It’s only words, and words are all I have To take your heart away (Words by the Bee Gees) So go the words of that old but still famous song by the Bee Gees. Two species of the great apes–the bonobos and the chimpanzees are our closest relatives. We share 98% of our genes with [...]


The power of “Thank You”


It’s only words, and words are all I have

To take your heart away

(Words by the Bee Gees)

So go the words of that old but still famous song by the Bee Gees.

Two species of the great apes–the bonobos and the chimpanzees are our closest relatives. We share 98% of our genes with them. Yet for all this genetic similarity, words or the power of language separates us from our nearest animal relatives. Somewhere during evolution, we achieved the power of speech. Scientists are not sure when. Estimates range from 50,000 years ago to 2 million years, the origin of hominids. Why this uncertainty? Speech (before speech recorders existed) does not leave a trace unlike the written word.

With the gift of speech humans could communicate with other human beings. It brought many good as well as bad things. Speech can inspire men to acts of courage as well as death and destruction. As a psychiatrist I am only too aware of the power of words. One entire area of our therapy depends only on words.We call it psychotherapy or in common parlance “talk therapy.” A powerful psychotherapy called cognitive behavioural therapy can rescue people on the verge of suicide. But today I will not be talking about psychotherapy but the use of two simple words in day to day life and how it can increase your happiness.

The two words said sincerely can increase human happiness almost instantaneously and those simple words are ‘thank you.’ This is not my opinion but backed up by research. The words thank you and the attitude of gratitude are powerful means of fostering happiness, in the giver as well as the receiver. Studies show that practising gratitude increases positive emotions, reduces risk of depression, enhances relationships and increases resilience to stressful events.

Gratitude does not come naturally to humans. The evolutionary default of our brain is to be alert to danger. We pay more attention to the disappointments, the pain, the fears and the negative aspects of our lives more than positive ones. This was important for our survival when early humans lived in the savannas of Africa with its many dangerous predators. We don’t live in the jungle anymore and need not be alert to danger the whole time. But our brains have yet not evolved to the modern world and to overcome the negative bias of our brains we need a conscious effort. We know this from experience. We obsess over a little slip in our social lives, we fume in anger over an unkind word from a colleague, we ruminate for ages over the break-up of a relationship. The pain of perceived or real misfortune persists for years whereas our moments of happiness vanish in a flash.

As Rick Hanson, bestselling author and psychologist says, “The mind is like Velcro for negative experiences, and Teflon for positive ones.” Are there scientifically validated methods for enhancing and holding on to our positive emotions like gratitude? For many years we thought that our brains do not grow after the age of two years. Now we know that it keeps on changing its structure or the neuronal connections during our entire life. This ability of the brain is called neuroplasticity. We can take advantage of this plasticity to change our emotions too.

Martin Seligman is one of the world’s well known psychologists. Thirty years ago, he started the positive psychology movement. Among the many positive characteristics, he identified as essential to positive mental health, gratitude is one of the most important. As a part of a study to find different ways of improving a person’s mood Seligman gave a series of six tasks to more than 400 people. One of the tasks involved gratitude. The subjects were asked to recall a person who was particularly kind to them but whom they could not properly thank. They were then instructed to write and hand-deliver a thank you note to this person. Out of the six the gratitude task had the greatest positive impact on the participant’s happiness and the effects persisted even six months later.

Robert Emmons is the world’s leading expert on gratitude. He is Professor of Psychology at UC Davis and has made the scientific study of gratitude his life work. His thoughts on the subject are in his book Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier. Here are some of his major findings with quotes from his book.

Gratitude has many benefits. “Our groundbreaking research has shown that grateful people experience higher levels of positive emotions such as joy, enthusiasm, love, happiness, and optimism, and that the practice of gratitude as a discipline protects a person from the destructive impulses of envy, resentment, greed, and bitterness.”

Gratitude can help with sleep issues: “Compared to those who were not jotting down their blessings nightly, participants in the gratitude condition reported getting more hours of sleep each night, spending less time awake before falling asleep, and feeling more refreshed upon awakening.” Here Dr Emmons is referring to a daily gratitude journal. Better sleep translates into a host of other health benefits.

Gratitude increases happiness by 25%. In a study by Emmons, three groups of persons were asked to write down, in a journal once a week in single sentences, five things they were grateful for, five things they were displeased about and five neutral things, respectively. After 10 weeks participants in the ‘gratitude condition’ were 25 percent happier than the other two groups.

Gratitude increases your physical health. “So, gratitude is a key to happiness…The benefits of happiness include… more activity, energy, and flow, and better physical health (for example, a bolstered immune system, lowered stress levels, and less pain), and even longer life.”

Gratitude is a choice. “…gratitude is an approach to life that can be freely chosen for oneself. It does not depend upon objective life circumstances such as health, wealth, or beauty.” Gratitude does not come automatically. It is an active choice. And the good thing is, it does not matter whether you are rich or poor, beautiful or plain, wise or average in intellect, you can always find things to be grateful for.

Gratitude takes effort. “…a felt sense of gratitude can require, at times, considerable effort.” We often take good things for granted. We also tend to forget the good things; the nice things people have done for us. Regularly coming up with things to be grateful for takes time and effort.

Is there a practical way by which we can reap the benefits of gratitude? Here is Dr Emmons’ advice backed up by research. “One of the best ways to cultivate gratitude is to establish a daily practice in which you remind yourself of the gifts, grace, benefits, and good things you enjoy. One of the best ways to do this is keeping a daily journal in which you record the blessings you are grateful for.”

That is simple enough. Start keeping a gratitude journal. Every day before you go to sleep write down five things you are thankful for. Don’t give up. Be persistent and soon you will reap the benefits of saying ‘thank you.’

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