S1E15 Gratitude

What is gratitude exactly? Being thankful or appreciative, or something more? Dr. Pete and Dr. Rubin discuss how gratitude can be a part of a Buddhist practice, the psychological benefits of gratitude, and the behaviors that help us to practice this value. Tune in to learn about the many ways we can connect with gratitude in our lives.




Pete: Have you ever really acknowledged thanks for someone that had a big impact in your life, Nikki?

Nikki: I have Yeah.

Pete: Let's talk about gratitude.

Nikki: Let's do it. Wouldn't that be terribly sad if I'd never done that?

Pete: Well, I think a lot of people forget to, and I know you like my definition.

Nikki: I love your definition.

Pete: Gratitude by Merriam Webster is the state of being grateful and thankfulness. It’s the state of being grateful.

Nikki: See, I got to give it to Merriam Webster for their compassion definition. I think that one's like a little lacking. It’s the state of being grateful, it's like what does that mean?

Pete: Yeah, what I think is they’re direct, as psychologists we get like ‘loosey goosey’. And so, our feelings get involved with everything. But I think that's one of the challenges of gratitude is that, what is it? Merriam Webster says that it is a noun, but I often think of it as a verb, but I also think a lot of things as a verb.

Nikki: Yes, absolutely.

Pete: The ‘ing’ing

Nikki: The ‘ing’ing, gerund, yeah. My literature writing degree is coming into play.

Pete: There it is. Like gratituding, not a word. But I do think about it in that way of, in just like, how do you express gratitude? And so we think about clinically as both for others, but also for yourself? So I think that's key too in mindfulness, we think about the self-gratitude too.

Nikki: Yeah, absolutely, and it's interesting, you're bringing up the gratituding, the behaviour of it, which is if we were going to be more grammatically correct here,

Pete: Please help me.

Nikki: Yes, we would say practicing gratitude, though I actually, to bring in what you just said about our feelings get in the way as psychologists,

Pete: They do,

Nikki: They do. I actually think the amount of gratitude is actually referencing the feeling of it. So when I think of gratitude, I actually connect that with what I feel in my body physically, which is a warm thing. It's connected to love I think sometimes, and obviously appreciation, but I definitely feel it in kind of my heart space.

Pete: Big thing of appreciation. Well actually, some of the stuff I've read about it, it's an emotion, it's a mood, it's a spiritual practice, it's an coping skill, can be an intention, create base, but they say there is research that actually finds that the state is actually what helps to create change, not necessarily trait. So I think of like, I had this academic advisor who I'm still friendly with who's positive poly, just thankful for everything, which is wonderful. But that trait is not actually shown to be as effective and improvement of life compared to the state, when people can feel it in moment.

Nikki: Yes, absolutely. Well, and I'm not super deep into the research on this, maybe you might have more knowledge about this than I do. But I am aware of some of the research that just practicing gratitude, a lot of people do daily gratitude journals for example, it's big, and in 12 step programs, for example, that when people practice gratitude daily, for 30 days say, that there's a change in their mood state at the end of that, even if their environment hasn't shifted in any way. And that, it fascinates me, because it basically speaks to this notion that even when the things outside of our control, in the world are difficult, obviously, lots can be going on, we can feel basically better we can feel more grounded more like ourselves, happier, just from connecting with gratitude.

Pete: Yeah, and I think the key there, which you're always so good at, is that it's not about eliminating the negative. Gratitude is about creating space for remembrance of the positive. Because I think a lot of times we just go through those motions, we've talked about that before, where we do, it's a psychological phenomenon, where you remember the negative stuff more than anything that's positive.

Nikki: Absolutely, and so when you connect with that feeling, it doesn't magically change the hard things that are going on.

Pete: That's right.

Nikki: It helps you to make space for also what you do have. And actually, this is coming into my mind, I think it's an important thing to say as well is that I'm always also very interested when we're able to be grateful for hard experiences that we’ve had.

Pete: Exactly, I was going to say that.

Nikki: There's [inaudible 4:44]

Pete: There it is, and so I was thinking of this exercise called ‘Thank you comma challenges’.

Nikki: Oh, right. Like that.

Pete: Yeah, because the challenges do grow. I think in sport we say like, ‘no pain, no gain’. And I think there's some truth, at least recognizing that in pain we grow.

Nikki: Absolutely. Sorry, I’m like, “Yes, that's right. I'm so into”. Well, I always think very literally of growing pains like physical growing pains, I'll share that example with patients. I joke for listeners; even if you see my photos you can't tell I'm very short. And I say yes, I did have growing pains, but I have this real memory of being probably like seven or eight, and in the night having very painful aches in my shins when I was going through a relatively small, but still growth sprout. And it's like, growing is literally painful.

Pete: That's right, literally.

Nikki: Literally, but I think it's interesting that this practice of gratitude for what's hard is kind of a quote unquote, like more advanced practice of gratitude, because I think we're really struggling.

Pete: Yeah probably, higher level.

Nikki: Yeah, because I've definitely had people say to me, “I know I should be grateful”, and they get into the should about that. And it’s like, “Yes, at some point, you might be able to be grateful that this difficult thing happened and what you learn, right now though, you might just be too in it”.

Pete: Yeah. Well, and obviously with that example was like divorce, because I think sometimes divorce is really hard when you're in it. And then there does come a time when you look back and you're like, “I like the person. I am now out of that marriage”.

Nikki: Yeah, absolutely.

Pete: And it's a hard place to get, and our role is not to be like, “hey, look at the other side right now”. Work with where you're at. I think of Rodney Dangerfield going back to school? From the 80s? Your good at this stuff, do you know what I’m talking about?

Nikki: Yeah, of course.

Pete: And he had that self-improvement class where he would go to the thing and he had to look in the mirror and be like, “I love myself”.

Nikki: Yes.

Pete: That's not gratitude.

Nikki: No, it's not, and I think that's the, to bring in, like you were saying about the colleague was the positive poly. And I'm not saying that that person isn't also skilled at practicing gratitude, but positivity is not gratitude. I always say to patients, “I'm not a fan of positivity”. People are like, “really?” I'm like, “I'm a fan of optimism”. Positivity is a judgment, to be like everything's good, everything's shiny, everything’s amazing. It's very surface, it can be very fantasy. Optimism is obviously a little different than gratitude, they’re related, it’s about, ‘I'm going to get through this, I'm going to be okay, I'm going to move forward’. And gratitude, which I think we can connect with when we're accessing an optimistic lens, gratitude is so deep. Do you have that? It’s such a grounding feeling for me.

Pete: Yeah,

Nikki: It's not the positivity experiences. It's like very flighty. Do you know what I mean?

Pete: Well, yeah. Because gratitude is a deeper emotion. And I think in mindfulness, that's why it's a relative or it’s a portion of it, there's no gratitude focus therapy yet, but maybe we're developing a GFT.

Nikki: Just call it [inaudible-8:20].

Pete: There it is, another acronym. No, I’m not a hater. But I'm just saying, I think the evidence of the research is really interesting. So I am a little bit familiar with it, having just written a chapter about it.  And so it was kind of interesting to look at. I like a lot of the neuro anatomical research, how their brain structures, and so some of the medial prefrontal cortex, and this one study found that they wrote a letter of gratitude. And then three months later, they image the brains and they just had to reflect on that letter of gratitude and the same areas activated.

Nikki: I love it.

Pete: So it shows this long term effects, only three months, but in our social science that's what at least indicate that there was the longitudinal approach of that.

Nikki: Well, that's so huge, and I hope listeners can really take in what you just said that,

Pete: Sorry, break it down, please.

Nikki: I'm going to break it down. And we got we got super nerd alert excited with that. We're like, “oh, neuroscience!” So what Pete’s saying is that by practicing gratitude, in this case, it's a pretty relatively simple exercise. It's like writing a letter of gratitude. So one behaviour, all under behaviourism here, literally changed the brain. That then the brain also lit up, when thinking about doing that letter that there was sudden shift.

Pete: And the letter, just to clarify, could be to someone that you want to give thanks,

Nikki: Right, or to yourself or experience or whatever, yeah.

Pete: Exactly, I think that's key too. If you're willing, and I'll talk about the benefits, but maybe we'll talk about somebody that we were thankful for that we never shared, as a little exposure. We'll see a little cliff-hanger.

Nikki: We’ll see. Well now I’m like, “oh, someone I…”

Pete: Because you and I were sharing Suzan.

Nikki: Yeah, I was like, “sure”. I guess there would be somebody, I think then it would sort of more speak to like difficult experiences.

Pete: Yeah, but I also, in very small ways, and this is the behaviour I engage in. I almost always say ‘Good job’ after I've eaten out or if someone's checking me out, just this thing of like, ‘thank you, good job’. Because the ‘thank you’ is common, and that's what we do in America, but this ‘good job’ thing I noticed, I'll watch people and they feel good.

Nikki: Yeah, totally. Everybody wants to feel acknowledged and appreciated, and it's human stuff, basically.

Pete: So, as I was writing this chapter, one thing I thought about was being a lifeguard. And it's always like…

Nikki: Which I was also, remember. Pete and I are both pool lifeguards.

Pete: We were pool lifeguards, not beach lifeguards.

Nikki: I've got a lot of friends who are beach lifeguards, no offense to be psychologist, I love my favourite job ever...

Pete: Being a lifeguard.

Nikki: No, swim instructor.

Pete: Well not mine.

Nikki: You didn't play with kids and got a tan?

Pete: I don’t like playing with kids.

Nikki: Oh, yeah, that's right. It was like my first practice being behaviours. Anyway, go on.

Pete:  Brothers now, trying to throw that on me with like, “you got to teach your nieces how to swim”. I'm just like, “oh,” I don’t want to teach them, but I do love them. I only have to do a couple hours with them, and then I can give them back. So I was reflecting on cleaning the bathroom, because that's the thing, the sexy job lifeguard, and it's like, “well, I also had to take the garbage out clean the bathroom.

Nikki: Remember the pool lanes? I hated doing that.

Pete: The pool lanes, a couple poops here and there.

Nikki: Brown out.

Pete: A brown out.

Nikki: That’s basically for those; you got to drain the pool,

Pete: You got to drain the pool, or shock it anyway.

Nikki: Or shock it or whatever. Yeah.

Pete: But I thought about my manager there because he was very obsessive. He was a former corporate person, ran in a very affluent area, this pool club. And I remember, he had a lot of strict rules. Anyway, I was reflecting on the one time I really cleaned that bathroom, and he acknowledged it, and those moments that I was just thinking about some of the most challenging managers we've had. I was really thankful, because you learn to respect even those, you learn to respect your role, which cleaning a bathroom, and people have to do it for a living. And it wasn't something that as a lifeguard didn't think you had to do and then you learn that you do it. So that was something I was reflecting on. I'm being thankful for him.

Nikki: Yeah, do you want me to think of someone I haven't, and I did just think of someone I haven't told them I was thankful for. Well, you want to hear it?

Pete: yeah, let’s hear it.

Nikki: It's a random one, because I would have been too young to like even think to do this. But my high school physics teacher actually, Mr. Murphy is my senior year...

Pete: Hey, Mr. Murphy.

Nikki: Hey Mr. Murphy. Amazing teacher, just really funny, really smart, had really high standards for us. And I'm sure I was into like English and writing, and I love science, but I was not a super hard sciences person. And it was a really hard class for me, but I really loved it. And that really always stuck with me, to this day, I love physics. My dad and I dorkily like to read quantum physics books, like popular audience quantum physics books, and I'm actually really grateful to Mr. Murphy, because he really inspired…

Pete: What he taught.

Nikki: Yeah, the way he taught and inspired that interested me that has led me to be so interested in, I don't know…

Pete: The science.

Nikki: And the universe. Honestly, it was really…

Pete: Think about the impacts of that, so thank you, Mr. Murphy.

Nikki: Yeah, thank you Mr. Murphy.

Pete:  It's our brains; our medial prefrontal cortex is our likely just…

Nikki: Yeah, and I'm feeling very warm thinking about that.

Pete: Maybe even tearing up a little bit.

Nikki: Yeah, maybe even tearing up a little, I get a little [inaudible-14:11], that’s kind of how I roll.

Pete:  It's totally how you roll. But I want to list a couple benefits of gratitude. Because, for me, I feel like a lot of the mindfulness practices, the things we're talking about are things that are less tangible. And if everyone knew the benefits, like we all brush our teeth because we don't want cavities because they hurt. And I feel like if we knew about the benefits and if we truly learn to embrace them. So improving your physical health, your psychological health, improves sleep. There is match research that shows it actually affects sleep, increases your empathy. It can reduce irritation and aggression, improves interpersonal relationships and social connection, enhances self-esteem. Now what listener out there doesn't want that?

Nikki:  Basically what you're speaking to, is improving well-being. And actually, I think it's important to share that, with any behaviour that someone's trying to learn, that can start really small. What's coming to my mind is I remember once I was working with a patient, we decided to do a gratitude list as part of their homework. And they came back and shared it with me, and this is probably 10 years ago, it still sticks to me this day. They wrote some really small things, and they said, “I know this sounds silly, but I was really thinking about it. I'm so grateful for barbecues”.

Pete: Amazing.

Nikki: I was like, “You know what, me, too”. And I think about it all the time, that just these small things, when I think about that, I feel a little sense of joy.

Pete: That's right, just being for the small things, and like you just said, small behaviours, it doesn't have to be anything huge, but really trying to think about when and where can you practice gratitude.

Pete: This has been When East Meets West, I’m Dr. Pete Economou.

Nikki: And I'm Dr. Nikki Rubin. Be present. Be brave.

Pete: This has been When East Meets West all material is based on opinion and educational training of doctors Pete Economou and Nikki Rubin.

Nikki: Content is for informational and educational purposes only.