The Science of Gratitude (or Why It’s So Healthy to Say Thanks)

When I was a kid, my parents taught me what they call “magic words.” This includes saying please, I’m sorry, and most importantly, thank you. Vague memories of preschool also have a similar lesson; I remember my playmates and I practicing that habit as encouraged by our awesome teacher Mrs. Silverstone. When Nick lets you borrow his toy truck, say thank you. When Amy shares her fruit bites, say thank you. When Karl and Jessica make you join in their game involving color blocks, say thank you.

I myself don’t have a kid yet, but I’m pretty sure I’ll definitely teach my son or daughter the same thing. Especially after reading stuff here and there proving that something like it really exists — the science of gratitude.

In a research study involving around 300 adults who sought psychological counselling services at a university, it has been found that feelings of gratitude do not only help well-adjusted individuals, but also those who had mental health concerns. The participants — most of whom reported clinically low levels of mental health, and struggled with depression and anxiety — were divided into three groups. Although all three groups received counselling services, Group 1 was additionally asked to write one letter of gratitude every week. Group 2 was asked to write about their deepest negative thoughts and feelings. Group 3 didn’t do any writing.

Those who wrote gratitude letters reported significantly better mental health four weeks and 12 weeks after the writing exercise ended. The researchers then decided to delve into the more physical science of gratitude  and found out that their gratitude exercise had actual lasting effects on the brain. Using an fMRI scanner to analyze how the participants’ brains were processing information, the researchers asked Group 1 (gratitude letter writers) and Group 3 (people who didn’t write) to do “pay-it-forward” tasks. They were to be given money by a benefactor, and they can decide how much of it they were going to give back to a cause of their choice.

The researchers found out that across participants, the brain activity of people who felt grateful and the brain activity of people who felt mostly guilty and obligated to do the task were very distinct. When grateful people donated more, their medial prefrontal cortex became more sensitive. This is a part of the brain associated with learning and decision-making. Interestingly, this higher sensitivity was also more identified in the group who were gratitude letter writers in the previous experiment.

Other studies involving the science of gratitude also yielded fascinating results. It has been linked to better quality of sleep, as well as decreased blood pressure. And in seeming accordance with the neurological findings of the study I described a while ago, gratitude has been linked to a boost in willpower and impulse control, helping people make better decisions like avoiding overeating, exercising more and attending regular checkups.

So don’t be afraid to need help. What’s important is to remember to feel grateful and to express it to the people who are there for you.

If you want to read more about the science of gratitude, here’s a link to various research projects. If you want to participate in a cause that encourages people to get help and feel grateful, check out the BeepBeep Nation App. It provides a platform for people to request for the help they need (called requestors) and for other people to respond (called helpers).

Once the task is done, requestors may give a gratitude tip to their helpers. However, it’s not mandatory, because as we have seen scientifically, gratitude is so much more real if it’s willingly felt and reciprocated. Of course, requestors themselves may also want to be helpers to somebody else if they want to pay it forward. Visit this article to know more about BeepBeep Nation’s take on motivation and gratitude.

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The Science of Compassion (or Why It’s Really Human to Help Out)

Everyday, a plethora of stories arise on the Internet. A huge part of the content is probably fun, entertaining, and/or informational. Some, however, tell the tragedy of the world we live in. And if you read the news, you know that it’s so real. Other stories tell how people address that tragedy and do their share in alleviating the suffering of their fellow human beings. In our blog, we frequently showcase this kind of content — stories of people with exemplary acts of devotion and compassion or even people who do random little acts of kindness in their everyday lives.

Some people who enjoy helping out tend to do so for religious or spiritual reasons. And whether it’s Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, or others, the religions of the world do have discourses of compassion. Though I myself have always been curious about a different but equally important aspect of this human tendency: is there a science behind this?

I’m glad to report: yep, there is. A study done by experimental social psychologists tested how the experience of compassion affected people’s behavior. First, participants were told that they were supposedly part of an experiment about mathematical ability and taste perception. Ostensibly, these were the instructions: participants were supposed to solve as much as they can of 20 math problems, in which they would receive 50 cents for each problem they solved correctly. After being checked and getting paid, they would proceed to the taste perception phase. Here, participants were asked to prepare taste samples for each other by pouring extra-hot hot sauce.

It seems absurd, but here’s the catch. The experimenters hired confederates to pretend to be fake participants. Let’s call the first one Dan and the second Hannah. In one version of the experiment, Dan was asked to cheat badly and very obviously on the math problems, so that the real participants would see. Afterwards, in the taste perception phase, the experimenters noticed that the real participants poured bigger servings of hot sauce to Dan the Cheater. But doesn’t this show revenge instead of compassion?

Well, in another version, Dan the Cheater was asked to do the same thing but now Hannah was gonna play a role. Before the taste perception phase, Hannah would cry and the experimenters would ask why. She’d say she recently found out about her brother’s terminal illness. Increasingly emotional, Hannah asked to be excused from the experiment. In this version, even though the participants still witnessed Dan cheating, they did not pour bigger amounts of hot sauce in the taste perception phase.

What does this show? First, the compassion that the participants felt predicted how much hot sauce they were going to give to another person. And second, more importantly, the compassion that people feel towards one person can predict how they will act towards others.

This experiment is only one of many studies that are now delving into the idea and reality of compassion. Recently, a conference has even been held to discuss it, joined by representatives from different fields such as evolutionary psychologists, clinical psychologists who deal with children suffering from trauma, charity owners who conduct social and emotional skills workshops for the youth, and others.

Using brain scans, one doctor even explained how different parts of the brain are activated when people are in a “compassionate state” or “non-compassionate state.” So interestingly enough, compassion actually seems to have physiological, neurological effects.

But now here’s the thing. My personal epiphany, if you will. We can participate in all these discussions, conduct our own experiments if we’re in the field, compile all these data, but maybe it’ll be a bit more exciting to see for ourselves. There’s all this science about compassion, we know that. But somehow I think the reality of compassion can’t be proven by numbers. Tall order but maybe here’s what we can do: go out there, help people out, and prove it for ourselves.

If you are interested in reading more scientific information about kindness or compassion, here’s a list of various quantitative and qualitative studies about the topic. Then again, if you are more keen to join the action, check out the BeepBeep Nation app and this fun video on how to get started. You might be surprised at the many ways you’ll see how compassion exists.

 

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Young Bug Lover Helps Write Scientific Thesis

Kids these days are ditching Playstations for programming tools, priding themselves on being the smartest generation yet. However, there are some who prefer going back to basics. Classmates bullied 8-year-old Sophia Spencer for her obsession with bugs. The young bug lover got back at her tormenters, co-writing a paper in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America.

“I really thought loving bugs wasn’t the best hobby,” [said Sophia] “But after I realized bugs are for girls I thought to myself, ‘Well, I think I should start loving bugs again, because just because people say they’re weird and gross doesn’t mean I shouldn’t like them.’”

This kid is more self-aware than I am. Sophia’s passion inspired mom Nicole to contact the Entomological Society of Canada for advice. The group tweeted Spencer’s plea, garnering replies from bug enthusiasts all over the world. Eventually, Ph.D. candidate Morgan Jackson invited Sophia to help compose a scientific thesis promoting women in science.

“It felt good to have so many people support me, and it was cool to see other girls and grown-ups studying bugs,” she wrote. “It made me feel like I could do it too, and I definitely, definitely, definitely want to study bugs when I grow up, probably grasshoppers.”

Sophia’s contribution to a cool scientific thesis at age 8 is living proof that one’s interests are never age nor gender-specific. So a word to parents — encourage your children’s passions, even when it seems “weird” or “gross” or “not for boys/girls.” The era we live in nurtures a plethora of possibilities, and so should you.

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Type of “Exploding Ants” Discovered in Borneo

Sometimes, biological discoveries are inexplicable, except somehow by serendipity — or perhaps how the ecological balance of the world makes way for good things — as seen in the resurfacing of the supposedly extinct crest-tailed mulgara in Australia or the resurgence of the starfish population in South California. Sometimes, much-studied and long-awaited breakthroughs happen, as seen in the unearthing of 215 dinosaur eggs in China.

Other times, scientific research takes a backseat for almost a century due to a lack of progress, until certain individuals bring it upon themselves to finally answer some questions. Such is the case when an interdisciplinary research team did an expedition to Borneo, Thailand, and Malaysia to study “exploding ants” again — the first time since 1935.

The team from the Natural History Museum Vienna, Technical University Vienna, and other contributing institutions published the results of their studies where they were able to identify 15 separate species of exploding ants, including one new discovery.

The new species is called Colobopsis explodens, but the researchers like to call it “yellow goo” on account of its bright yellow grand secretion. The researchers consider C. explodens to be a model species of exploding ant, which means it’ll now serve as a reference point, or an exemplar, for future research. The new species earned this designation because it’s particularly prone to self-sacrifice when threatened.

When threatened, the newfound species of Southeast Asian exploding ants intentionally rupture their own abdomen to release a sticky and toxic substance that can kill the enemy. Called “autothysis,” this suicidal mechanism can only be found in super-social organisms like ants, who work towards the preservation of their colony rather than the life of any individual insect.

[I]n addition to documenting the ants’ exploding behavior in more detail, the researchers also studied their eating habits; these insects like to munch on algae, moss, fungi, dead insects, fruit, and fish.

The discovery itself of an interesting species should already be lauded as a great contribution to biology. But what’s more important about the work of these scientists is how they laid the groundwork for future research involving these insects.

We must have missed a lot of scientific opportunities in the past. This is why being very proud of rediscovering them is the farthest thing from making a mountain out of an anthill.

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