By Carmelene Melanie Siani
“The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and like Teflon for positive ones.” ~ Rick Hanson
There was a time in my life when I made gratitude lists on a regular basis.
To me, however, the whole idea of making gratitude lists felt either too heavy or too boring and I stopped. I was mostly pissed off and annoyed with life and from my perspective; I had either not enough, or not just the right amount or nothing at all to be grateful for and I wasn’t even sure making so-called gratitude lists would make me feel better.
For a lot of my life I had been suffering from what Rick Hanson described as:
“A growing sensitivity to stress, upset, and other negative experiences; a tendency toward pessimism, regret, and resentment; and long shadows cast by old pain.”
I didn’t know what I had to be grateful for that wouldn’t have been a repetition of the same thing day after dull day. I blamed a lot of people, my parents, my spouse, my employers, even politicians and the media for bringing all this dark stuff into my life and I just didn’t understand how or why gratitude lists could make a difference in all of that.
As Maull said in his talk, many different spiritual and psychological traditions have pointed to the value of doing a gratitude list. If we sit down and really list all the things we have to be grateful for we recognize our interdependence with all of life and with other human beings as part of what we depend on for our very existence.
“If we make a gratitude list, by the time we do it, it actually shifts our minds and our state of being.” ~ Maull
I learned that, biologically speaking, human beings are prone to pay most attention to danger and negativity because—well, because in order for the species to have survived this long, “it was critically important to learn from negative experiences” and our brains developed specialized circuits that registered and stored such negative experiences immediately in long term memory.
Being negative was, basically a natural, hard-wired, self-survival technique.
As Maull says, “Any time there is any discomfort or fear or danger, anything negative or threatening, even subtly threatening, our memory faculties light up and it all goes right into long term memory.”
On the other hand, positive experiences—“unless they are very novel or intense”—don’t go into long term memory. They go into short-term memory where we have to consciously hold them for many seconds in a row before they slide—Teflon-style—right down into that sticky, Velcro-y long term memory.
Which is why, if we want to crowd out the dark, ugly stuff that’s stored in the long term memory, we need to focus on and savor the positive moments in our life. We have to do it pro-actively however, not just randomly—and “for many seconds at a time.”
Which brings me back to the benefits of gratitude lists.
- They offer you a way of reliving positive events in your life;
- They make you conscious of the things you have to be grateful for in your immediate world;
- They make you conscious and your interdependence with the greater world and the other human beings in it;
- They allow you to savor your enjoyable experiences twice (the first time when they happened and the second time when you recall that they happened);
- They allow you to crowd out the knee-jerk response to negative, fear-based emotions that are stored in your long term memory bank; and
- They satisfy the criteria of “holding positive moments in our lives pro-actively for many seconds at a time” in order to bring about a change in attitude.
I had spent much of my time seeking the “very novel or intense” type of experience as a means by which to lift my spirits. They didn’t take any effort on my part and they were what I was used to.
On the downside, the occasional gastronomic delight, or even the more sensual erotic delight, didn’t last and I needed more and more such delights to keep what was roiling around in my long-term memory at bay. When those peak experiences were over, I would sink right back down into the murky valley of long-term memory.
In order to change my view of the world, I needed a sea-change.
Finally, probably more out of curiosity and a vague sense of desperation than anything else, I found my way to writing a type of gratitude list that worked for me.; a list that consisted of events, or moments, or things that lit up my days or that, as they say, “sparked joy,” and started simply saying “Thank you” for each and every one of those things.
My “tendency toward pessimism, regret, and resentment shifted and the world around me began to look different. While it wasn’t some kind of fast overnight epiphany, it was the kind of slow “sea-change” in perspective that had a deep, almost intimate quality to it and I began to look forward to writing my lists, even to composing them as my days went on.
Here’s an example from a recent long weekend with my husband.
Thank you for husbands who ask you to join them on their business trips
Thank you for Three Eggs/Three Strips of Bacon Breakfast Specials at roadside diners
Thank you for driving down to the beach to watch the surfers catch a few waves
Thank you for remembering the familiar smell of the ocean from when you were a little girl.
Thank you for reminiscing about “hang ten,” “woody” station wagons,” white strips of zinc oxide on the noses of the boys you went to high school with and “I Wish They All Could Be California Girls”
Thank you for long, languid naps in hotel rooms with the shutters closed and the air conditioner turned up.
Thank you for walking to happy hour at beachy restaurants
Thank you for sandy kids on sandy bikes, all the grandmas and grandpas holding hands, all the young women carrying surfboards, all the men in wet suits, and for sun and wind everywhere.
Eventually, I realized that making a list of saying thank you for what lit me up inside turned out to be my version of making a gratitude list. But in the end, it didn’t matter what I called it.
What mattered was that saying thank you to the things that lit me up inside shifts my mind away from negativity and changes my state of being.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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