The lost art of joy – Thanks

“Gratitude is one of those rare things you get more of by giving it away” ~ John Kralik

What’s the first thing you do when you get a Christmas present? Do you try and guess what’s inside by tapping it, feeling it, weighing it in your hands or shaking it? Or do you excitedly rip it open without stopping to think?

Usually at some point, either before or after the ceremonial mutilation of wrapping paper, there would be a ‘thank you’ to the person who gave it to you. Saying thank you is second nature to most of us. It’s a social norm, a sign of good manners.

We may say thank you fairly often, but are we practicing gratitude?

As I was randomly trawling the internet one day, I read this: “Have I always been thankful for everything in my life? Of course. But I never practiced gratitude until then.” I hadn’t thought about it quite like that before. The article was about John Kralik, whose story has inspired many in the business world. He was a lawyer in LA who was struggling. It wasn’t that Kralik was impolite and never said thank you, but he decided to make a deliberate effort to practice gratitude, so he made a resolution to send one handwritten thank you card to a different person every day for a year. As all good stories go, this simple act helped to turn around his business and his relationships.

Kralik’s story demonstrates that expressing our thanks is one part of the greater whole of gratitude.

Gratitude is a broad behavioural skill which has a number of different aspects, including:
(1) understanding individual differences in the experience of gratitude
(2) appreciation of others
(3) a focus on what you have
(4) feelings of awe when encountering beauty
(5) behaviours to express gratitude
(6) appreciation rising from understanding that life is short
(7) a focus on the positive in the present moment, and
(8) positive social comparisons

The research suggests that people who are naturally grateful tend to be less angry and hostile, less depressed, less emotionally vulnerable, and experienced positive emotions more frequently. Gratitude also correlates with traits like positive social functioning, emotional warmth, gregariousness, activity seeking, trust, altruism, and tender-mindedness. Grateful people also had higher openness to their feeling, ideas, and values, and greater competence, dutifulness, and achievement striving.

Like mindfulness, these effects may be simply an association of gratitude with other personality traits. In other words, people who are naturally optimistic or conscientious are also more likely to be thankful, rather than the thankfulness causing someone to be more optimistic or conscientious. There are a few studies that show that gratitude interventions improve self-worth, body image, and anxiety, although the evidence is that while gratitude was better than doing nothing, it was equal to, not superior to, currently accepted psychological interventions.

What gratitude does do is open you up to joy by intentionally drawing your focus on to the enriching elements in your life. And, if you express your gratitude to others through things like Thank You cards, then other people will reciprocate! Gratitude is joy gone viral.
It’s easy to start practicing gratitude. You can do what Kralik did and write a thank you note. Of you can do a gratitude journal, which is the best studied gratitude intervention. A gratitude journal simply involves writing something down every day that you’re thankful for. It doesn’t have to be long. A single sentence or phrase is good enough.

It doesn’t even have to be written, if that’s not your thing. I had a friend who was determined to do a gratitude journal, but she also had a love of and a knack for photography. So, she decided to take a photo a day of something that she was grateful for, and then post it on Facebook. She had her moments when she doubted herself, when she struggled to find a subject of her gratitude, or struggled to find something unique (especially after day 300), but the end result was amazing. She grew in her gratitude and her photographic skill, and I often found myself blessed by her beautiful images and insights.

So, grow in gratitude and express it in your own unique way, maybe even spreading the joy of gratitude to those around you.

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Dr Caroline Leaf and the Mental Monopoly Myth

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What’s more important to a person’s health and well being?

Is it their physical attributes – their genes, their fitness, their diet? Is it their psychological state – their mind, their emotional balance? Is it their social context – how they relate and contribute to the communities that they’re a part of? Or is it their spirituality – the depth of their connections to faith and the supernatural?

According to Dr Caroline Leaf, communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist, it’s the mind that dominates. This is a common theme of her books [1: especially chapter 1] and her social media memes.

Take today’s gem: “Mind action is the predominant element in well being and mental health.”

In other words, it doesn’t really matter what your genes are, where you were born or the depth of your acceptance in your community. It doesn’t matter whether you have a deep faith either. The psychological dominates the physical, the social and the spiritual. As she said in her books,

“Thoughts influence every decision, word, action and physical reaction we make.” [2: p13]
“Our mind is designed to control the body, of which the brain is a part, not the other way around. Matter does not control us; we control matter through our thinking and choosing.” [1: p33]
“Research shows that 75 to 98 percent of mental, physical, and behavioural illness comes from ones thought life.” [1: p33]

Dr Leaf’s philosophy of our wellbeing can be pictured like a pyramid, with our ‘mind action’ (read, ‘choices’) dominating every other facet of our lives.

Leaf Mental Monopoly Model

The problem with this philosophy is that it doesn’t fit with science, scripture, or even common sense.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to recognise that Dr Leaf’s assertion doesn’t fit with every day experience. Where you were born and raised, and where you live, significantly impact a persons overall wellbeing, independent of their thoughts and choices.

Does Dr Leaf honestly believe that the wellbeing of a ten year old boy living in rural Sedan, with no access to running water and sewerage systems, living on a subsistence diet and drinking contaminated water from the only well in his village, has the same wellbeing as a ten year old in rural Ohio, who has access to clean water, plentiful food, and an education?

Does Dr Leaf think that the wellbeing of a pregnant woman in Afghanistan, with poor nutrition and limited access to meaningful antenatal care or a trained midwife to deliver her baby, is the same as the wellbeing of a pregnant woman in London, who has access to fresh food, vitamin supplements, GP’s, midwives, and specialist obstetricians in big city hospitals?

These are just two simple examples which demonstrate that the action of your mind has very little to do with your overall wellbeing.

But if you want to be more scientific about it, then look no further than the biopsychosocial model. Modern health professionals moved beyond the idea that only one facet of human existence was responsible for all of your wellbeing way back in the 1980’s. The biopsychosocial model proposes that the overall health of a person was equally dependent not just on the physical, but was part of a broader system of the medical, mental and the social [3]. The model recognised that a person’s overall wellbeing was made worse by social disadvantage as well as physical illness or poor coping skills, and so often, the physical, social and psychological would affect each other in loops – physical illness would often reduce a persons ability to mentally cope, which strained their social connections, making them lonely and reduced the care given to them, which then made them sicker.

Most Christian would recognise that one element is still missing, which is the spiritual. Our faith is a realm beyond rational thinking, and isn’t fairly grouped with the mental, although they are both housed in our brain. Still, faith influences our social interactions, our psychology, and our physical health, as much as each mutually influences our faith.

Putting it altogether, we don’t have a pyramid, but a collection of ponds. Our mind action does not dominate our health and our wellbeing, but is simply one part of a much larger whole, with our health and wellbeing at the centre.

Biopsychosocial spiritual coloured

It’s interesting that a woman with as much influence amongst the western Christian church as Dr Leaf would suggest that the mind is more influential to our wellbeing than our faith. This makes her teaching seem more humanist than holy, more secular than spiritual. It may invite questions about the deepest influences of her ministry – is it humanistic philosophy with a garnish of scripture, or does the Bible really promote thinking over faith? Ultimately, it’s up to each individual to examine the evidence for themselves and make up their own mind.

Irrespective of Dr Leaf’s philosophical foundations, I’d suggest that her hypothesis of the mental monopoly falls down at the level of common sense and good science. Medical science moved beyond the idea of the single dominant facet of humanity more than three decades ago.

It’s time for Dr Leaf to do the same.

References

[1]        Leaf CM. Switch On Your Brain : The Key to Peak Happiness, Thinking, and Health. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2013.
[2]        Leaf C. Who Switched Off My Brain? Controlling toxic thoughts and emotions. 2nd ed. Southlake, TX, USA: Inprov, Ltd, 2009.
[3]        Borrell-Carrio F, Suchman AL, Epstein RM. The biopsychosocial model 25 years later: principles, practice, and scientific inquiry. Ann Fam Med 2004 Nov-Dec;2(6):576-82.