The third session of MEC’s Happiness course was titled “The Reptilian Brain, Gratitude, and Love.” I arrived ready to talk about gratitude and love, since they are both obvious topics directly correlated to happiness. But I wondered to myself, what did the reptilian brain have to do with our journey?
What I came to learn is that the part of our brains responsible for fear — the amygdala — is similar to that of our reptile ancestors. But what distinguishes a human brain from a lizard’s is that our fears are strongly tied to our emotions. The challenge then becomes, how do we overcome our fear and find happiness?
Executive coach Helen Mumford Sole teaches that the answer is in our experience of love and gratitude, as these are the only two emotions that can effectively turn off the amygdala, essentially shutting down fear. If we are able to maximize our positive emotions, and find a way to spend more of our time feeling grateful, we will gradually create a shift in perspective that will get us to a higher state of happiness. Like happiness, gratitude is a skill that you can learn and hone over time. It’s nearly impossible to feel anxious and fearful when you are in a state of gratitude, leading you to a more positive outlook on life and the daily challenges you encounter.
We all live incredibly busy lives, some of us more than others, but in the midst of it all we sometimes forget to express our gratitude to those around us. Whether it is a coworker who regularly brightens your day when you’re frustrated, someone who had a direct impact on your life but you never truly thanked, or a person you don’t see often but when you do, they always have a smile on their face — reflecting on and expressing gratitude to these folks is a big step toward achieving happiness. While we may say “thank you” several times during the course of a day, truly expressing gratitude is something very different. It requires more thought and emotion, leading to a “feeling” beyond the simple phrase.
Recognizing that incorporating gratitude into your daily routine requires some practice, we explored small steps that can be taken to effectively tap into this emotion. With happiness at the core, we embarked on a few exercises during class that helped us get in touch with our emotions. We were each challenged to write thank-you letters to those we had failed to properly thank during our career.
One of my letters was written to a former senior manager at my previous company. Although I hadn’t spoken to this individual in years, nor did we have an especially close relationship during our time together, he provided me with a great foundation for my career, and I have never properly thanked him. Thinking back to my early twenties, I began to realize how much I learned from him as a leader and manager. When I first joined the agency side of the media industry, this manager provided me an understanding of the importance of digital media and the foresight of how critical measurement and data would become. His knowledge has stuck with me to this day, and as I approach my daily responsibilities, I think how I can share my knowledge of the business with clients as well as my team members, helping to guide their career paths.
During the course of this exercise, I came to discover that there are some very important (and even some not so important) people in my life that are probably unaware of how much I appreciate them. This newfound feeling of gratitude has given me a sense of optimism, possibility, and confidence, and in turn impacts my daily routine. As an example, last week I found myself feeling overwhelmed and frustrated after an especially challenging conference call. Rather than letting negativity or fear impact the overall sentiment in the room, I took a few moments to thank each member of my team for the contribution to the work that was delivered. Self-assured, we all were able to progress to a positive conversation on the steps we needed to take to deliver on our assignment. By exercising my gratitude muscle, I was able to move forward with ease when faced with a challenging situation, putting aside the fear that often hinders my progress.
So what or who brings you gratitude? I encourage you to start your own gratitude journal by writing down three to five things — this could be people, experiences, food, really anything — that you are grateful for each day. Before I go to bed each night, I now take a few minutes to think about my day and jot down both big and small things for which I am grateful.
Here are some small things you can do to make gratitude part of your daily routine:
1. Write a thank-you note that you may never send;
2. Find an opportunity in your daily routine and stop for a moment to appreciate it;
3. Make gratitude it part of your mealtime with family or friends;
4. Apply it to your commute; and
5. Incorporate it into work status meetings.
There are so many ways to incorporate gratitude into your daily life. Even just taking the time to think about what and whom you are grateful for is progress toward a happier life.
For Part 1, go here. For Part 2, go here.
Karen Kwarta heads the Digital practice at MEC. She has been with the agency for over three years, and was previously a Group Director. Prior to her roles at MEC she was an Account Director at Razorfish. She has her BBA in Marketing from University of Michigan.