Saying Thank You, Tickling the Hypothalamus

As I wrote on Ash Wednesday, this Lent I am practicing tangible gratitude by writing a thank you note a day.  As a person of zero WASP descent, I have zero ability to repress emotion. I am 100% Eastern European, nursed on pessimism, ruminating since before the age of reason, intimate with feelings of doom.

edcd43caa31d148bb4bb09db60bef2b8And nothing is going right in my life right now, but that’s to be expected. Жизнь борьба, каждый день борьба. Life is a struggle, every day a struggle. Charlie Foxtrot. Downward spiral.

But these notes, the duty of these notes, keeps my head above water. There’s some science to that. An NIH study found that gratitude increases activity to the hypothalamus — the area of the brain responsible for homeostasis — keeping your metabolism, hormones and autonomic nervous system in balance.

“Gratitude can have such a powerful impact on your life because it engages your brain in a virtuous cycle. Your brain only has so much power to focus its attention. It cannot easily focus on both positive and negative stimuli,” wrote neuroscientist Alex Korb in Psychology Today.

The thank you notes are keeping me afloat, taking focus off my personal dung heap and placing it on the otherworldly, tender ability of others to be kind. I’ve written notes for cheese and for Chicken Marsala and for resume updating and for the workaday kindness of friendship. I finally wrote the Yo-Yo Ma and bourbon sauce note. I owe thank you notes for tennis (yes, it is possible) and I owe the YMCA a note (also possible).

It is self-serving to mention what the writing does for me. What about the receiving? Who doesn’t need encouragement? Who doesn’t appreciate “the personal, tactile pleasure of holding a handwritten note” as my friend Tracy commented, adding, “The time spent to make it happen is a gift in itself.”


If you’re an atheist who dismisses the Bible, keep in mind the Apostle Paul wrote, Give thanks in all circumstances (I Thess. 5:18) before we knew those thanks stimulated the hypothalamus. Before we knew we had a hypothalamus.

Give thanks in all circumstances. Buddhist poet W.S. Merwin wrote a lovely poem entitled, “Thanks” in which he does just that:

W.S. Merwin

with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
standing by the windows looking out
in our directions
back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you
with the animals dying around us
taking our feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
thank you we are saying and waving
dark though it is
Dark though it is, keeping saying thank you.

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