Reasons to harness the benefits of gratitude 365 days a year
When we spend most of our lives rushing from here to there maximizing productivity, we end up living in autopilot mode. In this state, it is so easy to take the people and positive things in our lives for granted. As we run around taking care of tasks and goals that we can then cross out on our checklists, we experience a type of tunnel-vision in which we literally don’t notice the beauty and wonder of the world around us or fully appreciate the many services that others do that benefit us. Fortunately, human beings have an easy built-in mechanism to come out of autopilot mode: GRATITUDE. In the Calm Clarity Program, we explain that our emotional states correspond to three archetypal patterns of brain activation which we call Brain 1.0, Brain 2.0, and Brain 3.0. Whichever pattern we are experiencing effects how we think, feel, and make decisions.
Brain 1.0 and Brain 2.0 are so strongly interconnected that they often function like two sides of one coin. For instance, when we don’t/can’t get the reward we want, we often feel threatened and spiral into Brain 1.0. It is common for people in Brain 1.0 to try to escape negative emotions by indulging in Brain 2.0 impulses for immediate gratification (stress eating, retail therapy, drinking, etc). Like most things in nature, the human brain evolved to be as energy efficient as possible, and will thus delegate most of our functions to autopilot mode. The basal ganglia is the structure of the brain that stores our habits and routines that we can do on autopilot without any conscious effort, and it also happens to be the key structure of Brain 2.0. What this means is that it’s much more energy efficient for us to spend our lives in Brain 1.0/Brain 2.0 and it takes conscious effort to intentionally shift into Brain 3.0. This is where gratitude makes an impact.
Gratitude is powerful because it is one of the easiest ways to activate Brain 3.0. Simply taking a moment to feel genuine gratitude and appreciation enables us to come out of mindless autopilot mode. Furthermore, genuine gratitude triggers biochemical cascades that calm the stress response, enhance heart health, and boost your immune system. The physiological benefits of gratitude are most likely linked to its impact on the oxytocin system. Oxytocin is widely known as the cuddle hormone because it is released by gestures of affection such as hugs and holding hands, in particular when mothers bond with children. The release of oxytocin promotes bonding, trust, and nurturing behavior and also serves to buffer the stress response by decreasing the release of stress hormones like cortisol and contributes to resilience by enhancing heart health, promoting the regeneration of heart tissue, dilating blood vessels, and reducing blood pressure.
A 2014 study led by Sara Algoe and Baldwin May at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that couples expressing gratitude to each other showed elevated levels of oxytocin. The increase in oxytocin corresponded with the participants reporting that they felt more loving and peaceful, and that they perceived their partner as being more understanding, validating, caring, and generally more responsive. [1, 2] According to UC Davis Health, “Gratitude is associated with higher levels of good cholesterol (HDL), lower levels of bad cholesterol (LDL), and lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure, both at rest and in the face of stress. It also has been linked with higher levels of heart rate variability, a marker of cardiac coherence, or a state of harmony in the nervous system and heart rate that is equated with less stress and mental clarity.”  I believe the power of gratitude to bring us all into Brain 3.0 may explain why Thanksgiving is the biggest holiday of the year in America. The collective act of giving thanks with our loved ones enables us to see the bigger picture and appreciate what really matters in our lives. Yet why do this only once a year?
Let’s incorporate the benefits of giving thanks into every day of our lives to shift into Brain 3.0, feel more calm and centered, and be our best selves.
Lauren Klein, “All You Need is Love, Gratitude, and Oxytocin,” Greater Good Magazine, February 11, 2014, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/love_gratitude_oxytocin.
Sara B. Algoe, Baldwin M. Way; Evidence for a role of the oxytocin system, indexed by genetic variation in CD38, in the social bonding effects of expressed gratitude, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, Volume 9, Issue 12, 1 December 2014, Pages 1855–1861, https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nst182.
“Gratitude is good medicine,” UC Davis Health, http://www.ucdmc.ucdavis.edu/welcome/features/2015-2016/11/20151125_gratitude.html.