Welcome to Joy Lab!: [00:00:00] Welcome to the Joy Lab podcast, where we help you uncover and foster your most joyful self. Your hosts, Dr. Henry Emmons and Dr. Aimee Prasek, bring you the ideal mix of soulful and scientifically sound tools to spark your joy, even when it feels dark. When you're ready to experiment with more joy, combine this podcast with the full Joy Lab program over at JoyLab.coach.
Henry: Hello! I'm Henry Emmons.
Aimee: And I'm Aimee Prasek. So welcome to Joy Lab, where we infuse science with soul to help you uncover joy. To do that, we focus on our elements of joy, the positive inner states and emotions that become the building blocks for a joyful life. So the element we're digging into, uh, today is gratitude. And we're going to take an interesting spin on it.
But first, uh, let's explain gratitude. I like this definition from Harvard Medical School. They [00:01:00] write: "Gratitude is a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives, as a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals, whether to people, nature, or a higher power.
Henry: In Joy Lab, you know, we often talk about how important it is to, to break out of this idea that we are separate, isolated beings. So, I really like they include in their definition that gratitude helps people connect to something larger than themselves.
Henry: Now in episode eight, we talked about just how robust the research is on gratitude, and especially out of the field of positive psychology. So if we can change our relationship with gratitude from just an occasional emotion [00:02:00] that comes up when we experience good things, to where it's really just a regular habit that's coming up constantly, the research says that our happiness level can go up by 25%. And they're not talking about just an occasional feeling of happiness.
They're talking about that enduring, baseline level of happiness that is kind of similar to what we call joy. Now another lesson from the research that's worth noting right off the bat is this: When you feel grateful, no matter how you've gotten there, you're more likely to do something good for somebody else. So it kind of builds on itself. It, it creates this positive spiral that we love so much here in Joy Lab.
Aimee: Yeah, Yeah we do love that, that upward spiral, positive spiral. Uh, I also love [00:03:00] that reminder, again, these practices, these inner states ripple out. And that 25% number always blows my mind. There are just a few, very limited, clear strategies or practices that can give us such a big payoff like that for our health.
That's why we talk about gratitude here at Joy Lab, because it works. So for our next few episodes, we'll work on gratitude in a really interesting way. We're gonna lean on the three aspects of mindfulness we talk about a lot here, um, while actually over at the Joy Lab program, um, that we infuse as well here in the podcast.
Um, but those of you in the program will know exactly what we're talking about. The three aspects are: See what is, Accept what is, and Choose wisely. So initially those aspects of mindfulness may sound like a weird fit for gratitude, but if you listen to our episode on gratitude, um, episode number eight, [00:04:00] way back, you may have an idea of where we're going here.
So back in that episode, we ended with a segment from author Zadie Smith's essay called Joy. In it she wrote, "Joy is such a human madness." And she was describing how achingy painful it can be to lose something or someone treasured in your life. And she writes, "It hurts just as much as it is worth. What an arrangement. Why would anyone accept such a crazy deal? And yet, if it hadn't happened at all, at least once, how would we live?"
So Henry in episode eight, you were reflecting on her essay and noted that we sometimes hold back from feeling the full extent of our gratitude for the people or things we care about most in our life.
And we might do that because if we really feel it all, all the feels, that depth of love and [00:05:00] gratitude, we can also feel the fragility, the vulnerability of also knowing that loss will happen. Those relationships will end in some way. We might lose those treasured things and all that loss might happen sooner.
We want sooner than expected. Uh, it can almost feel safer, I think, for many of us, not to feel those big feelings of love and gratitude, so we don't have to feel those big losses. And at the same time, you noted, just as Zadie Smith wrote, that gratitude and those relationships fuel our life in a big. So Henry, can you say more on this barrier to gratitude that we might feel. And then just briefly how these aspects of see, accept and choose fit in?
Henry: Well, I'll try!
Henry: That's a big order. So just recently I came across this [00:06:00] quote from philosopher Albert Camus, and here's the quote: "Live to the point of tears." Now, I'll admit, I don't really know what he meant by that, but I still found it to be really moving.
Henry: I feel like it speaks to that question you asked Aimee, and it, it's just telling us don't hold back. Don't worry too much about getting hurt or experiencing loss. And don't even worry about whether there's meaning or even pleasure in everything we do.
I think it's another way of saying be vulnerable, um, or as we put it just in a recent episode, be more permeable.
Henry: Let things in. Take risks. Yeah, you are going to [00:07:00] feel things and sometimes emotions are painful, but you're gonna be okay. I just think that's a great way to live. Now, right now we're talking about gratitude, which generally is not a painful emotion, but like you said, Aimee, if we in the full awareness of all the good things we have, all the love, all the kindness, then we can also become aware that someday we might lose those things. Everything is impermanent, right? But here's the paradox; when we can accept impermanence, we no longer need to fear loss. We can take it in stride. So we can totally appreciate what we have, but we don't have to cling to it. And I think that opens us up to real gratitude, [00:08:00] no strings attached. So back to those three aspects of mindfulness that you mentioned. They refer to an approach that we use again and again in Joy Lab. You might even say it's our shorthand for how to make life more joyful. And so we just thought it'd be a nice way to organize our approach to gratitude.
So in this episode, we're focusing on seeing things as they really are. Seeing the good things, let's say. In our next episode, we're gonna talk about how acceptance of all things, whether we think that they're good or bad, can lead us to more gratitude. And then in the third episode, we're going to focus on action. How can our choices, no matter what's actually happening, make us more grateful?
Aimee: Yeah, I like the order of [00:09:00] operations there. It puts a framework behind gratitude to follow. Um, so with, see what is, what we're exploring in this episode, that's when we're actually, as you said, Henry, opening up and seeing all of it, the joyful and the devastating. And there's another obstacle I wanna get into before we get into the strategies.
And it's the belief that some of us just aren't wired this way. We're not so optimistic. We don't see the world through rose colored glasses. We don't see the joyful things. And those usually get compared to pessimists, those folks, and the negativity bias. This idea that we are either one way or the other, right?
You're an optimist, which is good, or a pessimist with a negativity bias, which is bad. But I don't think we're that simple, and I don't think there's convincing data to say that genetics have such a strong hold here with these ideas of [00:10:00] pessimism and optimism, some debate there. But what may be passed down, I certainly don't think can be described so simply as a good or bad trait.
I also think the negativity bias would be better called a survival bias. And pessimists should be called surveillors, right? So the so-called negativity bias is just the brain trying to see and assess potential threats. We all have this. It's a survival bias. It's how we've made it through all these thousands of years.
It may be the case that pessimists are better surveillors. They initially scan for dangers more quickly and more thoroughly, and that's great as long as we don't let it continue on and on, or lead us around unconsciously. When us pessimists get trapped in surveillance mode and can't disengage to see everything else else sort of around us, uh, then we can't see gratitude.
We can't see anything else but danger. We can't see what is, and [00:11:00] that's what we're getting into in this episode. Avoiding that trap as well. And I'm speaking as a pessimist or more precisely an expert level surveillance artist who has worked through a lot of mental health struggles and at the same time having those experiences, I think pessimism gets pathologized too much.
As I noted just a moment ago, my pessimism doesn't harm me unless I give it the main microphone and start believing it all the time, like any of my other personality characteristics, if that's what you'd categorize it as. You know, there's a spectrum with unhelpful extremes at each end. Just like the rigidity to chaos spectrum we talked about in episode 26.
Henry: Well, as an optimist myself, I guess, guess I'm an expert level opportunity artist. I kind of like that.
Aimee: Isn't that great? It's why we work so well together.
Henry: So [00:12:00] along those lines, I think that one of the problems with, with the usual approach to mental illness is that our view of humanness is just too small.
Henry: You know, we just tend to get focused on pathology, like you're saying, Aimee. And I, I think that really does limit our view of our patients, but also our view of ourselves. We don't ignore pathology or we don't ignore what's wrong here in Joy Lab, we want to see things as they really are, after all. But we are so much more than our pathologies.
Henry: So negativity bias is a real phenomenon, I believe. I think it's built into us for a reason, which is survival. But I would also argue that we have evolved. We can let that biological need to notice what's wrong, [00:13:00] slide into the background more than we do. It will still be there when we need it, when something is really threatening, I guarantee it will get reactivated again.
Aimee: Right. And we want that to inform us, so we can flee, freeze, fight, or tend and befriend as we discussed in some episodes back. Uh, and as you say, Henry, we have evolved. So I think we have so much more power here to see what is, to not let that surveillance tendency or a survival bias to take the reins all the time.
And this is true with depression as well. There's a lot of interesting research here that relates, um, to something called attentional bias. The term really just describes how we pay attention to some things and ignore others. I think the most obvious and hilarious example of this is when you sit a four year old in front of their favorite TV show, [00:14:00] like Bluey at our house. And then try to distract them while they are completely locked in.
So that's our four year old. She zones in and everything else around her is ignored. It's a good thing. We want to be able to pay attention to a few things in our environment or else we'd be overwhelmed with too much input. We have to prioritize. But this is really hard with something like depression. So eye-tracking studies have shown that whether or not you're depressed, folks equally give their attention toward a negative stimuli.
So we all do it. That's our survival bias. The issue is actually that for those who are experiencing depression, they have a harder time bringing their attention to something else. Reorienting like bringing their attention to gratitude, um, they lock in on that negative thing, and that's really it, [00:15:00] right?
We can get locked into just a small view of what's going on in our life. And it often shuts out a lot of good stuff. So Henry, how can we buffer some of these biases and obstacles so that we can see what really is and make more space for gratitude?
Henry: Well, I'm gonna turn to another quote that I just recently came across uh, kind of use it as a springboard to talk about this. So this is a quote from the American Franciscan priest named Richard Rohr.
Who has a great blog, by the way. Um, so he wrote: "The best definition I know for contemplation is as follows: Contemplation is a long, loving look at what really is." [00:16:00]
Now I just think that is a great description of what we mean when we say see what is. It means taking a long, loving look. Let's kind of break that down a bit cause I really think that there's a lot here in this little quote. And it, it gives us kind of a nice way to think about how do we approach seeing gratitude more in our lives.
So first, there is this element of it being long, almost luxurious in the amount of time, at least that's how I think of it. Now, I don't think it requires a certain number of minutes. It's not the actual, you know, time length that's so important here. I think it's more the sense of not being in a hurry, of not trying to stuff too much into our already busy schedule. So really it means giving yourself a little space, [00:17:00] mental space really, when you are not about something else.
So you're doing just that one thing that your daughter does so well, except here, it's looking at what's in your life with an eye toward what adds more goodness to your life. The second thing he says is that it is a loving look. Now, to me, that simply means that your heart is open. It doesn't mean that you have to have any particular feeling. It, it means that you, you kind of allow things in. Now, there are tons of great ways to practice this, to keeping your heart open, and we actually do a lot of that in the Joy Lab program. Here's one of the simplest, I think. It's, it's just to close your eyes, um, and bring to mind somebody that you [00:18:00] love unequivocally, without question. That could be a friend, a child, you know, even a pet, somebody in your life.
you just have exclusively good feelings toward. And then all you need to do is to try to get a clear picture of them, and at the same time, keep some of your attention on the center area of your chest and invite it to open. It's really, really simple. It just takes a moment. Um, and you can take as long as you'd like, um, till you feel something kind of stirring or opening. And then you just turn to your mind to grateful for. Now, here's like a really simple thing might turn your mind toward is that very person that you brought to mind.
You might feel feel grateful for them. So the third part of this quote is that [00:19:00] Richard Rohr says, "Look at what really is"
There is no need to sugarcoat things. There's no need for rose-colored glasses. And we don't have to deny the hard things that are there in our lives. You might not feel grateful for those hard things being in your life, although who knows, maybe someday you will, but if you just don't hold onto those thoughts about what's wrong in this moment, they will float away and then something else can come to mind that might actually make you feel grateful. Because those are there too. They're always there. You know, we all have those 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows, and we are able to hold all of them. We just are wanting to make a habit of seeing those [00:20:00] 10,000 joys a little bit more of the time.
Aimee: Yeah, it's a habit. I love that reminder, as a surveillance artist, that these are practices. And I, think it is inviting us back, um, this process, this patient process to our true, loving, grateful selves. That's true whether you are a surveillance artist or a optimist artist like Henry. We are all loving creatures who run on fuels like gratitude.
I sincerely believe that, and I've got a lot of science to back that up. So, um, we absolutely need that fuel as well to get through the suffering and we need that fuel to be able to take in what feels really. So we'll talk more about that next episode, how we can navigate through these joys and sorrows with acceptance and with gratitude.
I wanna end [00:21:00] with some wisdom from one of my favorite actors, Robin Williams, and also writer, Sabrina Benham. Two folks who also, I think, really have spoken to suffering and joy with such honesty and gentleness. So Robin Williams once said, "Sometimes you can have a whole lifetime in a day and never notice that this is as beautiful as it gets." And from writer Sabrina Benaim, "My Body is a garden rooted in gratitude. Thank you is the biggest poem I've got inside of me."
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