Thursday, November 26, 2015

How Important Is Gratitude?

As physical scientists living according to the principles of Scientific Materialism, in a nation that overvalues material things, it is often a handicap to appreciate the intangible or emotional aspects of life - including simple gratitude. But that now appears to be changing.

Over the past decade, psychologists and scientists have been collecting empirical data that show people who report feeling gratitude in their daily lives feel more loving, forgiving and enthusiastic. Being appreciative then, of the things one already has (even if one compares them to what many lack) can make one a better person. This is assuming, of course, one refrains from condemning the homeless or those who visit soup kitchens today - or who need food stamps to get by - as n'er do wells, "welfare queens" or slackers. If that one upmanship factors into one's gratitude (i.e. 'Thank ye Lord, for not making me one them losers') then all bets are off.

A good note to sound embodies the words from Ecclesiastes 9:11 (New International edition of the Bible):

"The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all."

In other words, it's a myth to believe all of one's goods arrive by virtue of one's own efforts. The fact is no matter how many sacrifices we've made or how much we believe we've struggled, no one does it on their own. Heck, what we enjoy in the here and now can  often be traced to unearned gifts, plain dumb luck or "blessings" (in the parlance of the religious).

Only a fool or brigand would believe he's amassed all his worldly goods or fame on his own with no assistance from serendipity or the help of others. THAT recognition is the basis of a sincere sense of gratitude.

The other aspect is the realization that the misfortunes of others, what we see in the travails of the homeless or those on food stamps, could happen to any of us at a given time under the right confluence of events. Showing gratitude in this sense also confers benefits.

 Gratitude is linked strongly to well-being and mental and physical health with such benefits as lowered blood pressure and improved immune function. These benefits are foregone by a bombastic person who rails against "takers" or "welfare queens" or "food stamps thieves"  and who fails to perceive he might just as well be in the same position but for one or two twists of fate. (Say having a catastrophic accident or getting a life -threatening cancer that bleeds one's savings to zero.)

Thankfully, neuroscientists are now pioneering a new frontier, for the first time creating maps of brain activity when people are focused on gratitude. This field of investigation, at the brain level, is so new that only a handful of researchers are doing it. But this isn't surprising given that much of neuroscience today also dovetails with physical science - and we Materialists are not so much into admitting or recognizing the benefits of attitudes or other intangibles.

According to Glenn Fox, a neuroscientist at the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California:

"If we want to harness the best of gratitude, we need to find out how it works in the brain, which allows us to examine the nature of gratitude itself and hone in on it,"

Fox ought to know. He is the lead author of a study by USC neuroscientists on the neural basis of gratitude, published this fall in Frontiers in Psychology. Study participants were put into MRI scanners and guided to reflect on true-life stories from Holocaust survivors who experienced intense gratitude after other people provided life-saving food or hiding places.

In the investigation, brain activity was enhanced in two key places:   the anterior cingulate cortex and the medial prefrontal cortex,  areas previously linked to things such as interpersonal bonding, rewarding social interactions and the ability to understand the mental states of other people.  Fox has said:

"What we can learn more broadly from this is that even in really dire times, there is still room for gratitude, and to recognize things that others do to benefit us,"
More beneficial has been funding provided by the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, which created a $5.6 million three-year project to expand the scientific database of gratitude and perform additional forthcoming brain imaging studies

Will Americans be ready for the results? This might be problematic given we inhabit a politically polarized culture which insists on finding winners and losers. Thus, reinforcing the special work or province myth that people only get "what they earn" and if they don't, well it's damned well their own fault for being lazy and not succeeding.

But the critics don't realize that the very expression of such limited, biased views precludes them from expressing real gratitude and the health and other benefits that flow from it.

No comments: