

The title of it is,

Neural Responses to Intention and Benefit Appraisal

are Critical in Distinguishing Gratitude and Joy.

It’s a somewhat complicated study,

so I’m just going to hit on some of the high points,

but basically what they did

is they use functional magnetic resonance imaging.

So they could look at brain circuitry activation

with very high precision.

And they had people receiving money

in the context of this experiment.

And they had some knowledge as to whether or not

the money that they were receiving

was given to them wholeheartedly or reluctantly.

And there were a number of different variables in the study,

including how much money was given.

So in some cases it was very little,

in other cases it was modest,

in other cases it was a lot more.

And they also varied the extent to which the giver

of the money that they called the benefactor

was doing it wholeheartedly

or seemed to be doing it somewhat reluctantly.

And they looked at whether or not the sense of gratitude

scaled with the amount of money received

and or the intention of the benefactor,

whether or not the person giving the money

was doing it wholeheartedly or reluctantly.

And what’s remarkable is that

while the amount of money given

was a strong component in whether or not

somebody felt that they had received gratitude,

which makes sense,

the amount of money is some metric

of whether or not somebody feels thanked.

The stronger variable, the bigger impact

came from whether or not the person giving the money

was giving it with a wholehearted intention

and not a reluctant intention.

And of course, there was an interaction

where the best circumstance, of course,

is where the person received a lot of money

from somebody who wholeheartedly

wanted to give them a lot of money.

And they did every derivation of this,

but this is important.

This tells us many things

that extend way beyond gratitude practices,

which is that genuine thanks are what count, okay?

We could probably presume that,

but receiving genuine thanks is also a strong variable

in determining whether or not we experience real gratitude

or whether or not it’s empty,

regardless of the size of a gift.

So this constrains our gratitude practices somewhat,

but I think in an interesting and important way,

you can’t make this stuff up.

You can’t tell yourself that an experience was great

or that I got a lot of money

and therefore it justified it,

even though I think that they gave it to me reluctantly

or my boss hates me, but they gave me a raise.

That stuff stings for all the right reasons

because there are circuits in our brain and body

that are oriented towards these pro-social interactions.

And in some sense, what we are looking for as a species,

what these circuits want, if you will,

is to receive things from people

that are giving them wholeheartedly.

And that tells us that if we are the giver,

that we better be giving wholeheartedly

or we are undermining the sense of gratitude

that someone is going to receive from us.

So we are gradually building up

the ultimate gratitude practice

based on the variety of scientific literature

that’s out there.

And I know that many people are probably interested

in developing a gratitude practice that has long-lasting,

maybe even permanent positive effects

on their neural circuitry.

So with that in mind,

I want to turn our attention to a really interesting study.

It’s entitled Effects of Gratitude Meditation

on Neural Network Functional Connectivity

and Brain-Heart Coupling.

And to make a long story short

and a lot simpler than that title,

repeated gratitude practice changes the way

that your brain circuits work.

And it also changes the way in which your heart

and your brain interact.

You’re familiar with the fact

that your brain controls your heart

because you can be stressed about something

that’s perceived with your brain,

and then your heart rate will speed up.

You’re probably also familiar with the fact

that if your heart rate speeds up for some reason

or no reason, you’re probably thinking,

well, what’s making my heart rate speed up?

And that’s because the brain and the heart

are reciprocally innervated, as we say.

They’re talking to one another in both directions.

It’s a two-way highway.

This study looked at changes

in so-called functional connectivity within the brain

and between the brain and the heart

in response to gratitude practices.

And as a control, they used what I think

is very interesting, a resentment intervention.

I think resentment is an apt control

and quite different than gratitude.

To make a long story short,

what they found is that a repeated gratitude practice

could change the resting state functional connectivity

in emotion and motivation-related brain regions.

If I haven’t mentioned a strong enough incentive

for doing a regular gratitude practice until now,

this is definitely the one to pay attention to

because what they found was a regular gratitude practice

could shift the functional connectivity of emotion pathways

in ways that made anxiety and fear circuits

less likely to be active

and circuits for feelings of wellbeing,

but also motivation to be much more active.

I find that remarkable and important

because a number of people

struggle with issues of motivation.

A lot of people who are highly motivated

also have issues with anxiety and fear.

And so this study really points to the fact

that it’s a twofer.

If you have a good gratitude practice

and you repeat it regularly,

you reduce the fear anxiety circuits,

you increase the efficacy of the positive emotion

feel-good circuits,

and the circuits associated with motivation and pursuit

are actually enhanced as well.

So that’s very strong incentive

to have a gratitude practice and one that you use regularly.

We’ll talk about how regularly in just a moment.

I don’t want to go into too many details of this study,

although we will put a reference to it if you like.

It includes a lot of fMRI data,

imaging data of different brain areas,

many, many tables and examples of matrices

of before and after gratitude, after resentment, et cetera.

You do indeed have circuits in your brain for resentment,

whether you like it or not.

We all do.

And some people just,

those circuits are more robust than others.

But the remarkable thing is one can shift

these circuits in the direction

that I think most people would like,

which is more sense of wellbeing and motivation

and less resentment and fear, literally.

And what’s really cool about this study also

is that the interventions are only five minutes long.

It’s incredible, five minutes long.

And so as we start to build out our ideal gratitude practice,

we know that it has to have certain features.

First of all, it has to be grounded in a story,

probably a story that you’ve heard in its entirety

at least once, but then you can have a shorthand version,

the so-called bullet points that I talked about before

that allow you to drop into that story

or the emotional associations with that story.

So you don’t have to listen to the whole story each time.

That story should be one in which you are genuinely

being thanked for something and it made you feel good,

or it could be a story about someone else

genuinely expressing thanks, okay?

Based on the description of the gratitude practices

that we talked about earlier.

Your gratitude practice can be very brief.

I mean, it can be as brief as one minute, 60 seconds

or five minutes, which still seems very brief to me.

Although in these studies, they were getting

these really major effects just from five minutes

of gratitude practice.

Some of these papers involve people doing some focusing

on their breathing and calming themselves

as they go into the gratitude practice,

but that’s within the five minute block.

So if you decide that you’re going to do a gratitude practice

that involves first, you know, doing some calming breathing,

exhale, emphasize breathing, for instance,

or physiological size, things I’ve talked about before

on this podcast that can help calm you down

because they have a lot of exhales,

which you now know slows your heart rate down,

and then doing your gratitude practice, that’s fine.

It’s actually not necessary,

but a lot of these studies use that.

I think once a narrative has been set,

you’ve heard the story and it has meaning for you,

or you have a recollection of a story

where you were genuinely thanked,

then I think just 60 seconds or maybe 120 seconds

should be sufficient.

Then the question becomes how often

to repeat this gratitude practice.

That’s not exactly clear from the existing literature.

I can’t point to any one study that says five times a week

or four times a week.

So I’m going to throw out a number,

which is three times a week.

And then people will ask, well,

when should I do that gratitude practice?

And I’ll tell you what I tell most everybody

about most every practice with a few exceptions,

which is the best time of day to do this practice

is when you first wake up in the morning

or before you go to sleep at night or any time of day.

So we’ve talked about some of the neural circuitry changes

associated with a regular gratitude practice.

And I should mention that there’s an additional

neural circuitry shift that occurs.

It relates to a structure that I mentioned

just briefly earlier, which is the so-called ACC

or anterior cingulate cortex.

This is an area of the brain that has several functions,

but more and more data are pointing to the fact

that the ACC is actually involved in empathy

and is involved in understanding the emotional states

of others in general,

even if it doesn’t invoke a sense of empathy.

And there are several studies that point to the fact

that in humans who have a regular gratitude practice,

the ACC becomes more robustly engaged,

even with these very brief gratitude practices.

We actually have a project in our lab.

This is actually done in animal models

with where animals observe other animals

experiencing certain emotional states.

And one of the brain areas that we’ve identified

as important for this,

it’s kind of a primordial form of empathy

because we really don’t know what these mice are thinking.

We work on humans in the case where we work on humans.

Of course, we ask them and they tell us

what they think they’re thinking.

With the mice, we ask them,

but they don’t tell us much of anything interesting.

Instead, we measure a number of physiological signals.

But the important point is that the ACC,

the anterior cingulate cortex,

seems to be an important hub for the generation

and execution of empathy as it relates to feelings

and empathic behaviors, altruistic behaviors

of animals helping animals and humans helping other humans.

We see this in animal models.

We see this in humans.

So if you want to be a more empathic person,

a gratitude practice is also going to be

very effective for that, it appears,

especially using this narrative type approach

where you are using someone else’s narrative

of receiving gratitude as a way to tap

into your own sense of gratitude.

Thus far, we’ve mainly talked about the effects

of gratitude on neural circuit activation and changes,

a little bit about some of the changes that are happening

in terms of the body, heart rate and breathing and so forth.

But we haven’t talked a lot yet about the changes

in health metrics, in things like inflammation

or reductions in inflammation and immunity

and things of that sort.

So with that in mind, I’d like to describe the results

of a really interesting recent study that was published

in the journal Brain Behavior and Immunity.

This was published 2021.

The title of the study is Exploring Neural Mechanisms

of the Health Benefits of Gratitude in Women,

a Randomized Controlled Trial.

The first author is Hazlitt.

And basically what this paper showed was that women

who had a regular gratitude practice of the sort

that we’ve been talking about up until now

showed reductions in amygdala activity,

a brain area associated with threat detection,

a intimate part of the fear network in the brain.

So reductions in amygdala activation

and large reductions in the production

of something called TNF-alpha,

tumor necrosis factor alpha and IL-6, interleukin-6.

Now, if you happen to have listened to the episode

that I did on activating your immune system

and immune function, you heard about TNF-alpha and IL-6.

TNF-alpha and IL-6 are inflammatory cytokines.

These are chemicals that exist in your body

and that are released from cells when there is damage

or kind of a systemic stress, when your system is in duress.

And in the short term, they can be beneficial.

They can call in signals for wound healing

and repair of cells, et cetera.

But you don’t want TNF-alpha and IL-6 levels to be too high.

And you don’t want those levels to be up for too long.

And so this study is really nice

because they showed significant effects

in reducing TNF-alpha and IL-6

in response to a gratitude practice.

And because they also observed reductions

in amygdala activation,

this area associated with threat detection and fear,

it’s likely, and I should emphasize likely

because I don’t know, that the direction of the effect

is that there are neural circuit changes

which in turn shift the degree

to which these inflammatory cytokines

are released in the body.

Although for all I know, it could be the other way too.

It could be that having a gratitude practice

shifts something about heart rate and breathing,

which in turn shifts or lowers the amount

of TNF-alpha and IL-6,

and that in turn reduces activation of the amygdala.

We don’t really know the direction of the effect,

excuse me, but if I had to speculate,

I would speculate that it was a shift in neural circuitry

that led to a change in the circuits of the body.

And another interesting aspect of this study

is that the reductions in amygdala activation

and the reductions in TNF-alpha and IL-6 were very rapid.

They occurred almost immediately

after the gratitude practice was completed.

And even though that study was performed exclusively

on female subjects, based on the biology

and circuitry of the amygdala

and the biology of TNF-alpha and IL-6

performing this inflammatory role in both men and women,

I don’t see any reason why the results of that study

wouldn’t pertain to both men and women.

So what about the chemistry associated with gratitude?

Are there certain chemicals in our brain

or that we could enhance in our brain

that would enhance our gratitude practice?

Indeed, there are.

And earlier I mentioned the chemical,

the neuromodulator serotonin,

as having a powerful influence

on the activation of neural circuits

associated with pro-social behaviors and gratitude

and other sort of feel-good behaviors.

To make a long story short,

neuromodulators like dopamine and epinephrine

and norepinephrine tend to place us

into a state of exteroception,

meaning a state of observing things

and focusing on things outside the immediate reach

of our body and confines of our skin.

They tend to put us in pursuit

or in thinking about things out in the future

or out away from our physical body.

Whereas the neuromodulator serotonin

and some of the associated pathways like oxytocin

and other neurochemicals tend to,

I want to emphasize, tend to be associated

with states that are about contentment

with what we have within the confines of our body

and our immediate experience.

So they’re not so much about pursuit,

but about gratitude and about appreciation

for what we already have.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t therefore point out

that if one were to shift their chemistry

toward having higher levels of serotonin,

you would, by all logic,

experience heightened levels of gratitude.

And indeed, some people do this.

They will take compounds that increase serotonin.

There are a number of compounds out there.

As you know, I’m certainly not suggesting people do that.

A couple of the supplement-based

legal over-the-counter approaches to this

are things like 5-HTP, which is a precursor to serotonin.

Some people will take 5-HTP to try and enhance their sleep.

I’m not a fan of doing that personally.

I’ve talked about this in the sleep episodes,

but the state that we call sleep has a very complex

and important architecture as it relates to neurochemicals.

And by taking serotonin by supplement

or by stimulating serotonin release by supplement

with 5-HTP or with tryptophan,

which is an amino acid precursor to serotonin,

one can run into the problem

of disrupting the normal architecture

of sleep cycles throughout the night.

I experienced that as if I’ve taken 5-HTP or tryptophan,

I fall asleep very deeply,

but then I wake up three hours later

and I can’t fall asleep at all.

And actually it sometimes even messes up my sleep

the subsequent night.

Some people are not so sensitive to 5-HTP and tryptophan

and they actually really like it.

So again, you have to talk to your doctor,

decide what’s right for you.

You’re responsible for your health, not me.

And you have to determine what works for you.

Everyone’s slightly individual,

but one could imagine enhancing their amount of serotonin

in their brain and body by taking 5-HTP or tryptophan

before gratitude practice.

That seems a little bit extreme

given that the gratitude practice

is only about a minute to five minutes long

on a regular basis.

But there may be instances

in which you’re really trying to amplify the circuitry

in the brain and body that are associated with gratitude.

And therefore that might be something

that you want to explore.

There’s a new compound that’s out there,

a legal over-the-counter compound.

At least it’s legal in the United States,

I don’t know about overseas.

And that’s a compound called KANA, K-A-N-N-A.

It’s an interesting compound.

It goes by another name as well, which is,

and I’m going to mispronounce this and I apologize.

This is Celesium Tortosium.

Please see our timestamps

if you want to see the spelling of that.

But I’ll just call it KANA by its other name for short.

It’s an herb that is traditionally chewed

prior to stressing endeavors

is how it’s described on an

But I looked at some of the studies on this.

It’s kind of interesting.

It very likely increases the amount of serotonin

in the body and pretty potently.

It is generally taken in dosages

of anywhere from 25 to 50 milligrams.

And it creates a kind of a pro-social gratitude enhancing,

or I should say gratitude circuitry,

pro-social neural circuitry enhancing effect

because of the ways that it interacts

with the serotonergic pathways of the brain.

So it also has another name.

It’s sometimes called Zembrin, Z-E-M-B-R-I-N.

Again, I’m not suggesting that people run out

and take this stuff,

but there is an emerging practice

of people using Zembrin, Celesium Tortosium,

also called KANA, K-A-N-N-A,

in order to enhance the states that are about comfort

and pleasure with what one has

in their immediate sphere of experience.

And so one could imagine if it’s safe for you

and right for you and legal where you live

in enhancing serotonin by taking KANA

and then doing your gratitude practice.

What’s the logic behind that?

Well, oftentimes we hear about supplements and pharmacology

for quote-unquote increasing plasticity

or opening plasticity.

If I had a dollar for every time someone said,

I hear that such and such opens plasticity.

Well, indeed there are molecules associated

with the thing that we call neuroplasticity,

but neuroplasticity is not an event, it’s a process.

Meaning it has many, many steps.

It occurs during wakefulness,

it’s consolidated during sleep and so forth.

Taking a substance that increases a neurochemical

in your brain will likely,

provided it’s the right substance

and it’s the right practice,

will likely enhance the amplitude

or the intensity of that practice

and make it a more potent form of inducing neuroplasticity.

Meaning it will create longer lasting

or more robust brain changes

than if one hadn’t increased their chemistry

in this way, this way of taking something.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean

that you couldn’t get to the very same place without it

by simply doing a slightly longer gratitude practice

or putting a little bit more mental effort into it.

That said, I think the future of neuroplasticity

really resides in not just one approach,

not just neurochemistry and taking substances

to increase neuroplasticity,

not just behavioral practices

to try and increase neuroplasticity,

not just brain machine interfaces

or devices to increase neuroplasticity,

but rather the convergence of multiple tools.

So you could imagine enhancing serotonergic transmission,

as we say in the brain, using something like KANA

combined with a gratitude practice

in the not too distant future.

This will probably also be combined

with some sort of non-invasive device

to stimulate the prefrontal cortex at the same time.

Please don’t do that recreationally.

Those devices are for clinical use only currently.

But I think you start to get the idea.

So for those of you that are a little bit more exploratory

and you want to go and do some reading on this,

I thought you might find KANA interesting.

I certainly did.

There are a number of studies that will pop up on PubMed.

I recommend using as your jumping off point.

There are some decent studies that they describe

in their so-called human effect matrix.

So those are studies done on humans.

And the main effects that have been documented

in the scientific literature are minor,

but significant increases in cognition,

executive function.

Executive function is something that’s also associated

with prefrontal cortex and reductions in anxiety.

And that seems to be a common theme

that we’re seeing again and again.

You saw this in the study,

the trial where we saw reductions in TNF-alpha

and reductions in amygdala activation,

which would ostensibly lead to reductions in anxiety.

You’re seeing increases in activity in brain networks

that are associated with feelings of wellbeing.

So again, back to that kind of push-pull

of defensive anxiety and fear-like circuitry in the brain

being antagonistic, as we say,

to the circuits that are associated with pro-social,

feeling good, receiving good feelings,

type circuitry and events in life.

So as you now know, there is a lot of science

about how gratitude can positively impact neural circuits

in the brain, anti-inflammatory markers in the body,

brain-heart breathing coordination, and on and on and on.

I’d like to just highlight the key elements

of the most effective, at least to my knowledge,

gratitude practice.

And when I say the most effective,

what I’m doing is I’m gleaning from the scientific studies

I was able to find and combining the various findings

of those studies into what I think is a very practical

and what should certainly be a very effective

gratitude practice for all the positive effects

that we described.

First of all, that gratitude practice has to be grounded

in a narrative, meaning a story.

You don’t have to recite or hear that story

every single time you do the gratitude practice,

but you have to know what that story was

and what the gratitude practice references back to.

Second of all, that story can be one of you

receiving genuine thanks.

And the key elements there are that you are the one

receiving the thanks, the gratitude,

and that it’s being given to you genuinely, wholeheartedly,

or it can be a story of you observing someone else

receiving thanks or expressing thanks.

And that has to be a genuine interaction as well,

both between the giver and the receiver.

So those are the first three elements.

What I recommend would be after you’ve established

the story that you want to use for your gratitude practice,

that you write down three or four simple bullet points

that can serve as salient reminders of that story for you.

It will serve as kind of a cue for that story

without having to listen to or talk out the entire story.

I would recommend writing down something about the state

that you or the other person were in

before they received the gratitude,

the state that you were in or that the person was in

after they received the gratitude,

and any other elements that lend some sort of emotional

weight or tone to the story.

This could be three pages of text if you like,

or it could just be a couple of bullet points.

I don’t think it really matters.

The important thing is that it’s embedded in your memory

and that it’s really associated with this genuine exchange

of thanks and the receival of thanks.

I think those are the key elements.

And then it’s very simple.

The entire practice involves reading off these bullet points

as a cue to your nervous system of the sense of gratitude.

And then for about one minute,

which is a trivial amount of time

if you really think about it, or maybe two minutes,

or if you’re really ambitious, up to five minutes

of just really feeling into that genuine experience

of having received gratitude

or observed someone else receiving gratitude.

And then in terms of frequency,

I think a good rule of thumb would be to do that

about three times a week.

And the time of day doesn’t really matter.

I can’t see why there would be

any so-called circadian effects of this.

I know some people like to do a gratitude practice

before they go to sleep at night.

I don’t see any problem with doing this

before you go to sleep at night.

I also don’t see any problem with you doing this

on your lunch break or mid morning

or first thing in the morning.

I can’t see any logic for placing it

any one time of day and not another.

So I think the most important thing is that you do it

at least three times a week.

And as mentioned before, it’s very, very brief.

So there are very few barriers to entry for doing this.

So if we just take a step back from this protocol

and compare it to what’s typically out there

in the literature, which is, you know,

make a list of all the things you’re thankful for,

recite in your mind all the things you’re thankful for,

count your blessings.

So I think everybody should be counting their blessings

all the time.

There’s always something to be thankful for.

But in terms of a scientifically grounded gratitude practice

that is also scientifically demonstrated

to shift your physiology at the level of your immune system

and your neural circuitry, reducing anxiety,

increasing motivation, all these wonderful things

that so many of us are chasing all the time as goals.

I think a gratitude practice reveals itself

to be an immensely powerful tool

for any and all of us to use.

And that should come as no surprise

because these pro-social circuits,

these circuits for gratitude are not a recent phenomenon.

Discussions about gratitude date back hundreds,

if not thousands of years.

What we’ve done today is to take the modern science

right up until 2021 and to really distill from that,

the neuroimaging data, the neurochemistry,

the various aspects of brain-body connectivity,

look at the protocols, take various subject groups.

Some were done in women, some were done

in between two individuals,

some were done with brain imaging,

all the various changes on a theme

that allow us to point to a simple

but very effective protocol

that certainly we could all use around Thanksgiving.

But Thanksgiving is just but one day

throughout the entire year, of course.

I personally have been using a gratitude protocol

for the last several years,

but that protocol was based on my ignorance really

about the scientific literature

and was mainly based on what I’d heard out there

on the internet, which is that I should list out

or think about or verbally recite

the things that I’m grateful for.

The sort of protocol that we arrived at today

based on the scientific literature

is distinctly different from that.

And as a consequence, I’ve started to script out

a protocol identical to the one I just described.

And I intend to use that going forward.

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Thank you for your time and attention today

learning about the science of gratitude.

And last, but certainly not least,

thank you for your interest in science.

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