On Gratitude

 

morning glory are blooming in the outdoor

 

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. 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.

27 thoughts on “On Gratitude”

  1. Having survived sudden cardiac arrest without brain damage, despite no pulse for 15 minutes, and learning that my odds for this miraculous outcome were about 1 in a 1,000, I can attest to the power and wonder of gratitude.

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  2. Hillary, I admire your courage to write about this topic. A medical incident like this is scary, frightening and downright upsetting. As a parent, I can not imagine how you feel. You are also a gifted writer, which I admire very much.

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  3. I love this Hilary! I used to keep a gratitude journal when the girls were little and I still have it, serving now as a journal of that time in my life. I’m going to start one again because I believe in this, and the power of attraction.
    I’m grateful to have met you in this life and hope to see you again soon ❤️

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    1. Gratitude journals are SUCH a beneficial practice. They train our gratitude to go on a kind of auto-pilot, noticing all day long things to be grateful for that we can record in the journal. It’s brain training. A gym for the gratitude muscle … XO

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  4. We had a near miss this last May. My son was hit on his bike by a tow truck that ran a red light in Brooklyn, N.Y. It was a very close call. We sat with him for a week in the ICU and the entire time I was flooded with the positivity of relief. People kept saying Oh My God How Are You Getting Thru This? And I would stutter: But He’s Going To Be Ok, So I’m OK! It was only later that this terrible What If stuff started plaguing me, in fact, months later. In the hospital I was super woman and could sprint to the cafeteria for the requested Powerade he requested or sit for hours guarding, watching, talking to doctors, writing, texting, talking. I noticed that we surrounded him like crouched athletes filled with strength and resources. Now I know what it was: the power of our gratitude.

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    1. Yes the Super Woman Super Power was (and is) gratitude! And the good news is we can cultivate the non-emergency-induced state of gratitude just by training our brains to focus on things for which we are grateful. Then the auto-pilot-gratitude seeker function of the brain takes over and does it for us! And THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU to life that your son is okay. Thank you and Amen.

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  5. Love,love,love your style of writing. So on point this time of the year. A subject that when I am there feels so right, and when I choose not to be ……
    💜Jack

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  6. One of the best things I have learned about gratitude (aside from how wonderfully addictive it is) is that you can practice gratitude without feeling it…and the best part about that is the feeling ALWAYS follows the practice…and then you just want more and so it goes. And it works, folks….promise!

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    1. Yes, exactly. Just write down the stuff you THINK you feel grateful for, and let the feeling follow… What’s also fruitful about keeping a gratitude journal or list is getting to re-read it once it accumulates. It’s an experience of BOUNTY.

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  7. Hilary,
    I sent you a long, personal note back on November 1st, on Facebook Messenger, but you might not be on Messenger? I see that it never got delivered, so you might not be on Messenger? If not, send me your email and I’ll resend.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Dear Hilary

    Thank you so much for havIng Alexandre with you during Thanks Giving!! He enjoyed it a lot !!

    I hope you are all fine!? I’ll come back to Boston with Alexandre on the 14th of January for his new moving and if you are there, I would like very much to invite you all (parents, children and Grandparents)maybe on Sunday the 21st of January ( before Alex start course again) for a tea in the afternoon??!

    Looking forward seeing you very soon

    Kind Regards to all the family :):)

    Astrid

    >

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