Submitted by Geoffrey Ankeney, MD for Kaiser Permanente
Thanksgiving is just around the corner, which makes this a great time to imagine something terrible happening to yourself, like being on a sinking ship. I can prove it’s a good idea too, because…science. That’s right, research proves imagining a worst-case scenario can actually make you more grateful for your circumstances. Consider this:
In 2011, a group of researchers published a study in which people who imagined themselves perishing in unfortunate circumstances showed “enhanced gratitude” for their life and experiences. Their gratitude scores far outpaced the “control group,” which was a bunch of poor souls who did not have the opportunity to formally ponder a standardized “death scenario.”
Turns out, people who practice gratitude are known to exercise more regularly, have fewer illnesses, feel better about life and optimistic about the future. Grateful people tend to experience positive emotions like joy, enthusiasm, love and forgiveness. They have fewer and less-intense negative emotions as well, with decreases in aggressive and angry thinking as gratitude scores increase (note: efforts to replicate this study on my surly cat have so far yielded poor results).
Cicero proclaimed that gratitude was the ‘mother of all virtues.’ Seneca said it was a fundamental motivation for all interpersonal relationships. And the great philosopher Hobbes once said, “If good things lasted forever, how would we appreciate how precious they are? (Hobbes, Calvin et. al. Something Under The Bed Is Drooling, 1988).
It gets better: Gratitude is associated with more of the good cholesterol and less of the bad, and with lower blood pressure both at rest and during times of stress. Those who score high on gratitude tests show heart rates with greater variability. This suggests a stronger connection to their body’s nervous system leading to less overall stress and increased mental clarity.
But what is gratitude? Many think of it as a thing you feel. Like fur. You don’t practice feeling fur. It just feels that way…furry. Similarly, if God simply removed celery from existence, for example, I would need to put no effort into feeling deeply grateful. It would be a very natural reaction.
But it turns out gratitude is more commonly a thing you DO. Much of the research I described above was achieved with test subjects deliberately increasing their perception of gratitude. In one study, all the participants had to do was write out five things they were grateful for, once a week, for ten weeks. That’s all they did. Boosted their happiness score by 25%.
Of the many ways to practice gratitude, two seem to have the most consistently good results: counting blessings, and gratitude journaling. Some people do them daily, like spending 2-3 minutes before starting the day listing out things for which they are grateful. Others settle into a weekly pattern.
To demonstrate, I came up with three things I’m grateful for in the space of about 30 seconds: My family, 2 of my 3 cats, and that I’ve made it all the way into mid-November without hearing Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas Is You. Already I’m feeling better.
But if none of that appeals to you, you might do better with the sinking ship scenario. Imagine emerging from your self-imposed vision to find that are not in fact, dead. And none of the things you would have lost as the waves closed around you, are really gone. It’s pretty easy to see how this could bring you into a state of heightened gratitude. And in that moment, as you recognize that now is not your time, the precious moments you do have become that much more precious.