Michael Reddy, Ph.D, CPC
           Healer  Trainer  Author   610 469 7588

Wednesday November 22, 2017
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An Attitude of Gratitude

Happy people seem to live longer, more fruitful lives. Can a sense of thankfulness in advance prepare the way for true happiness without living in denial?

Can you feel grateful and depressed at the same time? Can you say “thank-you!” with all your heart and soul and be angry or bitter at the same time? I picked up a book recently, What Happy People Know (by Dan Baker), that says “no way!” In a state of grateful, loving appreciation, Baker claims,

Creativity flows, heart rate slows, brain waves soften into rolling ripples, and an exquisite calm descends over your entire being. During active appreciation, your brain, heart, and endocrine system work in synchrony and heal in harmony.   . . .   It is a fact of neurology that the brain cannot be in a state of appreciation and a state of fear at the same time. [p. 81]

Intrigued by this strong assertion, I read on—only to find a number of other assertions about “neurological science” that I expect are overly simplistic, unaware of recent work on emotional intelligence, or just plain wrong. So then, what about the grateful appreciation claim? Does gratitude hold a special place in the quest for human happiness? Or not?

What is certainly true is that the disciplines of neurology and psychology are completely re-aligning our understanding of why some people are happy and others not. There is, for instance, increasing agreement on something called the HappinessPieChart“Happiness Pie Chart.” Fifty percent of what keeps us in a joyful, fulfilled state is genetic, while only ten percent is circumstantial, and the remaining forty percent has to do with attitude.[1]

There are studies of lottery winners, for instance, who all accommodated to their windfall within a year or two in such a way as to be no happier than before. Who would have thought that life circumstances could have such a small impact? Who would have thought that managing your attitude could be four times as important?

What makes this so important?

In terms of attitude management, here’s what seems to go on. As events occur in a human life, a kind of wave of impacts and implications spreads throughout the brain. We are constructing the “meanings” of the event. This wave energizes changes in breathing, heart rate, hormone flow, and the like (it’s not just “mental” activity).These bodily changes can in turn feed back and prolong or strengthen the brain activity that initiated them.

But there will always be both positive and negative events in life. In less happy individuals, there is a tendency for negative event waves to connect up with larger negative patterns (“I’m helpless,” “I never win,” etc.), stoke up the fires of bodily stress, anxiety, and so on—so that the tightly coupled brain-body system spends considerably more than enough time resonating fear, sadness, anger, and the like. I say “more than enough” here because some events, after all, rightfully require these emotions.

In happier people, on the other hand, negative event waves get just far enough to stay reality-based (to avoid denial)—and then die out. Positive event waves on the other hand, habitually connect up with larger positive patterns (“life is good,” “people love me,” etc.), so that the brain-body system spends much more time resonating peace, joy, love, and the like--again, without denying the very real setbacks and challenges that must come along.

Since the rule is that we subconsciously look for, and pay more attention to events that fit with whatever brain-body resonance state we are currently in, this healthy attitude management becomes profoundly important. Resonate the good stuff, and you will tend to experience more of it. Resonate the bad stuff, and well…

Beyond that, prolonged, unnecessary experience of the bodily states associated with the bad stuff just isn’t good for your health. A long-term study of nuns who all had exactly the same life circumstances showed that the single biggest influence on how long they lived was how happy they were. Another crucial point is that, since the body is so much a part of this resonance—relaxing, stretching, strengthening it (sometimes called “yoga”) can be central to successful attitude management.

But let’s head back to gratitude now. Part of the success Alcoholics Anonymous has had in turning around the lives of millions of depressed and addicted individuals is due to something called the “daily gratitudes.” Compiling this list of things to be thankful for forces at least the mental half of a run-away brain-body system to focus on positive events.

But in my experience, it is in going back over each listing and spending a minute really feeling warmed, thankful, and appreciative—this is where the gains are really made. This is where it moves forcefully down into my body, and starts that feedback cascade (breath, heart rate, etc.)—which often then reminds me of more things that really belong on the list. On this level, I would say Baker’s claim is true. I can’t feel fearful, bitter, or the like in this state of deep gratitude.

What I’m working towards, and what I think several of my best teachers really had, is a kind of pervasive gratitude, or an “attitude of gratitude.” That happens when the brain-body system (without slipping into denial, again—that’s important) is truly habituated to resonating the positive events much more deeply than the negative. This leads you to a place where you start to see your entire existence as a huge gift, with each sunrise, each meal, each new breath a precious opportunity to experience, well, simply life itself.

How amazingly rich, beautiful, and detailed it all is. Even the setbacks start to look like just more opportunities to grow. You walk, as the Navaho say, “in beauty.” Altruism, helping others, just springs naturally from this space. Your cup is truly overflowing, and passing some on to people suffering with less feels so obvious and right. Altruism, modern research has shown, turns out to be another outstanding characteristic of happy people.

Many wise teachers claim that the best way to manifest something is to feel deeply grateful for it—in advance, as if it were already there.  So there it is again, this attitude of gratitude, this time shifting reality itself. Let’s see… You use gratitude to improve your attitude management, develop an habitual ability to be grateful for all of your life as it is, and, in so doing, become more and more capable of creating events you enjoy even more. I mean… Does that sound like a plan?

[1] Marina Krakovsky, “The Science of Lasting Happiness,” SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, April 2007 Issue. This article is available on the web at www.sciam.com. It’s short, and it’s well worth looking at. Another interesting web reference is at www.howtobehappy.org. This involves a free e-book.

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