Episode 47: The Science Of Gratitude & How To Build Gratitude Practice | Huberman Lab

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Key Takeaways

  • The brain responds similarly to joy and gratitude
  • Gratitude is not about “fake it till you make it” – giving and receiving thanks and gratitude must be genuine to get the benefits
  • Most gratitude practices of writing or thinking about things you are grateful for will not actually lead to any positive benefits or changes in brain circuitry
  • True gratitude practice is really about associating or experiencing empathy or sympathy for someone who received help – whether it’s help you gave or help you heard about given to someone you connect with
  • A regular (and correct) gratitude practice can shift connectivity of emotions to reduce anxiety and fear pathways, increase motivation and pursuit pathways, and decrease inflammatory cytokines – amongst other physiological benefits  
  • Unlike other practices (such as mediation or breathwork), the positive effects of gratitude practice are felt almost instantly (60-90 seconds) making it sustainable to incorporate regularly
  • Steps for a scientifically grounded gratitude practice: (1) Think about (or find from podcast, movie, etc.) a story in which someone received help or you received thanks; (2) Write a few notes about the story such as what the struggle was, what the help was, and how it made you feel; (3) Repeatedly reflect on the story, really connecting with it for a few minutes   
  • Components of ideal gratitude practice: you must genuinely and emotionally associate with the story, reflect on the story 1-5 minutes, practice 3x per week

Introduction

Dr. Andrew Huberman, Ph.D. is a Professor of Neurobiology and Ophthalmology at Stanford University School of Medicine. His lab focuses on neural regeneration, neuroplasticity, and brain states such as stress, focus, fear, and optimal performance.

Andrew Huberman discusses the science of gratitude and the positive impact of gratitude on mental and physical health. Listeners will learn the elements of a truly effective gratitude practice and how to implement them.

Host: Andrew Huberman (@hubermanlab)

Why Consider A Gratitude Practice?

  • Having an effective gratitude practice can have large positive effects on physical and mental health – even incorporating gratitude practice 1-3x per week can have a long-lasting impact on self-reported well being
  • The problem is most gratitude practices (e.g., writing & reflecting on the good in our lives) don’t actually have the key components needed for the benefit  
  • Gratitude practice is a “prosocial behavior” which means it allows us to be more effective in interactions with ourselves and others
  • Our brains are in a see-saw of prosocial behaviors and defensive behavior we use in an attempt to keep us safe – we have the capacity for happiness and great concern and sadness
  • When the right gratitude practice is performed repeatedly and consistently, you can shift prosocial circuits to dominate the mindset
  • Some key benefits of proper gratitude practice: (1) resilience to trauma from prior experience; (2) inoculation from trauma later in life by shifting fear networks; (3) enhance social relationships in personal and professional life; (4) shifts prosocial circuity in the brain and activates circuits in heart and lungs associated with breathing
  • Gratitude practice decreases inflammatory cytokines tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha) and interleukin 6 (IL-6) almost immediately

Neurobiology Of Gratitude

  • The main neuromodulator associated with gratitude practice and prosocial behavior is serotonin
  • Two major brain areas are activated with gratitude: (1) medial prefrontal cortex; (2) anterior cingulate cortex
  • The medial prefrontal cortex sets context, framing, and provides the meaning of experiences for everything in life
  • The context provided by the prefrontal cortex makes it tolerable to sit in an ice bath or cold plunge because the perceived benefit shifts our mindset and tolerance
  • Gratitude is a mindset that activates the prefrontal cortex and sets the context for experience
  • It’s a myth that you can simply lie to yourself and “fake it till you make it” about whether an experience is good for you or not
  • The anterior cingulate cortex is involved in empathy pathways and circuitry

Tenants Of Effective Gratitude Practice

  • In order to activate gratitude circuits, one needs to put themselves in the mindset of another or directly receive gratitude
  • We want to receive gratitude but it’s not practical to sit around and wait
  • Gratitude practice is not simply writing down or thinking about things you are grateful for
  • Arouse autonomic nervous system for increased benefit: in states of heightened alertness, the intensity of emotion and effectiveness of gratitude practice are enhanced
    • Example: intense breathing then write things out or say them out loud
  • The most potent form of gratitude practice is one in which you receive thanks – for example, hearing a kind letter written about you
  • Reading or hearing stories: association or experiencing empathy or sympathy for someone who received help – example, stories of people saved during the war
  • Tips for an effective gratitude practice:
    • Option 1. Find someone whose story resonates with you – whether they are getting or receiving help; choose a book, podcast, movie, etc.
    • Option 2. Reflect and really think about a time in which you receive thanks – write out what the struggle was, what the help was, and how it made you feel
    • Then: Write notes and read them or think about that story over and over – even just 1-3 minutes
    • The more you read & reflect on the notes or take in stories, the faster you will sink into gratitude and until its almost immediate (unlike meditation or similar practices)
  • Having a story you resonate with and return to creates a physiological shift in heartbeat and breathing
  • We must give wholeheartedly for the receiver to feel gratitude completely 
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Notes By Maryann

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