EVERYTHING WILL BE OKAY: The science of gratitude

Virginia Buckingham
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A member of the Marblehead Current’s Board of Directors, Virginia Buckingham is the former chief executive officer of the Massachusetts Port Authority, chief of staff to two Massachusetts governors, deputy editorial page editor for the Boston Herald and author of “On My Watch: A Memoir.” 

During the height of the pandemic, I occasionally used the hashtag #ScienceWillWin on social media, a creation of the communications team at Pfizer where I worked at the time.

By and large, science has. Vaccines have tamed the beast of COVID for most in terms of serious disease. I’m grateful for the scientists who discovered mRNA technology and applied it to this challenge. I’m grateful my family made it through mostly unscathed. I’m grateful for all the acts of common humanity that were lights leading us through the chaos. Remembering to be grateful throughout the pandemic is one of the practices I wish I turned to more regularly. 

Which brings me to another topic in the same vein: Why does practicing gratitude help in hard times? What is the science behind it? And why is it so hard to be consistently grateful?

I’ve dabbled at being intentionally grateful — I’ll be in a grouchy mood and think of three things I’m grateful for at that moment. While I might be imagining it, it does seem there’s a shift in my brain. I’m definitely less grouchy as a result.

It turns out there’s something of a research cottage industry in figuring out the relationship between brain activity, genetics, personality traits and a grateful disposition. 

In a 2008 study of the brain activity of people experiencing feelings of gratitude, scientists found, “Gratitude causes synchronized activation in multiple brain regions, and lights up parts of the brain’s reward pathways and the hypothalamus. In short, gratitude can boost neurotransmitter serotonin and activate the brain stem to produce dopamine.” 

The variance in certain genes, even among twins, especially those genes related to the release of Oxytocin, the so-called “love hormone,” have also been shown to influence one’s level of gratitude.

The benefits of practicing gratitude listed by researchers could fill the rest of the Current opinion page: a growth in overall satisfaction with your life; memory improvement, at least of positive things; a soothed nervous system; increased patience and resilience, and a feeling of overall relaxation. No wonder gratitude has been nicknamed “the mother of all virtues.”

So if we can easily switch to cooking only with olive oil for our heart health, why don’t we all jump on the gratitude bandwagon for our happiness health? 

Ah, we would but for those notorious “thieves of thankfulness.” Researchers have also determined that genes and brain activity aren’t the only determinants of whether you’re an anti-ingrate or not. Certain personality traits can act as “barriers to gratitude,” specifically envy, materialism, narcissism and cynicism.

In other words, all the things we learned in kindergarten not to do or be.

What to do as grownups to tame these “thieves”? Some of the prescriptions for practicing gratitude strike me as onerous, even for one who’s a writer by nature.

Here’s a partial list:

  1. Write gratitude letters to 50 people in your life. 
  2. Keep a daily gratitude journal. 
  3. Express gratitude through homemade gifts. 

Dear professional gratitude practitioners: You lost me at “homemade.”

Even writing down three things you are grateful for, one of those “simple” approaches to fostering gratitude that is widely encouraged, seems hard to sustain. For instance, does writing on the back of a grocery receipt count?

For now, I’m sticking with my version of the “three things” approach. Let’s call it “think three things.”

I am going to try, daily, even when not grouchy, to think about three things I am grateful for. I’ll also try to be specific, having read that that is a more effective gratitude booster.

Want to try it with me? I’ll go first. Imagine I’m just thinking this, not writing it.

I am grateful my kids didn’t get the flu or COVID during finals.

I am grateful for the bathroom tile designer lady who made the exercise fun, not stressful.

I am grateful Shubie’s brought back in-store dining. 

Let’s do it again tomorrow! #ScienceWillWin.

Virginia Buckingham is a weekly columnist and a member of the board of the directors of the Current.

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