The Gift That Keeps On Giving

Christmas is a time of giving, it’s also a time of goodwill and cheer. We’re always looking for the perfect gift to give someone, something meaningful and purposeful, something that will cheer them up. But what if I told you that writing a letter of genuine gratitude to someone is one of the greatest gifts you can give, stimulating the release of dopamine and serotonin, helping them feel ‘really good’ about themselves.

‘If you are the type of person prone to writing GENUINE letters of gratitude, then you have within you a very potent form of shifting someone else’s neurology.’

Dr. Andrew Huberman

We can bring about these powerful shifts of energy by simply writing a letter of gratitude to the person. But this isn’t any old letter writing; this is writing with an open heart of gratitude and giving thanks for genuine reasons. In a recent podcast, neuroscientist, Dr. Andrew Huberman explained, that the gratitude expressed must be authentic, as this is the key that helps trigger the positive responses; this happens when we can relate to what we’re being thanked for.

We’ve been programmed to naturally default to the more negative pathways. But we can quickly shift these pathways to happier ones through the practice of gratitude.’

Dr. Huberman explained that we have what’s known as ‘parallel pathways’ in the brain. These pathways are formed of Pro-social vs defensive pathways. According to Freud, at the neurochemical level, feelings of gratitude are known to stimulate the prefrontal cortex, this part of the brain is like a control centre as it helps guide our actions; this area is also involved during emotion regulation. There are neurotransmitters in the medial prefrontal cortex that act like brain switches, and they help us shift pathways. A good analogy would be when a train driver uses a railroad switch to change railway tracks to enable the trains to shift to a new route. Our brain switches can guide our attitude from negative to positive, supporting our move from a defensive attitude to pro-social with greater ease.

‘The positive shifts are more potent when receiving gratitude from others.’

The most powerful form of gratitude is when we receive thanks for something we can relate to. Research shows that greater prefrontal activation happens when we listen to a letter read out by a colleague or a friend, where they express gratitude for some help they received from us when they were going through a particularly rough time. The findings show that receiving gratitude is much more potent in terms of the positive shifts it can create than giving gratitude.

‘The same effect can be achieved when we can relate to what’s being expressed for someone else. ‘

Storytelling is a very powerful activation tool; it allows us to learn from another person’s experience. When a story catches our attention and engages us, we are more likely to absorb the meaning and message within it.

Research carried out at the University of Southern California demonstrated that when clients watched narratives where other people discussed their powerful life stories where they benefited from the goodwill of others, the individuals’ heart rates were coordinated. These people talked about the positive outcomes regarding traumatic and sometimes life-threatening events that required the support of others to help them survive the ordeal.

‘When we are the beneficiaries of good human conduct, we can experience feelings of gratitude.’

While the research participants spoke of the terrible things that happened to them, they also talked about the goodwill they received and their immense gratitude towards the people who helped them. These people told of their experiences as a ‘story’, and the human brain is orientated in stories as ‘story’ is one of the ways that we organise within the brain. Not simply that these people survived the harrowing events, but the description of the help they received is embedded in the story, and the pro-social neurocircuits become robustly active when the listener feels a resonance with the person.

‘The stories were able to shift the neuro-circuitry of the listeners, and as a result, they are receiving a sense of gratitude through another person’s narrative.’

When we powerfully resonate with another person’s experience of receiving help, we express gratitude. This stimulates the release of dopamine and serotonin, the two crucial neurotransmitters responsible for our emotions. They make us feel ‘really good’, immediately enhancing our mood and making us feel happy from the inside out.

We get to choose how we feel in life.

To help shift our own pathways, Dr. Huberman suggests that we:

  • Find a story that we can relate to (it may be that we watch a video)
  • Bring the story alive as we think into the narrative
  • Consider what the struggle or the issue was
  • Consider what help or support was given
  • Consider the benefits and gratitude expressed by the recipient
  • Consider how the gratitude for the help offered impacts you emotionally?

I shared this research with a group of friends, and we decided to write gratitude letters to each other. The results were terrific, as we felt greatly uplifted, recognised, valued and respected. One member of the group found it so beneficial that she has encouraged her sisters to write to each other and, in so doing, forged a deeper bond of love and support between her siblings.

‘When we learn how to become resilient, we learn how to embrace the beautifully broad spectrum of the human experience.’

Jaeda Dewalt

Positive experiences such as these are what build our resilience. And the more resilient we are, the easier it is to overcome life’s challenges. As a society, we’re quick to express our anger and judgement of others. Maybe we need to get into the habit of expressing our appreciation instead, and writing letters of gratitude is a beautiful way to do this.

So, if you want to spread some genuine cheer, why not write gratitude letters to those you love and those you hold dear.

2 thoughts on “The Gift That Keeps On Giving

  1. This is such an encouraging post, thank you Marian. I love receiving hand written cards from my niece and nephew – this in turn has prompted me to write’ my letter of thanks 🙏🏻

    1. I’m sure every time you read those cards, Sonia, you experience the feel-good feeling all over again. That’s why I refer to it as ‘the gift that keeps on giving’.

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