Is there a neuroscience to being “thankful”? The answer must be “Yes”; however, that doesn’t mean we fully understand the answer. We do know some perspectives.
The idea of saying “thanks” is much simpler than the idea of being thankful. It seems that in all cultures we understand the concept of offering some form of reciprocity for positive deeds done by others to our benefit. Very likely this has an evolutionary foundation, likely developed when humans discovered the utility of working together in groups. So now, if someone holds a door open for me I say “Thanks!”. When someone offers a compliment, or does something extra on my behalf, I say “Thanks!”. People everywhere do this. From a neuroscience perspective this direct response of “Thanks!” is not difficult to understand as a derivative of group dynamics. Yet, being “thankful” is another level entirely.
Being thankful is not a direct response to a specific action by some other person. It is not a simple manifestation of group dynamics. It is, rather, an abstraction of collective benefit or opportunity that has been received. As an abstraction it is a very different thing, from a neuroscience perspective. To be truly thankful is not to engage in any quid pro quo, any reciprocity for an exchange, or expectation regarding a future exchange. To be truly thankful is to see positivity in the world, its workings, and our place in it.
Neurologically, how do we get from “Thanks!” to thankful? This is where things become quite vague. Because we use similar words for the two phenomena it is likely that deep in our brains we know they are related. Yet, at the level of science, we don’t precisely know how individual life events are processed by neurons to become abstractions. To be sure, we do know some things. We, brain scientists, know aphorisms like “cells that fire together, wire together” – a 1949 perspective from Donald Hebb, now called “Hebb’s rule”, that references how brain cells become connected when they are simultaneously activated. We know that when brain cells fire repeatedly they may be either facilitated toward firing, or inhibited from further firing, depending on the circumstances. So, we have some ideas about how intellectual abstractions are formed. Yet, behaviorally, neuro-scientifically, it is a long way from saying “Thanks!” to being thankful. The details of how we get there remain either unknown or vaguely perceived.
We know also that some people have incredible depth to remain thankful for their lives in spite of major and ongoing adversity. Conversely, we know that some people blessed with extensive life benefits seem unable to rise to the state of being thankful. Thus, we recognize that in life a critical determinant of our feelings about our life comes from something in the inner workings of individual brains. Aristotle knew this when he said, “Happiness depends upon ourselves.” Epictetus put it this way, “It is not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” Much later, Dale Carnegie said, “Happiness doesn’t depend on any external conditions, it is governed by our mental attitude.” So, the abstracting of individual life events to some broad generalization, like being thankful, is a complex and individualized process, overseen by other abstractions like “attitude”. For a very long time sages have known that there is something within us that governs our view of the world.
Life is not easy for the vast majority of people. It is exceedingly difficult for many people. Yet, in a celebration of spirit, many people are thankful for the opportunity of the life they have been given even when that life is difficult. Perhaps it would have been easier for all of us if life had never appeared in the Universe. No one would have had to suffer (as far as we currently understand the concept of life). Yet, neither would we have had the opportunity to experience the incredible collective journey that is life. Through all of our trials and difficulties there remains a wonder and majesty that life has appeared on this planet and we are each given a journey within it. Difficult or easy, somehow many people rise beyond a fundamental “Thanks!” to being thankful. Precisely how we do this may be mysterious; yet, we can be thankful that the very state of being thankful even occurs. It adds to the grandeur of our collective journey. Those who feel it bring us grace. For them I am particularly thankful.