Thanksgiving is my favorite American holiday. The football, the food, the time with friends and family. Part of the tradition is to remember and name things that we are thankful for. It’s an occasion to stop and reflect on our blessings. We should have more holidays in appreciation of gratitude.
Studies have shown that the mental act of being thankful can increase our well-being. Gratitude improves physical and psychological health. It improves our sleep, our self-esteem and empathy for and relationships with others. Gratitude gives us these things to be grateful for. Gratitude is indeed the gift that keeps on giving.
I read a fascinating book titled How Emotions Are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett, PhD. She is a professor who has done groundbreaking research on emotion and what happens in the brain. She makes the case that emotions are not our reactions to the world but the way that we construct the world in our mind. The mind is constantly making predictions about the world around it in order to regulate the body’s energy needs. This follows a cycle of Prediction > Perception > Error detection > Adjust predictions OR Filter perceptions > Prediction > etc. She likens the brain to a scientist who forms hypotheses through predictions and tests them against data of sensory input. The brain, like a scientist, corrects errors in prediction, and adjust a hypothesis based on evidence. Like a fallible human scientist, the brain may also choose to ignore sensory input data when it does not agree with the prediction. This is how humans develop cognitive biases, false memories and stubbornly cling to beliefs that are false.
The human mind’s prediction-perception-detection-correction loop physically changes our mind by rewiring our brain to make the correct predictions easier to access in the future. In practical terms, when we expect and experience good things, it becomes easier to do this in the future. Likewise, when we allow bad past experiences to model a hostile world, we continue to see and live in such a world, even when we actually live in a better one. Barrett points out that we can’t change our feelings at will, but we can take steps to influence our future emotional experiences by reflecting our own thoughts and feelings.
This book puts some hard science behind the idea of the power of positive (as well as negative) thinking. The author also offers practical recommendations for how to change our minds. Notably, the more granular, fine-tuned and specific we can be about how we label our emotions, the better we are able to manage our emotions. Just as scientists can perform better experiments with more specific hypotheses, we can make better predictions when we have more granular categories for how we feel about situations that we face. Barrett argues that emotional categories don’t exist innately and biologically, but are created and taught socially. The brain’s job is made easier when it can construct a precise and specific concepts. We can feel thankful for an unexpected gift, when things turn out not as bad as we expected, for a sunny day in Seattle in November, for having so much to be grateful for, etc. No doubt the Germans have eighteen-letter words for each of these. Fine-tuned concepts help us to recognize reasons for gratitude, reinforce the networks in our brain, and make it easier for us to enjoy the benefits of feeling grateful in the future.
How we express gratitude matters because how we treat people matters. When we give thanks to others, it reinforces the concept of gratitude in their minds also. A word of thanks confirms their mental predictions that good deeds will be recognized. This shared expectation leads to empathy. It allows people to exercise and spread the concept of gratitude into the minds of others near them. This results over time in a more civil and polite society.
Instead of batching our gratitude once pear year, we can reflect on what we are thankful for each day. That would fine-tune our ability to recognize and name reasons for being grateful. This Thanksgiving, I will try to be more granular about what I am grateful for, and to look for new words and concepts to express thanks.