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.
And 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: