The Best Racing Fuel
Gratitude: The Best Racing Fuel
by Claire Nana and Lisa Smith-Batchen
by Claire Nana and Lisa Smith-Batchen
When it comes to racing fuel, ultrarunners are known
to try some pretty odd concoctions. Pickle juice, peanut butter and bacon
sandwiches, raw milk, chocolate milk, and sardines (yes, sardines) could all be
considered common fare at an ultra.
But gratitude? Now that’s a new one.
For one thing, gratitude can’t be measured in
calories, consumed, or for all intents and purposes, digested. Yet what it can
do is much more powerful.
and Build: The Expansive Nature of Gratitude
Frederickson wrote her book, Positivity: Top Notch Research Reveals The Upward Spiral That Will
Change Your Life in 2009, the
question she was asking was: What is the adaptive value of positive emotions? That
is, just how did they aid our survival? Gratitude, after all, is nice, but it’s
hard to see how admiring sunsets will do much for us when we’ve got food to
hunt for and predators to fend off.
Yet the answer
lies in the way gratitude works in our brain. What Frederickson found was that
positive emotions broaden our perspective and lead to novel, expansive, and
exploratory behavior. In what Frederickson calls the “broaden and build”
theory, positive emotions act much like a snowball, gaining momentum as we see
more possibilities, find more resources (within ourselves), and grow in ways
that might have previously seemed impossible.
perfect sense to Martin Seligman, the author of Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being. In
his book, Seligman described a study where one set of participants were given a
candle, a box of matches, and a thumbtack with the instructions: try to find a
way to position the candle on the wall, and another set were given the same
items and instructions, but had been “primed” to be happy by watching a few
short comedy movie clips. While all the participants tried to solve the puzzle,
it was the happy group who were not only much more successful, but vastly more
takeaway, like Fredrickson’s, is that gratitude is a consciousness expander and
a problem solver.
In a runner’s
equation, gratitude might be the difference between concluding that you cannot
continue the race because you feel too beat up and don’t expect to start
feeling better anytime soon and asking: “What if I start feeling better?”
ultrarunner knows, the answers to problems on the run fade into the background
the minute you stop asking solution-focused questions. And while gratitude
doesn’t guarantee an answer, it might just start the process.
But that is
only part of the puzzle. Gratitude is also uniquely linked to dopamine, which many
studies have indicated doesn’t simply lead to the nice rewarding feelings that
result from exercise, it is the motivational catalyst to start exercising in
the first place. In one fascinating study, researchers from the University of
Montreal uncovered just how dopamine might’ve worked from an evolutionary
perspective. Endurance running was thought to have evolved as a way to maximize
the chances of finding food, and when food stores were plentiful (in this case
when we have extra body fat), dopamine signaling decreases, making us less
motivated to run. On the other hand, as fat stores decrease, dopamine signaling
increases, which acts as a way to motivate running, and finding food (Fulton,
et. al, 2015).
levels don’t only increase when we are leaner, they also increase when we are
feeling gratitude. Because this equation also works in the reverse – when we
feel less gratitude, we have lower levels of dopamine – the conclusion for
runners is pretty clear: the more gratitude you have, the higher your levels of
dopamine will be, and the more motivated you will be to run.
Out of Adversity Springs Gratitude
If you ask most people about the social outcomes of
September 11, 2001, gratitude is not likely to be one of them. Martin Seligman
himself might’ve been surprised, except that he was the one collecting the data.
Seligman and his colleagues had been measuring
people on the VIA inventory of psychological strengths, which acts as a map of
positive functioning. Inventories had already been taken before the attacks,
and the study continued after them. Astoundingly, gratitude was shown to
increase over this period (Peterson & Seligman, 2003).
And this was not the only study. Several subsequent studies showed that gratitude appeared to increase for both adults and children after the attacks (Wood, et. al, 2011).
The question you might be asking is: Why?
The answer has something to do with the way facing
adversity – or in this case horrific circumstances – affects us. Contrary to
what most people believe, following a difficult event, an outcome of
post-traumatic growth – which is growth that precedes pre-adversity levels of
functioning – is more common that an outcome of post-traumatic stress disorder
(Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004).
And one of the five domains – perhaps the most
recognized – of post-traumatic growth is gratitude. While it might be that
major losses, setbacks, and adversity cause us to recalibrate our circumstances
in ways that help us feel grateful for what we have left, it might also be that
gratitude itself helps us cope with challenge.
As Joseph and Linley two
researchers who study losses and the processes we take to get through them
suggest, gratitude is an essential part of the recovery process. It appears
that people’s recovery from the traumatic experience is influenced by the
extent to which they are able to find some benefit in the experience (Joseph
& Linley, 2004).
The key seems to lie in our
attitude toward adversity. The question many runners might recall asking
themselves is: Why is this so hard?
Just how we answer that question
might have a lot to do with how we respond to adversity. When we can find a
purpose for it – such as building strengths, cultivating resources, and
building the grit we will need for future races – adversity holds a pretty important
place, and we are likely to be grateful for it.
On the other hand, if we feel that
the challenges we face are too hard, unfair, or unwarranted, chances are, there
isn’t much to be grateful for. Then, on a larger level, our ability to cope
with them diminishes dramatically.
Getting Grateful On the Run
So how do we get grateful on the run? To answer this question, I asked one of the most grateful, and successful ultrarunners I know, Lisa Smith-Batchen.
Here is what she said:
The Love. Gratitude comes from love, no other place, and when
you can find love, you can find gratitude. So, a question to ask yourself is: What can I find love for right now?
The Lessons. It is through experience that we become
wise, and one of the any lessons we learn is that gratitude is not
one-dimensional, and neither are our lives. We will have setbacks, failures,
adversity, and experiences that make us question many things. Yet when we can
find gratitude for all of our experiences – good or bad – we will see that it
is often in these times of strife that the most profound lessons are learned.
So ask yourself: Can I be grateful for
all of it?
The Source. Gratitude is not something that happens
to you, rather, it shines through you. We don’t have to wait for gratitude to
be bestowed upon us, given to us, or happen around us, we can generate it
ourselves. And the best thing about gratitude is that it works in a positive
feedback loop – where the more you give out, the more you receive in return.
And that is more than I can say for any other racing fuel!
Frederickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Top Notch Research Reveals The Upward Spiral That Will Change Your Life. New York, Random House.
Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being. New York, Simon and Schuster.
Fulton et al. (2015). Leptin suppresses the rewarding effects of running via STAT3 signaling in dopamine neurons. Cell Metabolism, September 2015
Seligman, M., Peterson, C. (2004). “Strengths of Character and Wellbeing,” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 23, no. 5 (2004), 603
Wood, A., et al., (2011). “Using Personal and Psychological Strengths Leads to Increases in Well-Being over Time: A Longitudinal Study and the Development of the Strengths Use Questionnaire,” Personality and Individual Differences 50 (2011), 15–19.
Tedeschi, R.G., and Calhoun, L.G. (2004). Post-traumatic growth: Conceptual foundations and empirical evidence. Psychological Inquiry, 15, 1
Joseph, P., Linley, S. (2004). “Positive Change
Following Trauma and Adversity: A Review,” Journal of Trauma Stress 17, no. 1
(February 2004), 11–21.
Claire Dorotik-Nana M.A. frequently writes for many
organizations including Professional Development Resources, International Sport
Science Association, and Zur Institute. She is also the author of Leverage:
The Science of Turning Setbacks Into Springboards.
Lisa Smith-Batchen is a ten times Badwater finisher and founder of the Dreamchasers Outdoor Adventure Club