A miracle happened. As miracles do. My twelve-year-old daughter came to after being unconscious for more than two days, opening her eyes and TALKING IN HER VERY OWN VOICE, SEEMING EXACTLY LIKE HERSELF. I went instantly from a protracted state of clenched anxiety to elated gratitude. And although I suffered from post-traumatic stress, the state of gratitude I inhabited was rich, prolonged, and over-the-top.
It’s true that for months after Téa was hit by a car, whenever I heard the sound of a siren, I felt like dry-heaving. And also true that whenever Téa’s twin brother approached her in their typical rough-housing bear-cub style, I intervened like a ferocious mama bear. Her brain state was fragile, and I was strung out. In other words, I was not gliding around like Good Witch Glenda in a perma-state of gratitude. But in spite of frequent stress spikes, I felt as close to enlightenment as I ever have. And the key emotion of that near-enlightened state was gratitude. I was so thankful. So organically, consistently, magically grateful. For Téa’s miraculous recovery. For the friends who showered us in love. For the way the morning glories on my deck opened their delicate blue faces to the light. For swimming in the refreshing water of Walden Pond. For pink Himalayan sea salt. For the ice cubes that tumbled down out of the automatic dispenser on my refrigerator door. I experienced awe and wonder like a child.
It felt like a drug. And in fact it was.
The brain’s response to gratitude is to activate a reward center: meaning, we crave more. (Sound at all like drug addiction?) When we feel grateful, we are programmed to seek out more experiences or things to be grateful for, more ways to feel that high. Our brain secretes dopamine, and oxytocin, the bonding hormone. A 2009 series of studies using brain MRI’s showed that the limbic system in general — which includes the hypothalamus — is activated whenever we feel gratitude. The hypothalamus regulates a wide range of our bodily functions, like hunger, sleep, temperature, and metabolism, and feeling the emotion of gratitude actually stimulates the hypothalamus to perform better. The gratitude high has our whole system humming.
One of my colleagues says that while she is not a neuroscientist, she has the equivalent of a Girl Scout Badge on the subject. By comparison, I’d rate myself a Brownie. So let me just, as a neuro-science Brownie, say one more thing about the brain and gratitude. Our brains (and I’m sure you’ve noticed this in yourselves and others) are highly susceptible to the confirmation bias: we seek out evidence to prove what our brain already believes to be true. The good news here is that if you develop a gratitude practice (such as writing down five things every day for which you are grateful, ranging from simple facts like having gas in your car, clean water to drink, or comfy socks, to higher voltage items like getting to snuggle with a beloved pet or hang out with a dear friend or family member), your brain automatically starts seeking out—and finding—more things to be grateful for. Your favorite cereal on sale at the market. A stranger smiling at you. No line at Starbucks. An incredible movie on Netflix. The aroma of bath salts. The sound of someone’s laugh. Flowers. A hug just when you need one. And on and on, your brain keeps right on pumping out this fabulous drug called gratitude.