I previously wrote a blog about gratitude practices. In this blog I want to talk about the science behind why gratitude makes us happier and how to we can hack negative emotions.
What is Gratitude?
Before getting into the science let’s define Gratitude. I like the definition by Sansone & Sansone:
“Gratitude is the appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful to oneself and represents a general state of thankfulness and/or appreciation.”
The “what” in the definition, makes gratitude an event related emotion. Gratitude is triggered. Without the “what” (or an event) there is nothing to be grateful for. We, as humans need to be aware of the event, process it, and convert it to a feeling. The feeling will take us to a state of thankfulness, which is a positive emotion.
How de we assign feelings to events?
I put my philosopher hat and came up with the following. Note: This helps me understand the process so I can hack it. I just want to share it.
The process of assigning feeling to events can be broken down into three parts. 1) An event occurs, 2) the event is perceived and 3) a feeling is associated to that event. Let’s take an event that has a negative emotional outcome.
An event is just something that happens in a given location and at a given time. Example of events are: Someone said that you look great yesterday in the afternoon, the morning was sunny, I drank a coffee today in the morning, I hiked for 3 hours over the weekend, I got a bonus this year in December, someone passed me and almost hit my car during my morning commute, etc.
You can’t control some of the events, what people think, say or do.
However, you can control how you react to events, what time you wake up, what you eat and how you spend your time.
Perception is the process of becoming aware with your senses of a particular event. For instance, if someone is saying that you are great, but you don’t perceive (hear) it, this event is like it never occured. And then later if someone tells you about it you might say in a clueless voice “Whaaaaat?”.
When we process an event, we use previous memories but we can also overwrite the feeling caused by similar events. In other words, we can perceive events (even if they don’t seem negative) to be a positive one, and create a positive emotion.
We process the event both in a conscious and unconscious way. The unconscious way taps into previous similar experiences (thanks to the amygdala).
The third component is feeling. After the event occurs and you perceive it, a feeling is associated to the event. If it is a strong feeling, we call it an emotion. In the perception process we initially and subconsciously assign a feeling. The feeling take us to an emotional state. The thing is, we can change the outcome (emotional state), by hacking the event, or how we perceive the event.
How can we improve happiness with gratitude?
Here is my practical take on this. One of the ways to be happy is to practice gratitude. Gratitude can come easily with events that are positive and that we can easily find value from them. The difficult part is hacking events that take us to negative emotional states. And this is where I want to suggest some strategies.
- Create more events that can take us to positive emotional states. Try to do what you love everyday. Spend your time on stuff that you are passionate about, dance more, sing more, laugh more, have more sex, etc.
- Self talk by reframing the perception of the events that take you to negative emotional states and, be grateful about the new way you look at the event. The trick is to take over your emotional brain. This is how:
Our rational mind has the ability to rationalize and overwrite our belief systems. This is why we need to create in our minds a better story. Once we doubt or reframe our previous memories that shape our belief system, we can start looking at events in a different way. We can get so good at this that some people can almost get from an insane “negative” event something positive and be thankful for it. Just listen to the inspire story of Mo Gawdat or the JJ Virgin’s story about mindset and miracles both at Lewis Howes Podcast. Also, another good reference about how to get control if your brain is Mel Robbins’ 5 Second rule.
So let’s create positive stories and make this world better by improving our interaction with yourself and others.