There’s a lot of fluff written on gratitude, and it’s easy for those trained in engineering (including myself) to be readily dismissive and miss out on something transformative.
So I wanted to write an article addressed specifically to hackers and engineers – starting from first order principles of experience, and providing a heuristic to transform your brain’s neurocircuitry to automatically generate gratitude and improve your quality of life.
Let’s start with the raw inputs into our brains.
Stimulus from the outside world comes in. Our brains make a story about it (this is ‘good’ or ‘bad’). That meaning creates feelings. We experience those feelings and they impact our life satisfaction and our subsequent actions.
Within the human brain, the default mode network (DMN) is a large-scale network that is active when our minds are daydreaming.
Left unchecked, our DMN operates completely reactively – based on our conditioned selves, shaped by childhood experiences, wants, desires, aversions and fears.
However, we have more capacity than being beholden to a reactive process. As human beings, we have immense potential to rewire our brains consciously; perhaps no other animal on earth has that ability.
How to consciously rewrite your default mode network
In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” – Viktor Frankl
We have the power to consciously rewire the neurocircuitry of our brains into a superpower, to use our DMN for our benefit, rather than suffer by default.
In engineering speak, we do this by calling a method right between stimulus and response.
Recall that as sensory input comes in, your brain automatically ascribes meaning based on prior conditioning (e.g. you might hear yourself complaining); that thought is made conscious and is brought to your attention for observation.
Here’s where you insert your new method.
The method shouldn’t discount that thought or invalidate your feelings.
Rather, you should spawn two processes – one that executes in real-time, and one that runs as a background job when you have a chance.
Real-Time Response: Cultivating gratitude for experience
Rather than have the DMN mull over the raw stimulus or event data, ascribe negative meaning and complain about it, you always have the freedom to take a step back and cultivate genuine gratitude for even the experience of that event or emotion.
Sure, it may be unpleasant. Sure, it might be something you weren’t hoping would happen, but are you able to take a step back and tap into genuine gratitude for your ability to even be alive, be living and breathing on this earth, moreover, having the human experience of being the witness of that experience.
This isn’t rewriting meaning to the experience or glossing over it.
Long-term Process: Find the Silver lining
Finding the silver lining means taking a look at a situation that keeps rattling around your head as not having gone the way you’d hoped, and finding a positive interpretation for how it actually made your life better. Perhaps it was a new perspective. Perhaps it opened up a new opportunity you might not have considered otherwise. Perhaps it made you a more humble, kind or aware person.
This is not rewriting an unpleasant memory, but rather developing an authentic silver-lining interpretation that you truly buy into.
Empirical research shows this is most effective when you take a few moments to sit down, journal about it and flesh out your thoughts and silver lining interpretation. Give yourself the time and space to spend a few minutes coming up with a silver lining interpretation that rings true to your core.
Make the investment in yourself
This process is an investment, as are all great skills in life.
It might be shaky at first and take time to build on it, but I’d argue that this creates a true superpower.
As you continue this process, you will literally be rewriting the neurocircuitry of your brain and changing how your default mode network works.
The more you do it, the more you’ll be consciously aware of your brain processes, and the more opportunities you’ll have to choose a grateful response, rather than be buffeted around by the default conditioning of your minds.
It’ll make you consistently happier, independent of life circumstances and help you to lift the spirits of others around you.
I can’t imagine a superpower much better than that.