Unlocking the Power of Gratitude

Building an effective gratitude practice via stories.

Gratitude reinforced by narrative is its own superpower. I vividly recall being on the receiving end of a hug that expressed an era of gratitude into a single moment.

My niece Julie was twenty-nine years old when her recent symptoms of migraines and numbness morphed one horrible morning into a progression that began with blurred vision and a limp, but by midday had rapidly progressed:

She had to be wheeled into the ER exam room to be evaluated. The doctor immediately ordered a brain scan (MRI) as Julie had become completely blind in one eye, was unable to walk, and could barely stand.

Her mother and the neurologist walked together into her ER room to discuss the MRI results. She had MS—her MRI of the brain lit up like a Christmas tree with lesions too numerous to count. Looking through the one eye that still had vision, Julie saw tears streaming down her mother’s face. She knew she was in trouble. From that time forward, her life as she knew it was over.

Continuing from Dr. Richard Burt’s book Everyday Miracles, which describes the stem cell treatment that jarred my niece’s MS into remission:

Two years after diagnosis, Julie underwent transplant using a regimen of cyclophosphamide, ATG, and IVIG. After transplant, she got her life back. Ninety-nine percent of her MS symptoms have gone away. She experiences zero numbness, her vision is normal (a perfect 20/20 visual acuity), and she has remained drug-free…

…Her first MS neurologist had told her that she would be wheelchair-bound by the age of thirty-five. During the writing of this book, Julie turned thirty-five. She is living a normal life. She told me, “There is no wheelchair in sight and no MS drugs are on the horizon for me!”

That wasn’t to be the only miracle in my niece’s life. Last month she gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. This was a path made more complicated by her MS and stem cell transplant.

Baby girl napping

Being along for Julie’s journey amid all its uncertainties: her fiancé's steadfast devotion, watching her mom’s worry turn to relief, and now celebrating Julie’s healthy baby—there is no picture that captures it all.  

But the big moments, anchored by that hug, all come back to me whenever I glance at the Everyday Miracles book sitting on my dresser. Occasionally, I pick it up and read the inscription that Julie wrote to us. It might have taken her all of a minute to write it and it takes literally seconds for me to read it.

Simply glancing at the book or rereading her message of thanks provides a powerful reset each day.

Book cover for Everyday Miracles: Curing Multiple Sclerosis, Scleroderma, and Autoimmune Diseases by Hematopoietic Stem Cell Transplant

The Power of Story

Why does that work? What is happening neurologically that provides such power?

The force comes from its intersection of narrative and gratitude.

Illustration of intersecting streets named Gratitude and Narrative

First a confession: I’ve never really had a gratitude practice. Before I begin one, I’d like to understand how it might work.

Neurobiologist Andrew Huberman begins his own walkthrough of how to build an effective gratitude practice by reviewing the effectiveness of the “count your blessings” style approaches:

…Most studies actually point to the fact that that style of gratitude practice [meditating on a list of things you are grateful for] is not particularly effective in shifting your neural circuitry, your neurochemistry or your somatic circuitry [toward] enhanced activation of these prosocial neural networks that we were talking about earlier.

The exception seems to be when it is tied to narrative:

And if you have an experience of receiving gratitude or a story that's very potent for you, it becomes a sort of shortcut into the gratitude network, these prosocial networks, meaning the activation of these circuits becomes almost instantaneous, and that's very different than a lot of other practices out there.

I'm not aware of any meditation practices, for instance, that you can do only a few times and then within a week or so you just have to do them for one minute, you immediately drop into the kind of optimal state that that meditation practice is designed to create.

There are some shorter meditation practices that are very potent and very effective like that, but gratitude and the circuits associated with it appear to be especially plastic, meaning especially prone to being able to be triggered, in the good sense of the word triggered, just by simply reminding yourself of this particular narrative.

Huberman describes what constitutes a truly effective protocol:

First of all, that gratitude practice has to be grounded in a narrative, meaning a story. You don't have to recite or hear that story every single time you do the gratitude practice, but you have to know what that story was and what the gratitude practice references back to.

Second of all, that story can be one of you receiving genuine thanks. And the key elements there are that you are the one receiving the thanks, the gratitude, and that it's being given to you genuinely, wholeheartedly.

Or it can be a story of you observing someone else receiving thanks or expressing thanks, and that has to be a genuine interaction as well, both between the giver and the receiver.

Coming Together

In late September, sixteen of our friends and family joined a group to run (okay, I hiked) across the Grand Canyon from rim to rim to have an adventure while raising money for Alzheimer’s and ALS research.

On our last night, the hosts and organizers of the weekend asked that people share a story about the impact that Alzheimer’s or ALS has had on their lives. While I had initially thought the weekend was about crossing the Grand Canyon in an epic fashion, it turned out to be even more so about how much those impacted by those brutal diseases appreciated our coming together to support those who are trying to make a difference. Their heartfelt testimonials and expressions of gratitude were powerfully moving.

Which brought me back a few decades to when I attended a church basement pancake breakfast in Omaha for a young cancer patient. I really didn’t know anyone, but my cousin waved me over to meet the mom. That mom was so genuinely grateful to meet me and thank me for coming that it immediately cleared up what my four-dollar entry had brought to the table. My cousin, who herself had two children battling cancer, said that it isn’t about the money being raised, it is about knowing that people will show up for you.

I’ve always liked pancakes, but that’s not the part of the day I remember.

It’s the narrative, isn’t it? Not everyone makes it. Not with cancer, nor Alzheimer’s, nor ALS, nor MS. But we can be there for each other. We can support each other’s battles. And we can share the stories.

Join Us:

If you want to learn more about Julie’s treatment for MS, definitely read the book. You can also reach out to her directly and via HSCT Hope. While the stem cell treatment is truly miraculous, its efficacy is dependent on patient selection, namely those with relapsing-remitting MS and ongoing recent active relapses. Dr. Burt is still actively treating patients at Scripps Health.

To support the fight against those devastating neurodegenerative disorders Alzheimer’s and ALS while running across the Grand Canyon, join us next year with Run2Revive as we push our limits while vowing to never take our mind or body for granted. There are still a few slots open. Here is the view that is awaiting you on the North Rim:

Panoramic view from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon

I’d love it if you joined us.

As always, please check out the community section of Always Invert for additional comments and supporting materials about this week’s topic and the other projects we are tackling.

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