Welcome to Joy Lab!: 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
Aimee: Welcome to Joy Lab. I'm Aimee, here to introduce this next lesson of our podcourse. So, we are in the mind and heart section. And we wanted to pop in one of our earlier episodes on gratitude. So we focus on our elements of joy here at the podcast, and amidst this podcourse, this is just the perfect compliment.
And that's because there's just so much research on gratitude to say that it is ridiculously helpful for supporting mood. It is so effective. This is also a really nice concept to hold on to, gratitude, as we work with our mind and heart, opening up our mind and heart to the goodness around us and the goodness within us.
So enjoy this episode.
So the element for this episode is gratitude. And gratitude appears in like all the major religions throughout human history, and now it's sort of moved into conversations about mental health and wellness.
And it's also being recognized by psychology as one of the most helpful emotions.
Henry: Aimee, I love the idea of gratitude. I really do. I mean, who doesn't? Right? But when we are told over and over that something is good for us, some of us might start to feel just a little resistant. It's kinda like saying, eat your vegetables, which I also believe in, by the way.
But sometimes it seems like there's just a hint that it's a moral obligation that you should feel grateful for anything good that you've received. I'm sure many of our listeners like me have been told: You should be grateful! Which usually implies that you're not, and I know that doesn't work all that well for me.
But knowing how important this topic is, we really wanna try to avoid both the shoulds and the cliches that sometimes come with a topic of gratitude. So we hope to say something fresh, realistic, and authentic about it. So we thought it might be good to start with the scientific conclusions about gratitude because they're really quite robust.
So, Aimee would you tell us without any sense of moral obligation, why should we feel grateful?
Aimee: Yeah. the research on gratitude is pretty clear that it is ridiculously good for you. Um, it's so good in fact that folks kind of get carried away with it, I think, and sort of claim it to be a cure-all, which it certainly isn't, but it actually may be sort of as close as you can get, much like our other elements of joy, I'd say.
So I'll first just give a list of the research highlights. I think it's kind of cool to see the list or hear, hear the list. So gratitude is associated with better relationships. Better physical health, less perceived physical pain. It's associated with more happiness and less depression. People who rank higher on gratitude scales are also less likely to retaliate against others.
That's very interesting. They're more empathetic and sympathetic. They have better work performance, particularly in leadership positions, and they receive more promotions. Engaging in gratitude practices is associated with improved sleep, more resilience and self-esteem, uh, and gratitude practices have even been used to successfully reduce symptoms of PTSD.
It's actually just a short list of things that I kinda like, um, but I do wanna highlight one study, really like one of the classics of the gratitude research. Uh, it's from researchers, Emmons and McCullough. And this study demonstrated how simple and effective I think a gratitude practice can be. So, participants in the study, which was actually a collection of, of three studies, but I'm gonna kind of collapse the findings here.
The participants in the gratitude group were instructed to write down what they were grateful for, or write a letter to a person who they were grateful for. It's kinda the typical gratitude letters. Now, depending on the study, folks did this weekly for 10 weeks or daily for either between two or three weeks.
And there were also two control groups, for these studies. And they were either recording neutral events or hassles they experienced either that week or that day. So here are the weekly benefits: compared to the controls, participants in the gratitude group demonstrated more positive and optimistic appraisals of their lives.
They spent more time exercising, which is really interesting, and they reported fewer physical symptoms. Daily benefits, uh, were even more enhanced. So participants in the gratitude groups with this daily reporting had greater levels of positive affect, which is essentially the experience and, um, expression of positive emotions.
They reported more sleep and better sleep quality. They also demonstrated greater optimism and a sense of connectedness to others. Reductions in negative affect were also found for the group who reported daily gratitudes over a three week period. So I think those are actually very meaningful results for just like 10 to 21 quick practice sessions for those gratitude participants.
And that's like just a small sliver again of this research. It is powerful stuff.
Henry: Well, I, I should probably be clear that the researcher Aimee mentioned in this study is Robert Emmons. It's not Henry Emmons. It's not you. And yeah, he's not related to me as far as I know. But he is one of today's most prominent researchers on gratitude, and he also authored a popular book that's called " Thanks: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier." Now, he, he notes that gratitude is more than the virtue of being grateful. It's an emotion. Which surprisingly has not been recognized until fairly recently. And it's one of the most positive and helpful emotions at that. Not only does it help the person who feels grateful, but it also helps others by creating what researchers call a specific action tendency. Which means that when you feel grateful, it's more likely that you'll do something good for someone else in the future.
In other words, feeling grateful encourages you to pay it forward. But as he points out, there are different levels of gratitude ranging from what he calls a vague attitude or intense emotion to a daily habit. And he says that regular grateful thinking, meaning that it's become a habit, can increase happiness by as much as 25%.
Aimee: I love thinking of gratitude as just like a regular old habit that then encourages us, that motivates us to pay it forward. So, um, there's something else that Emmons Robert, not Henry, um, notes about the practice of gratitude that really spoke to me as well as we were doing some research for this.
Um, he says, gratitude includes two essential parts. The first is that we affirm the good things we've received, and he notes this as what's called conditional gratitude. And the second aspect is that we acknowledge the role other people play in providing our lives with goodness. And he notes that's called relational gratitude and that it's the most potent aspect of the two.
So, I had a huge wake up call with gratitude recently that I wanna share. Like a real moment. And it was actually in part because I really sat with these two aspects that Emmons notes, these conditional and relational aspects of gratitude. So here's what happened. Uh, when Henry and I were planning our month of gratitude here for the podcast and for the Joy Lab program, all that I could think about were really two things.
It's like all the research studies I had read in the past and loved in the gratitude field. 'cause I loved reading research. And then the second thing that dominated my thoughts, was that stuff that drives me nuts, that gets hitched to gratitude.
Things like toxic positivity and really like ideas around rugged individualism. So these things are just cycling through my brain and I couldn't shake them. So I was like, okay, Aimee, anchor back. Into your own gratitude practices, right?
I mean, gratitude is on my mind quite a bit. I'm constantly getting annoyed with other people's lack of gratitude. So I tried to anchor back to my own practice and it was like just crickets and discomfort, and that's when I realized I am okay at what Emmons describes as conditional gratitude, right? I affirm the gifts that I see around me. I'm so lucky compared to so and so, right?
That sort of usual thinking. I give those things a quick nod daily, like the quickest of nods. Definitely like a multi-tasking nod, but that second aspect of gratitude, that relational aspect. I am not very good at that. I'm like, Just realizing this. And of course, it's really like all of our other elements.
We're wired for these things, but moving those signals into action, it takes modeling and it takes practice. So I think this obstacle might be kind of common. More specifically, it can be easy to stay in a cycle of sort of blunt social comparisons that are really misinterpreted for gratitude. You know, um, thank God I have, I have more than that person over there.
And geez, uh, that person over there has so much and has no gratitude, right? You can kind of see all the social media posts both on your social feed and just in our heads. And as I do this nodding and judging, I've never really practicing gratitude, even though it's on my mind. So there's a lot of stuff, sort of interesting stuff to dig into there with the research as well.
Primarily the idea that acknowledging the benefactor as it's often called in the research, which is, you know, the giver. The real person or people involved in the gift or goodness in our life is really the essential part. It's the most potent aspect of gratitude, as Emmons notes. I. I'm reminding myself here.
Right? And it's, it's not just this casual acknowledgement. It's this purposeful savoring, I think, and noticing and appreciating of that person. And I think that's the quality that also really leads to what you noted. Earlier Henry as those specific action tendencies, the likelihood of actually then doing something good beyond yourself, actually paying it forward.
So that was, that was my big aha moment of late.
Henry: Don't you love those aha moments? No.
Aimee: It was terribly uncomfortable. I'm just kidding. Yes, it was good.
Henry: Well, I think what you're saying relates to a broader view on this topic that I find really helpful, and here it is in a nutshell. There is a difference between gratitude, which is a momentary feeling that we hopefully get in response to something good coming our way.
And then gratefulness, which is more about how you live. So it's kind of similar to how we think at Joy Lab about the difference between happiness, which is a more of a feeling and joy, which is more of a way of life. So I recently came across a book called "Wake Up Grateful" by Kristi Nelson. She's been a long-term mindfulness teacher, and she studied gratefulness with a really prominent theologian and writer named Brother David Steindl-Rast. And this is really based on his work that, that she outlines these five guiding principles for making gratefulness into a way of life. And we thought it'd be good for us to briefly share these with you.
So the first principle is life is a gift. Now, the idea here, as I understand it, is that we might start with the experience of feeling grateful for the good things that occasionally come into our lives, and we've noted that that's good for us to do, but we can raise that to the level where being grateful becomes your default mode. Where it's just the way that you look at things and the way that you experience life.
Because in fact, life is good. It's always good to be alive, even if it doesn't feel so good at the moment. I remember hearing Jon Kabat-Zinn, the teacher and researcher who developed mindfulness-based stress reduction. I remember him saying something like this, as long as you are still breathing, there is more right with you than wrong with you.
And then right up until the moment when you take your last breath, it is still possible for you to become more present and drop some of that mental chatter that makes you so unhappy. So simply being alive, we always have the choice to direct our perception so we can see what's wrong or we can see what's not wrong.
And no matter what we do with it, life never stops giving us new opportunities, new choices we are always receiving. Maybe just maybe we could learn to meet more of those moments with even the possibility of gratitude.
Aimee: I love that we are always receiving. And just that breath as a gift that feels really true right now.
Okay, I feel like I can handle principles two and three as they're less relational, so I'll tackle these Henry. Um, so the second one is everything is a surprise. So we've already done some podcasts on awe and curiosity, and if you've caught those, you'll know that these are those elements that allow us to be surprised.
To stay open to wonder. Uh, and they save us from living on autopilot. Sort of invites that space of beginner's mind that we sometimes talk about, which can help us break out of our habitual ways of responding to things. For example, engaging in unhelpful social comparisons instead of gratitude, as I've discovered.
But instead it allows us to see whatever happens when one of those opportunities that you just mentioned, Henry comes along. Opening up to this idea of everything is a surprise, gives us an opportunity to discover something new, to act in a new way, or to just appreciate something more fully, to savor it.
I love what Maya Angelou says, " this is a wonderful day. I've never seen this one before." The third principle is the ordinary is extraordinary. So I like this quote from Sarah Ban Breathnach: "how many of us go through our days parched and empty thirsting after happiness when we're really standing knee deep in the river of abundance?"
So I've realized more recently, that it's my sort of inattentive, nods of autopilot appreciation that I'm, um, I, I'm thinking of these things as ordinary, but they're not. it's really just what I've learned to take for granted. And if you can relate, we're then in a position where we can no longer see those things for what they are.
And Kristi Nelson suggests that if we can learn to take nothing for granted, and just like one thing at a time, we've just created a direct pathway to abundance. So if we can savor the ordinary, but good things that we already have, then we've got a shortcut to joy.
Henry: I think we could all use some shortcuts to joy.
Aimee: I was just thinking, I love shortcuts.
Henry: This is great. So the fourth principle is appreciation is generative. Now that that's a term that doesn't automatically make sense to me. So here's a quote from the book. " Appreciate is an active verb and calls for active engagement." I think this means that we don't have to passively wait to receive the occasional good things that come our way.
We can actively engage life. By choosing where we put our attention. There's a term known as appreciative attention, which means that we actually look actively for things in our lives that we already appreciate. We just endeavor to see them. And then by choosing to give them more of our attention, they are likely to grow.
So, for example, let's just say you have an old friendship that has kind of dwindled over time. If you can remember and appreciate that friendship, the chances are you'll start to tend to it again. And when you do that, it has a much better chance to flourish. So this challenges us a little bit to actually walk our talk and live more according to what we value. Because what we value is what is more likely to thrive. And then finally, the fifth principle is love is transformative. We couldn't agree more. Which is why we devoted a whole podcast to learning to love well. So please check it out. We think it is very much in line with these guiding principles for grateful living.
Aimee: The tagline for Hair Club for men is just like running through my brain right now. I'm not, I only the haircut president, but I'm also a client.
That's how I feel about Joy, Lab, particularly for this month. Um, but these, these elements are simple in so many ways, right? We're wired for them. We talk about that a lot. We know them intuitively. But they're not so easy to practice sometimes. And some of them are super tricky, right? Gratitude totally tricked me.
But at the same time, I wanna like acknowledge the nugget of truth that gets me annoyed with gratitude 'cause I just can't shake it. It is definitely possible to fall into a sort of toxic positivity. These platitudes that suggest that you should just feel grateful for everything that happens, no matter how tragic or how much loss comes with it.
And so, you know, maybe it's a mistake to go right to gratitude and skip the steps needed when grieving a loss.
Henry: Right. I remember once hearing a Buddhist teacher who was talking about enlightenment, you know, which everyone wants to kind of jump to as quickly as they can, and the teacher said, "First w e have to tell the truth." And that just really stuck with me, and I think it holds true as well for facing hardships and loss.
First we have to tell the truth. So I'd like to share a story that to me, really makes this conversation about gratitude feel more real, more human. It's a true story and it shows, I think how, how really hard it can be at times to feel grateful, but how transformative it can be when it is genuine. So a few years ago, after my second book came out, my first book was about joy, my second about calm, so holistic approaches to depression and anxiety, and I was giving a talk and a book signing.
There was a woman in line who said, I want to thank you for your first book, and I'd love to take some time when you're done here to share my story. So after finishing the book signing, I went off with her off to the side and she told me that two years before then, her four-year-old daughter had died. And she went on to say that she knew when her daughter was born that she was going to die. She had a terrible genetic condition and they were told to expect her to live for just a few months. So her daughter surprised them really by surviving for four years. She said my daughter was never able to speak and she really couldn't communicate with us in any meaningful way.
And yet she was such a light in my life that when she died, it felt like my own light went out. She went on to tell me that while she had had some problems with anxiety throughout her life, she had never really been depressed until after her daughter died. And then she sank into a really bad depression that knocked her off her feet.
The kind where she couldn't really function either at home or at work. So she did what most people do. She got into therapy, she got on medication, but it just wasn't working. So after about a year of this, a friend of hers who was really concerned about her, among other things that she did, she gave her my book to read. And this woman said that it wasn't like she automatically suddenly felt happy, but she said that it helped her come out of her depression because while she was reading it, she became able to connect with the gratitude that she had for her daughter being with her for four years. And she said, I want to be clear. It's not that I don't grieve for her, I do, but now I'm able to carry that loss in one hand, but with the other hand, I can hold the joy that was my daughter's life. Now, to me that's a story of authentic joy.
Joy that's built on hard, won gratitude. It feels kind of familiar, doesn't it? To be able to hold the pain of loss in one hand and the gratitude for what we love in the other.
Aimee: Yeah. Holding, acknowledging those two things. It feels familiar as you said, but it's not so easy. Right? So it's sort of this weird connection here that is coming up in my mind, but it reminds me of how babies really aren't able to transfer an object from one hand to the other until they're about seven months old or so.
And like everything before that is just grasping. With one hand, like another good metaphor. And then the other hand, one thing over here and one thing over here. I feel like those big losses they put, they kind of put us back in that space. Like here are these new hands and arms and fingers, and figure out how to hold this loss and this gratitude with your brand new flimsy baby fingers.
And um, It can take some time to be able to really hold them together and let them interact. But I guess that's the point of our work here, right? Uh, creating these new habits, these elements of joy, establish like a muscle memory. So that when that tough stuff really hits, we can hold it sooner and, you know, without collapsing, maybe even hold it with gratitude and with joy.
Henry: Hmm. So we'd like to close with a few lines by the author Zadie Smith. This is from an essay that she published in the New York Review of books that is simply called Joy. And it also feels really authentic to me. She says: " Joy is such a human madness."
She is talking about how terribly painful it can be to lose something.
Someone like a child that you love so much. And here's another quote. She says:
" It hurts just as much as it is worth. It hurts just as much as it is worth. What an arrangement. Why would anyone accept such a crazy deal?"
" And yet," she wonders,
" if it hadn't happened at all, at least once, how would we live?"
So I think that sometimes we hold ourselves back from feeling the full extent of our appreciation for the people and the things that we care about most. It leaves us vulnerable because we know how fleeting it all is. And yet, if we don't let ourselves feel the depth of our gratitude at least once in a while, how would we live? Thank you so much for listening. We hope you'll also join us in the Joy Lab Program where we build on elements like gratitude to learn how to live, and how to make it a more joyful life.
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