A chimpanzee who has been groomed by another chimp earlier that day is more likely to share his food with the groomer. If he has been helped by another chimp at some stage, that too will make him more inclined to reach out to his helpful friend.
This form of ‘reciprocal altruism’ is closely linked to what we experience as gratitude. It is in our DNA and evolved to function as a form of ‘social glue’. After all, without one another we do a whole lot less well.
Why is it then, that something so natural needs to be re-learned?
My guess is that it has something to do with the brain regions referred to as the TPN (task positive network) and the DMN (default mode network) – one needed for analytical reasoning and non-social problem solving (TPN), and the other involved in ‘empathic reasoning’ which includes social and emotional understanding. Interestingly, they don’t easily work together. So, in our world which is heavily weighed towards the TPN, the habit of engaging the emotional, empathic circuit is slowly eroded or left dormant.
A small daily gratitude practice can have amazing results.
Research into the effects of a daily gratitude practice by Duke University and UPenn have compared it to Prozac with lots of wonderful side effects. Sleep and mood are improved; anxiety, depression and rumination are reduced; the immune system is strengthened, and lots more. The list is phenomenal; and all this by cultivating a natural resource.
Why do we find it so difficult to do?
Apart from the fact that our TPN is switched on for too much of the time, we also have a negativity bias wired into us. What happens when you receive a cascade of praise after a performance of some sort, with one critical voice in and amongst all that positive feedback? Which comment are you most likely to remember? As I heard a psychologist say recently: the negative screams out at us, while the positive only whispers.
So a gratitude practice will help to listen out for the whispers, every day, little and often, until we hear them as easily as the murmur of our own babies. Not only do we train to hear them, but we stop to feel the warmth it generates in our hearts; that is how the change happens.
✔︎ Three Good Things EXERCISE
This exercise was developed and used by Professor Martin Seligman in his studies, and used in studies at Duke University.
Find a time within 2 hours of bedtime to think of just 3 good things that happened today.
Write them down.
If possible, make a note of your role in bringing them about too.
When I started doing this exercise I found it hard to think of 3 things to which I felt I had really contributed. It was much easier to think of my gratitude for bluebells, dappled light and people I love.
If you need a few prompts to get started, answer these questions:
What unique qualities do you have that you’re grateful for?
How has someone helped you in the past that you’re grateful for? (This might be a wonderful opportunity to take the time to say thank you in a special way.)
What is one thing you appreciate about your health?
Think of a close loved one and write 3 things that you’re grateful for about them. (You can go in to detail here about why these things are important to you and how it makes you feel.)
What is something that you struggled with in the past that you’re now grateful for? What did you learn from that experience in your life?
Name three things in your surroundings that you’re grateful for. It could even be the pen you’re writing with. The small things could even trigger larger ideas such as ‘I’m grateful that for the education I received in my childhood to be able to write with this pen''.
I suggest that both exercises are valuable. They both help us feel more connected to people and the world outside of ourselves, though the 3 Good Things exercise reinforces the experience that what we do matters, and that we have a role in shaping the world around us.
Being grateful for qualities, traits and skills of our own is also very worth doing. Particularly, if you have a tendency to be overly self-critical, it is a lovely exercise in self-acceptance and compassion.
As Brother David Steindl-Rast says, cultivating gratitude allows us to experience the ‘great fullness’ of life.
Renée van der Vloodt ( M.A. , FHGI ) is a psychotherapist and coach – and has had a private practice for over 20 years, which is now based in Woodchurch (near Ashford), Kent. She also works with people around the world via online sessions.
Renée works with children and adults as a coach and therapist to help them overcome life's challenges and emotional difficulties including stress, burnout, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anger or addictive behaviour.
Renée is a regular contributor to Breathe Magazine and the author of the CD Calm the Chaos of the Creative Mind.