Last year I wrote an article called ‘How To Teach Your Kids About The Brain’ that I hoped a few of my friends might see… to date, it’s actually been read over 100,000 times.
I continue to get emails about it from people all over the world, commenting on my ideas and sharing theirs. Many adults tell me that they didn’t realise their brains worked in the ways I described - and that having this new understanding has really helped them. One of the ideas that has resonated with people is that naming emotions and brain functions can help us understand the brain better. Let’s focus on what I called “Frightened Fred” (which you might call Frieda, Froggy, or any other creative name you can think of).
Frightened Fred’s got the volume control:
The part of our brain designed to keep us safe is Frightened Fred (along with his friends Big Boss Bootsy and Alerting Allie) who can trigger our ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ response. This part of the brain has been brilliantly effective in the survival of humankind, but it can also get in the way of our daily living sometimes. We have become GREAT at listening to Frightened Fred and spotting the potential pitfalls at every turn: “Did that person in the supermarket just give me a dodgy look?” “Is that chap standing a bit too close to my kids?”
We are primed to take care of our own survival and that of our off-spring. Some days, Fred turns up the volume and we focus all our attention on these risks, potential dangers, failures and worst-case scenarios.
Sometimes I listen to Fred. Sometimes I don't.
Recently, I was invited to speak at a big conference next year. I came off the phone feeling dizzy with excitement. I sat down with a huge grin on my face and allowed the feelings of self- congratulatory praise to come flooding in. Except they didn’t. Fred started making an appearance. “What if I make a terrible mistake?” “What if I face-plant on stage?” “What if I quote someone’s research and that person is actually there, and they tell me I’ve got it all wrong?”
“What if…?” “What if…?”
Let me slow this down. Fred sees the potential threat of a big crowd looking at me. Fred decides to warn me: “Don’t do it, it will end in tears!”
Sometimes I listen to Fred (remember he IS trying to keep me safe) and sometimes he is silenced by Problem Solving Pete and Calming Carl. They say things like: “But what’s the best that could happen?” and “If the worst case scenario does happen, you’ll still be okay - except perhaps for face-planting, you may need medical assistance for that one.”
How do we learn to turn down the hum of unhelpful negativity from Frightened Fred?
Here’s one way: Gratitude
In Woods, Froh and Geraghty's review of the gratitude research they explain gratitude as “noticing and appreciating the positive in the world”. This could include: the appreciation of other people’s help; feelings of awe when we see something amazing; focusing on the positive in the ‘here and now’ moments; or an appreciation rising from the understanding that life is short.
Let me introduce you to Grateful Gerty, our brain’s gratitude representative. The research tells us that building up Grateful Gerty’s strength is associated with a whole host of benefits. Gerty can make Frightened Fred simmer down and reduce anxiety. Expressing gratitude provides a path to more positive emotions. People who express more gratitude have also been found to have better physical and psychological health.
Robert Emmons is one of the world leading gratitude researchers. Here’s what he says about the benefits:
“We’ve studied more than one thousand people, from ages eight to 80, and found that people who practice gratitude consistently report a host of benefits:
• Stronger immune systems
• Less bothered by aches and pains
• Lower blood pressure
• Exercise more and take better care of their health
• Sleep longer and feel more refreshed upon waking
• Higher levels of positive emotions
• More alert, alive, and awake
• More joy and pleasure
• More optimism and happiness
• More helpful, generous, and compassionate
• More forgiving
• Feel less lonely and isolated
• More outgoing”
So how does it work?
When we search for things to be grateful for, neuroscientist Alex Korb explains that this activates the part of our brain that releases dopamine (the feel-good hormone) and it can also boost serotonin production (low levels of this neurotransmitter are associated with depression). Or, to put it another way: on Halloween, Gerty’s the one handing out the treats.
Gratitude can change our thinking habits. Regularly spotting the good things in our life can also make it more likely that (even when we're not looking for them) we see more positives.
And gratitude works on a social level too. It can help us feel more connected to others, which in turn can improve our well-being.
So how do you strengthen Gerty?
Grab a journal and, before you go to sleep each night, write 3 things that went well that day and why you think they went well. Keep doing it for a week. That’s it.
When I first read the research on gratitude, I felt like there must have been some pages missing. “So, they wrote about things they were grateful for, and then they…”? But no. It really is as simple as that.
As Froh and Bono point out, we can be great at analysing why we’re anxious or sad. But when we’re happy, we don’t often stop to ponder why. Mainly because when we are experiencing positive emotions, it's a signal that all is well in the world; we can relax and enjoy ourselves.
Keeping a gratitude journal allows us to focus on the positive things. It teaches us how to strengthen Gerty’s ability to spot them in the first place - and how to savour them. Some people worry that they won’t be able to find anything to be grateful for. While it’s true that some days the searching may be harder than on others, Korb reminds us that “it’s not finding gratitude that matters most; it’s remembering to look in the first place.”
There will always be more important things than gratitude.
Pets will need taking to the vets, reports will need to be finished, kids will need feeding, cups will need cleaning… gratitude can quickly fall down the ‘to do’ list. But that’s the challenge with taking a proactive approach to well-being. It’s hard to prioritise because you can’t easily see the things you’re preventing.
You may be preventing the onset of depression or anxiety. You may be moving yourself further up the well-being spectrum towards thriving. But scientifically, it would be very hard to prove that.
Be a scientist of your own world.
Just like we know why it’s good to eat healthily and exercise, my mission is to help share the research on ways that we can all take better care of our well-being. I want people to have access to evidence-based ways to improve their mental health.
Some of these ideas might work for you, some of them might not. So, what I’d encourage you to do is this: become a scientist of you own life, and if you decide to try keeping a gratitude journal, observe how it feels for you.
And maybe, just maybe, Gerty will give out some treats.
Recently, while browsing through the stationery section of a big department store, I was struck by the number of notebooks and journals with messages written on the front. The research on priming demonstrates what happens when we're faced with the same message regularly: our thoughts, feelings and behaviour can all be influenced. There’s plenty of evidence for how athletes use this idea of priming to their advantage.
Some of the inscriptions on the journals said ‘Be Happy Always’ or ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’. They were beautiful, pastel-coloured journals, embellished with gold pineapples. But something about them made me feel a little uncomfortable. I wondered about the effect of these messages.
I’m a big advocate for positive psychology and ways to enhance well-being. My training in clinical psychology has also allowed me to study the importance of the (so called) ‘negative emotions’.
We can’t be happy all the time. This just isn’t a realistic goal and, while I imagine that the makers of these beautiful journals understand this, they also know we're seduced by the idea that a permanent state of happiness is attainable.
We've been gifted with such an amazing spectrum of emotions, and they all have an important place in our lives. Imagine if we didn’t allow ourselves to feel all those emotions. If we weren't sad when someone shared devastating news, or weren't worried when our teenagers didn't come home after a party.
When we try to aim for 'happy all the time' I think we can also open ourselves up to self-criticism - and close the door to self-compassion. I loved the editorial in the latest Flow magazine (Issue 15), where Irene and Astrid talked about aiming for ‘good enough’ and not trying to be superhuman and brilliant at everything.
Barbara Fredrickson’s groundbreaking research on positive emotions revealed the importance of negative emotion in our lives. She has found enough data to support the idea that there's an optimal ratio of positive to negative emotions. Achieving this ratio makes it more likely that we can build positive relationships with others and strengthen our resilience and well-being.
The magic number is 3. If, on average, we can achieve 3 positive emotional experiences to every negative 1, her theory suggests we are building our well-being. Notice that she doesn't suggest a ratio of 3:0. So, perhaps the Be Happy Always journal could have a little sub-heading "Except on the 1 out of 4 occasions that you aim not be happy"?
After some searching in that shop, I came across a journal with ‘I’m doing my best’ on the front cover. To me, this seems like one of the most important messages to use to prime my brain. There is comfort and compassion in this phrase, since it allows for the good days and the not-so-good ones. It motivates me when needed, but also quietly sits alongside me on the days when "my best" might not feel very productive.
I handed the journal to the cashier. ‘Cute’ she said, scanning the item. I smiled, ‘Cute... and realistic’ I said.
If you want to discover your positivity ratio you can take Fredrickson's evidence based assessment here. If it's not as high as you'd like, be gentle with yourself (perhaps even try saying 'I'm doing my best'), stick with me and find out what the research says about how journals can improve our positivity in my next blog post.