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Emiliana Simon-Thomas: The Benefits of Practicing Gratitude

Published November 25, 2020

Show Notes

On this episode, Alliance for Aging Research President and CEO Sue Peschin talks with Emiliana R. Simon-Thomas, Ph.D., the science director of the Greater Good Science Center, about the importance of gratitude and how we can incorporate it into our daily lives.

Episode Transcript

Sue Peschin:

Hello, I’m Sue Peschin, President and CEO of the Alliance for Aging Research, and I’d like to welcome you to a special Thanksgiving episode of our podcast, This is Growing Old. Although the holidays look different this year because of COVID-19, we can still celebrate Thanksgiving by practicing gratitude. Today’s guest is Dr. Emiliana Simon-Thomas, the science director of the Greater Good Science Center. Emiliana, thank you so much for joining us today.

Emiliana Simon-Thomas:

Hi, Sue. I’m so delighted to be a guest on your program.

Sue Peschin:

Thank you. Can you explain the mission of the Greater Good Science Center for our listeners?

Emiliana Simon-Thomas:

Yes. About 25 years ago, some UC Berkeley alumni came to the department of psychology and said, “Listen, we want to understand more about how we can promote understanding and generosity and collaboration and meaningful organizing in society.” Originally this led to a center called the Center for the Development of Peace and Well-being, and after a few years of trying to market that title or fundraise with that name, we endeavored to reinvent the brand and came up with the Greater Good Science Center, largely because it reflects a more accessible idea. The idea is that we want to cross the bridge between academic science and practical application, particularly in this space of study that reveals the importance of our connections with each other, our tendency towards generosity, and our sense of meaningful belonging is to the thriving and compassionate society.

Emiliana Simon-Thomas:

So, that’s what we do. We track the cutting edge research on studies that tell us how important compassion is or tell us how practicing gratitude leads to changes to our physical and mental health, to how spending time out in awe-inspiring natural environments changes our well-being for the better. We write about it in a way that anybody can access and also fold into their day to day life and benefit from in any moment.

Sue Peschin:

Great, and you help run… you talked about gratitude, you help actually run the Greater Good Science Center’s Expanding Gratitude Project. You’re an expert on neuroscience and psychology of compassion, kindness, and gratitude. Why are compassion, kindness, and gratitude so important for our health and well-being?

Emiliana Simon-Thomas:

Compassion and gratitude and generosity, kindness, are so important to our health and well-being because humans are an ultra-social species. Unlike many renderings of Darwinian survival of the fittest, actually humans have been as successful as a species expressly because of our capacity to work together. Our physiological systems have developed over the trajectory of evolutionary time in order to enable us to understand one another, to communicate in rich, nuanced, and granular ways, to coordinate our efforts towards broader goals that aren’t possible to achieve at an individual level. Humans need to take care of very, very vulnerable offspring, and so we’re built with this care nurturance system that drives us to be concerned with one another’s welfare, to be motivated and intrinsically so, to alleviate other people’s pain and suffering. This is very fundamental and core to the human species.

Emiliana Simon-Thomas:

So, these states and experiences of gratitude and kindness and compassion are really innately part of what it means to be human, and the extent to which we practice or leverage or strengthen or experience them is predictive of our physical and mental health. People who score higher on measures of gratitude have lower blood pressure, they’re more resilient to stressors, they’re able to manage setbacks and difficulties more productively in a manner that leads to growth and learning, it leaves them less vulnerable to post-traumatic stress or chronic stress disorders of other varieties. Compassion involves this combination of sub-processes that all contribute to one’s own well-being. In order to extend compassion to another person, we have to be good at regulating our own emotional experiences, and so by extending compassion, we’re also serving our own capacity to behave in emotionally and socially intelligent ways.

Emiliana Simon-Thomas:

Kindness, generosity; this is so fundamental to our most immediate urge when it comes to opportunities to interact with one another. Elizabeth Dunn has pioneered a series of studies showing that investing in the welfare of others, contributing to others, expending resources on others actually leads to greater increases in measures of happiness and well-being than spending those same resources on ourselves. So it’s not to say that we should aspire to give every aspect of any resource and energy source that we have to others, of course we’re built to also survive in and of ourselves, but we’ve gotten into a time where the emphasis on the individual, on zero sum potential, that is that I can only gain if you lose, feels a bit overly emphasized.

Emiliana Simon-Thomas:

At the Greater Good Science Center, we’re just trying to shift the pendulum a little so that people can revisit and recognize and channel and attune to these other aspects of their day to day experience in a way that will benefit their well-being and also contribute to the well-being of the people they interact with, the communities that they live in, and for all intents and purposes, of the planet.

Sue Peschin:

A lot of what you were talking about sounds like the psychology side of things, and I was just wondering from a neuroscience perspective, do you all do work in brain scans? Can you actually see the work of compassion and kindness on the brain?

Emiliana Simon-Thomas:

Yeah, so what happens when people experience compassion is it activates the salience network. Normally the most often mentioned structure in this network is the amygdala, it’s this little almond shaped part of your brain that lights up when something important happens. Many, many studies show that if you present someone with a fearful stimulus, their amygdala lights up. If you present somebody, now we know, with a stimulus that arouses feelings of injustice or frustration, also the amygdala lights up. Well, it turns out the amygdala lights up also when we’re presented with opportunities for some kind of resource that we might want to secure or approach, so it’s called the salience structure.

Emiliana Simon-Thomas:

When we feel compassion, when we encounter vulnerable suffering, that’s the first thing, is something important has occurred. Then there are these other pathways and systems and circuits that get involved that have to do empathizing, that is having an experience in our own body that resonates or simulates to a certain degree the experience that we’re witnessing in another person, or perceiving, or even bringing to mind through reading a book or a story in the news. Other pathways, the temporoparietal junction that are important for taking another person’s person perspective are involved in compassion. These care nurturance pathways that, again, it’s that forward lean that we reflexively show when we encounter a puppy, a fuzzy puppy, or a new baby in the family, that urge to lean in and have physical contact with, and nurture and cuddle, that is supported by these care nurturing pathways that are deep in the brain.

Emiliana Simon-Thomas:

And then finally there’s involvement from reward pathways, so these are the dopamine pathways that are normally implicated in reward to the self, but it turns out are also signaling the pleasure or the warm glow that we receive or that occurs when we serve the welfare or bring upon relief for another person. All of these systems are in parallel and then reciprocally influential ways involved in an experience of compassion.

Emiliana Simon-Thomas:

Turns out when people train themselves or practice trying to get better at compassion, the configuration or the relative distribution of activation changes, and this is how the amygdala response, that first like, “Oh, something is happening here that is concerning”. Well it stays as robust. It dissipates much more quickly, it recovers, it doesn’t stay on and continue this feeling of, “Oh, I need to do something right away to solve this problem” or, “I need to escape so that I don’t continue feeling aroused or vigilant about a particular problem”. Instead, the care nurturance pathways play a bigger role and the reward pathways start to show an anticipatory pleasure response based in the intention to do something to bring upon relief or serve the welfare of others.

Emiliana Simon-Thomas:

So yeah, the configuration of neural activation changes in the brain when people engage in compassion practices, and similar studies have shown changes that are tied to practicing gratitude. A friend of mine at the University of Oregon did a study where she had people keep a gratitude journal, so that means that every night for a series of days, they’re writing down in pretty careful detail, although in a free flowing and not stringent way, three things that they have to be grateful for. Often three people who they feel grateful for, because those people have done something that has led to a goodness in their life.

Emiliana Simon-Thomas:

What happens when people do this kind of gratitude practice and strengthen their aptitude for gratitude and make gratitude a more prominent part of their daily vernacular, is that again, their reward pathways start to do a better job of signaling the pleasure in serving the welfare of others. So before gratitude, your dopamine pathways might spurt to a certain, let’s say, level four, when you contribute to a neighbor’s child’s readathon fundraiser, you’ve done something that has made a difference for someone else, and it makes you feel good that you’ve been able to do this meaningful benefit for another person.

Emiliana Simon-Thomas:

Practice gratitude, practice gratitude, practice gratitude; that same action, that same behavior will be met with a greater activation of reward pathways in response to your own behaviors that have served others, so you’re basically increasing your sensitivity or the pleasure that you derive from being generous, from acting in charitable ways out in the world. So absolutely there are many, many studies that point to the neuro biological and physiological gains that occur with practicing these pro-social behaviors.

Sue Peschin:

That’s really interesting. It’s like building almost a reserve, or I guess it’s a type of resilience, really. That’s actually a good segue, because with COVID-19 that’s been particularly devastating for older adults, so let’s say you don’t have that built muscle already and you’re starting from a lack of that reserve, how can gratitude help people during this serious time?

Emiliana Simon-Thomas:

When people start practice gratitude, three main things happen. First, just dwelling on or reflecting on the goodness that has come to you in life, there are two ways that we define gratitude; one it’s reverence for what is good, two is recognizing that somebody else has done something in a particular moment that has led to a good outcome for you. So you’re really just, again, reflecting on goodness, you’re bringing to mind the things that are going well in your life, or the opportunities that are available to you, or the resources that you have access to that are really easy to begin to take for granted over time.

Emiliana Simon-Thomas:

With gratitude practice, we begin to be more aware of the goodness that we are lucky enough to enjoy, to adopt a more optimistic perspective on our day-to-day experiences. The second thing that happens when people start practicing gratitude is we start to untie goodness from our sense of self-worth. Because gratitude is about goodness that has come to us, not because of our own effort or something that we deserve or something that we’ve earned, it’s gratitude for what has come to us without our necessarily being involved.

Emiliana Simon-Thomas:

Again, we’re kind of disentangling that transactional vulnerability or tendency, and we tend to think that, “Well, we have to work for every goodness that we get, and we have to put effort into any good outcome that we expect to enjoy in the world” and in turn to berate ourselves in self-critical ways when things are not good. We let that chip into our sense of self-worth, and gratitude unwinds that in a way where we don’t spend so much time dwelling in the space of self-focus or ruminating on our own inadequacies or failures or sources of anxiety. We spend less time on that self-focused, ruminative thinking, and instead are noticing what’s around us, we’re noticing the environment that we’re in, we’re noticing what’s happening in our bodies in any given moment.

Emiliana Simon-Thomas:

Just a quick example to ground that, you might be grateful for the fact that you can go into a room and turn a little metal knob and have hot water go onto your hands. That’s actually pretty remarkable and pleasurable and delightful and of service to our health and well-being, but very easy to just take for granted and become entitled about. When we shift that orientation to being able to enjoy and take pleasure in that mundane and ordinary experience, it gives us that sense of just enjoyment that we lose if instead, we’re worrying about a series of news stories that we might have let ourselves read over and over again while we’re washing our hands in warm water that comes out of the sink for us.

Emiliana Simon-Thomas:

The last thing that happens with gratitude is that again, we connect that goodness, that optimism, that feeling of abundance with other people, we begin to feel like other people are fundamentally serving our welfare. There are things that I enjoy, even back to the warm water out of the sink example; someone built this, someone works in the water company, someone installed my water heater. These were all people, humans, that worked hard to create this scenario where I get to enjoy this moment of pleasure, so there’s this common humanity that occurs. All of those are of benefit during these times when people are confronted with massive and enduring uncertainty, with lack of contact with our normal levels of social interaction and engagement with community. Gratitude can be an incredibly powerful advantage.

Sue Peschin:

We are releasing this episode the day before Thanksgiving. What are some simple things people can do this holiday season to practice gratitude?

Emiliana Simon-Thomas:

I think one of the most powerful insights when it comes to practicing gratitude is to get a little better at extending or expressing it to other people. Research on people’s general attitudes about gratitude suggests that most think that it’s a great virtue that they aspire to, most consider themselves pretty high in gratitude, and most will report that at a societal level, gratitude is diminishing or declining. This isn’t possible mathematically. If we’re all grateful, we can’t be all declining in aggregate, but what it does suggest is that we’re not feeling it as much as we could be in an interpersonal context. There are a lot of reasons why this could be the case; people are pressed for time, people get out of the habit, so again, what I invite people to try is to work in a few expressions of gratitude. It can be voice, it can be written, it can be done through some other creative approach, but when you do this, when you express gratitude to another person, try to include three main pieces of information.

Emiliana Simon-Thomas:

And I call this practice gratitude one, two, three. The first piece of information is what the person did. So describe, just say what it is that they did that led to a positive outcome for you, acknowledge the effort that they put in, so really recognize that they went out of their way or that they invested their own energy and time into doing this for you. And then three, explain how it helped you. Just tell the other person, “This really benefited me in this specific way”. It turns out that including that information, being specific like that, supercharges the experience of gratitude, both for the person who’s expressing it and the person who’s receiving it. That sense of warmth, of bondedness, of trust and interdependence and mutual support is enhanced by sharing gratitude in this more specific and descriptive way. So, that’s my advice for a simple technique for strengthening your gratitude.

Sue Peschin:

That’s great. That’s great advice. And I think especially when people aren’t able to have the normal connection over the holiday, it sounds like that is a great benefit of gratitude, is that sense of connection, so I think that’s terrific advice. I have a question for you, we’re going to shift gears just a little; when you were a kid, what did you imagine growing older would be like?

Emiliana Simon-Thomas:

Such a neat question. I have a family where I got to interact with grandparents and great-grandparents, and my great-grandparents and grandparents were really warm and wise and affectionate, and so I felt like growing older in some ways was a treat. They seemed to know so much about how the world was, and also to hold an ease and a generosity that I knew was special as a kid, I knew. In a funny way, kids are like that too, they’re not as caught up in their identities and status and the various things that we worry about in our adult lives, but yeah, I think as a kid I thought it would be nice. I saw older couples walking together and I thought, “What a nice place to imagine, having spent that many years with another person and learn to know them in those deep and longitudinal ways,” so I liked the idea of being an older adult as a young kid.

Sue Peschin:

What do you enjoy most about growing older now?

Emiliana Simon-Thomas:

Great question. When I think about… I mean, I enjoy the chance to learn and to… And what I mean by that and why I’m laughing, is that often it’s through taking the issues that might’ve felt really serious a little more lightly, being able to introduce levity into moments where at an earlier point in my life I might’ve felt much more distraught. I feel like as I’ve gotten older, I’ve had a much easier time reconciling conflict. I’m much less inclined to hold the grudge against a colleague or a family member for a relatively unimportant exchange that felt hurtful, and to really, really appreciate the extent to which anger and hostility are as harmful and unpleasant to me as I imagine them to be to anyone else, and in knowing this to just make a different choice about my interpersonal relationships, so that I can enjoy the benefits of sharing knowledge, of cooperating, of being supportive and feeling like I have others who I can call upon for support from a range of moments and segments of my life. I think getting older is precious.

Sue Peschin:

Emiliana, thank you so much for being on our show today. It’s really been wonderful talking with you.

Emiliana Simon-Thomas:

Thank you for inviting me. I hope that the information and the perspective and the insights and the practical ideas that I shared are useful to all of your listeners.

Sue Peschin:

Absolutely, and just let us know where people can go for more information if they want to check out your center.

Emiliana Simon-Thomas:

Of course. Anyone is welcome to visit greatergood.berkeley.edu, that is where we post articles on a daily basis that tell the story of a particular scientific insight or finding or principle. We have several other websites that people can find links to on the main Greater Good site, but I’ll call one out just because it is so useful to people; it’s called Greater Good in Action, and the URL is ggia.berkeley.edu. This website is a library of different exercises and activities and practices that anyone can engage in, so it has instructions and the original scientific references for a number of different activities that people can try that have all been shown to improve your health and well-being and interpersonal connections, so please avail yourselves of those resources and again, thank you.

Sue Peschin:

Excellent. All right, thank you. Thank you so much for listening to This is Growing Old, we encourage you to follow the Alliance on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, visit agingresearch.org to learn about age related conditions, diseases, and issues that impact the health of older Americans. If you’re enjoying our show, please subscribe now and rate us on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, or anywhere else you listen to podcasts, and happy Thanksgiving, everybody.