Why are some people happier than others? Why do some have little angst or generally dread less than others? Why do some seem more spiritually alive? Where does anxiety and fear come from and why does it get in the way of contentment? Former University of Nebraska Medical College professor and psychologist Dan Baker, Ph.D., in his book “What Happy People Know” answers these questions:
"We all have a neurological fear system embedded deep within our brains, a neural network that once helped us survive as a species. This fear system is our repository for past trauma, current tribulation, fear of the future, and archaic instinctual terrors. The forces of evolution, by their very nature, endowed this fear system with tremendous power, because in the brutal early epochs of mankind, it alone kept us alive. The automatic fear response became faster than the process of rational thought, faster than experiencing the feeling of love, faster than any other human action. And, thus we survived. But in doing so, we became hardwired for hard times. This is our legacy, like it or not. Unfortunately, in modern life, what is good for survival is often bad for happiness and even for long-term health. What once saved us now slowly kills us.
For most of us in modern society, survival has become a gentle affair: Go to work, pay the bills, day is done. We no longer need a pool of primal fear to propel us away from a mastodon via a fast blast of adrenaline, or to keep us awake in the dark of night, listening for threatening sounds. However, even though we usually no longer need the neurological wiring that led us out of the Stone Age, we still have it. Evolution is excruciatingly slow: Consider the fact that humans still have tailbones.
Luckily, we have been blessed with an almost magical source of compensation: the human neocortex. The neocortex is the primary area of intellect in the brain, located in the cerebrum. It is creative, intuitive, intellectual and spiritual. And it is the physical site of happiness.
With our wonderfully redemptive neocortical abilities, we can override the limitations of evolution and free ourselves from the fears that thwart happiness. Fears will keep coming up, but we can rise above them. This is our evolutionary gift."
Buried much deeper in the brain than the neocortex—located in the paleomammalian area of our brain, an evolutionarily really old part of the noggin—is the amygdala. This is where anxiety largely lives, in humans, horses, dogs and most other animals. Paleomammalian means “early primate” and is the part of the brain that evolved right after the reptilian brain. The “amygdalae” (actually twin almond-sized masses that control secretion of hormones) were designed to keep us alive by keeping us constantly on alert for danger. It is where fear originates and is a reason we are not more regularly empathic, compassionate, and happy. And like the tailbone the amygdala is outdated.
So how do we massage down the power of the amygdala? How do we come to recognize and respond first to the gift in hand not the risk at hand, beauty before ugliness, good fortune instead of bad luck, and joy in our heart rather than fear in our head? One way is to change your information sources, doing so by turning off the television, choosing to not read the headlines, and spending more time thoughtlessly wandering around a park or surfing real waves instead of mindlessly wandering through computer news sites or surfing the web (it’s the web, which means you might get stuck!) until you land on something that makes you sick to your stomach courtesy of information that fed your paleomammalian brain.
Another way to reduce the influence of amygdala is to simply practice more gratitude. It is virtually impossible to be fearful, anxious, or sad at the same time you are grateful. So, why not as a matter of course regularly enable and empower goodness in your life by expressing what you are thankful for? This does not require any more time or energy than you already have or expend. It is simply redirecting thought.
You can stop the whirlwind in your head by periodically asking the question, “what am I grateful for?” and then listing few things: No traffic, this song on the radio, my kid’s guitar teacher, my kids, my home, this day, last night’s party, the weather, friendship, church, this book (tried to slip that in hoping you might not notice), a good laugh, sunrises, sunsets, a soft bed, my partner next to me, warm shower, cool swim, hot yoga, cold drink. Short and easy mental gratitude lists engender thoughts that make you healthier. That glow in your chest as you recall how much fun last night’s party was is partly your vagus nerve responding to your subconscious triggered by a pleasant thought that was born of your gratitude list. Physiologically, you take a deeper breath which oxygenates your system, you slow down your heart beats which gives you more for later, and you flood your system with serotonin that lowers blood pressure while making you feel great. And all of that came from recognizing one thing you are grateful for.
Here are highlights of statistically-validated reports on gratitude from scientifically-based sociological, psychological, and medical research, undertaken and reported by leaders in the economics, education, and healthcare industries:
- Improves grades and the outlook of the future among high school students.
- Builds and strengthens social bonds and friendships.
- Helps you fall asleep faster and sleep better.
- Establishes deeper connections and greater satisfaction in romantic relationships.
- Alters heart rates which is beneficial in the treatment of high blood pressure and reduces the likelihood of sudden death in patients with heart conditions.
- Allows for more robust and longer-term dedication to teammates and colleagues.
- Strengthens immune systems and reduces stress.
- Improves attitudes towards school among elementary and middle school students.
- Creates more empathy and giving to others.
- Makes you feel better about life.
The items above represent a small sampling of the impacts of gratitude. Countless other studies point to wide-reaching benefits. Not one study found any harmful effects of appreciation; no one suffers from an act of genuine gratitude. If there are no negative consequences to telling someone they are kind, showing someone they are special, writing down things you appreciate, and thinking about what you are grateful for, why not consider what you appreciate more often?
There are three simple ways to practice more gratitude, to develop a habit of memorializing and communicating your thankfulness. It’s a matter of cue, behavior, reward. The first technique is to just mentally note how grateful you are if you happen to smile, reflect, or laugh. As above with the memory of the party the night before, just noticing that you are appreciative helps enhance and prolong its impact. The cue is the laugh or smile from the thought, which is a first level or primary mood enhancer. The behavior is acknowledging how thankful you are for that moment or the memory of an event. And the reward is a noticeably deeper or secondary shift in your mood that is the expressed gratitude creating a positive wave of energy through you.
Another way to express gratefulness is to create a gratitude journal. A friend of mine changed her world and the world of her friends by posting three things she was grateful for everyday on Facebook. She did this at the end of her day and credits this routine for improving her life, as she lifted her spirit by recalling the good that she felt and had created that day. Not just coincidentally, those who read her Facebook posts took time to reflect on what they too were grateful for, causing an appreciation ripple effect to a level no one will ever know. Whether publicly or privately (on Facebook, in a personal diary, by email to yourself, etc.), creating a gratitude journal is beneficial.
A third way to practice more gratitude is to write love notes, just here and there. Yesterday, as I was typing a well-wish email to friend who was suffering from ruptured lumbar discs, I reflected on my back surgeon, Dr. James Reynolds of SpineCare, and the joy he gave me after two years of crippling sciatic pain. When I was 33 years old for eight straight months I spent 20 or more hours a day flat on my back, unable to walk or stand for more than ten minutes at a time due to a traumatized lower back. I sent Dr. Reynolds an email thanking him, over twenty years after he operated on me, with a photo attached of my family today. Who knows, if it hadn’t been for him I may never have gotten over the injury and might not have been able to raise a family. Love notes are easy to write if you notice when and for whom you are grateful, and then act on that moment of gratitude. With email (or texting or voice mailing) literally at your fingertips and with two minutes to spare almost at any given moment why not whip a love message up and send it off? You will feel better and so will the recipient. Two people’s spirits are lifted by one simple act. And, it is entirely possible that a photo of my kids may have triggered a memory for Dr. Reynolds about his family that would prompt him to write a love note, raising the state of the world all the more.
In order to live a whole hearted and spiritually satisfying life it is important to shift your perspective about what you have, want, and are capable of. Gratitude facilitates this shift as readily as any other behavior. In order to do good and be well sooner, start practicing more gratitude today.