Episode 158: Exploring Gratitude

December 11, 2023 00:34:23
Episode 158: Exploring Gratitude
Into the Fold: Issues in Mental Health
Episode 158: Exploring Gratitude

Dec 11 2023 | 00:34:23

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Show Notes

it was back in 2017 that we had on Dr. Art Markman, co-host of the KUT show Two Guys on Your Head, to talk about political climate as a chronic stressor. And so, six years after the fact, we thought that it would make sense to close that circle by inviting on Dr. Markman's partner from Two Guys on Your Head, Dr. Bob Duke. We recently had him come to the studio for a discussion of gratitude and an exploration of just what it means to stop and be thankful.

Dr. Duke is the Marlene and Morton H. Meyerson Centennial professor of Music at the Butler School of Music at the University of Texas at Austin. To quote him on gratitude, "When you do think about the capriciousness of life experiences, to me that is a real incentive for even greater levels of gratitude, because once you sort of recognize that you're not the author of your own story entirely, and that there are a lot of things that happen in your life to the good, which you actually had very little to do with, and it doesn't mean that what you did, you had no part in this. It's just that there's a lot of luck involved."

In addition, we're also taking a look back at the year in mental health, through a sampling of some of our most representative episodes from 2023. 

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Episode Transcript

[00:00:00] Speaker A: Into the Fold is part of the Texas Podcast Network, the Conversations changing the world brought to you by the University of Texas at Austin. The opinions expressed in this podcast represent the views of the hosts and guests, and not of the University of Texas at Austin. Hi, welcome to into the Fold, the Mental Health Podcast. I'm your host, Ike Evans, and today we are delighted to bring you episode 158, Exploring Gratitude. [00:00:29] Speaker B: When you do think about the capriciousness of life experiences, to me that is a real incentive for even greater levels of gratitude, because once you sort of recognize that you're not the author of your own Story entirely, and that there are a lot of things that happen in your life to the good, which you actually had very little to do with, and it doesn't mean that what you did, you had no part in this. It's just that there's a lot of luck involved. It makes me feel, to me personally, it makes me feel a special sense of gratitude, because I know how this could be entirely different with the flip of a coin. [00:01:19] Speaker A: But first, a quick mental health headline. There is still time to apply for the reliable, flexible funding grant opportunity. It aims to provide financial support to nonprofit organizations, particularly those led by and serving members of historically excluded groups. The goal is to assist these organizations in addressing disparities in mental health outcomes and philanthropic funding within marginalized communities. If you want more information on this funding opportunity, visit our website at hog utexas.edu. You have until January twelveth, 2024 to apply, and so if you think that you may be interested, I urge you to act now while you still have time. And so 2023 has been quite a year, both in general, but also in terms of mental health. And the podcast has reflected that, it being only a few weeks after Thanksgiving. I thought that it would make sense for us to explore the theme of gratitude, but also, very briefly, to just take a look back at the year in mental health through through a sampling of snippets from different podcast episodes that we ran this year. So to begin, it was back in 2017 that we had on Dr. Art Markman, the co host of the Kut Show Two guys on your head, to talk about political climate as a chronic stressor. I was curious then, still am, about the mental health impacts of ours being just such a divided political climate and what, if anything, that people could do to safeguard their mental health. And so, six years after the fact, I thought that it would make sense to close that circle by inviting on Dr. Markman's partner on the aforementioned two guys on your head, Dr. Bob Duke. He is the Marlene and Morton H. Meyerson Centennial professor of Music at the Butler School of Music at the University of Texas at Austin. We recently just had him come to the studio for a discussion of gratitude and an exploration of just what it means to stop and be thankful. [00:04:10] Speaker C: Bob? Hi. Yeah, so we're talking about gratitude today, and I mean, this is right before Thanksgiving. And in fact, one question that I have is for a holiday like this that is so much about indulgence, is it really, in your opinion, the optimal time to also try to kind of force in a stayed message about thankfulness even though we do it? [00:04:42] Speaker B: Yeah. Well, it's sort of interesting when you have a set aside date when that's supposed to be the case. And Thanksgiving isn't the only one of those dates, right? I mean, we have Mother's Day and Father's Day and Veterans Day and all of those, I think, embedded in all of them as a premise that we're going to express gratitude to the people who we're celebrating. I think in answer your question, is it an optimal time to do that? I see Thanksgiving as more of a ritualized holiday. Like, we're being thankful for a lot of stuff, but not necessarily thankful to anyone in particular. But I think if someone were to ask me what's the optimal time to be grateful, I would say, well, when you're awake, there are so many things in life for many of us who are very fortunate to be thankful for, and I don't think Thanksgiving is necessarily the time that you should focus attention only, on which I shouldn't say that again, Thanksgiving is necessary. The time where you'd, the only time when you'd focus attention on being grateful and expressing gratitude, I mean, if it sets the occasion and it cues people to do that. But when I attend Thanksgiving ceremonies, which I do from time to time with people other than my own family, everybody's so busy just with the business of preparing a meal and doing it, which is lovely. I mean, there's nothing wrong with any of that. What I don't hear as much of are personal interactions where there are expressions of gratitude. And I think ritualized gratitude is a nice thing, but it's also, I think, that much more meaningful when one on one somebody talks to someone or communicates in some other way where they express their gratitude for things that have happened in the past or even things that are happening in the present. [00:06:46] Speaker C: Yeah. So regarding the research on gratitude and what always will occur to me, just knowing what I know about how it is with research that you can sort of muddle cause and effect. [00:07:01] Speaker B: Sure. [00:07:03] Speaker C: I'm interested in knowing what research has found about the mental health or well being effects of gratitude, kind of as a thing unto itself, versus. Well, of course you're grateful because your life is just objectively awesome. Yes. I would expect you to be mentally happier having nothing to do with gratitude. [00:07:27] Speaker B: Yeah. [00:07:28] Speaker C: So what can you say on that? [00:07:30] Speaker B: Well, let me preface it by saying this about just emotions in general. We often think about our minds as something that's separate from the physicality of our brain, and that our brains are something sort of isolated, that our skulls carry around. We walk around the world. And one of the things that I emphasize a lot is how much our brain and our body and what we perceive and what we perceive consciously are all tightly interwoven. And I think when people think about what could be the reason that feelings of gratitude could lead not only to general feelings of well being, but also greater physical health and physical well being as well. And it's because it's all connected. Our bodies and our minds are all of a piece. And I think oftentimes people interpret our emotions as something that's sort of floating around in the ether somewhere. And really what our emotions are are our conscious recognition of states that our bodies are experiencing right now. I mean, if you think about it, there are a limited number of things that our body can respond to and ways to respond. So if I'm anticipating something lovely that's about to happen, my heart rate might accelerate a little bit, and my breathing might become a little shallow, and other kinds of things that my galvanic skin response might increase a little bit. So there'll be things that happen to me that I'm anticipating something lovely. I might have the same physiological responses when I'm experiencing something that I find a little bit dreadful. But what makes those two things different is how I interpret them and how my brain interprets them consciously. So when you think about what research shows about what feelings of gratitude do, they really encapsulate a state of perception about our bodily state that lets people know that our bodies are in a pretty good condition in terms of stasis, in terms of how we feel. And our attitudes and emotions are also responding to things in such a way that the positive aspects of physiology are present in our body. Now, this isn't to say that when someone's ill, they can't also experience feelings of gratitude, but I will say that all the things that people associate with positive emotions, gratitude, happiness, joyfulness, love, all those kinds of things are associated with physiological states that are physiologically positive and are not just something that's imagined in the mind, but it's also part of our physiology. [00:10:19] Speaker C: Yeah. [00:10:20] Speaker A: Okay, so Bob and I are not done with our conversation, but if you will just grant me this moment to lead us through a look back at the year in mental health, as represented by this small sampling of the many illuminating moments from the past year's worth of podcasts. So, just to get us started, it was in October that we took a look at what it would mean for mental health to be a universal human right. And helping us do that was Anna Gray and Janet Palao, two longtime friends of the Hog foundation and the co leads of Prosumers International. Here is what they had to say. [00:11:12] Speaker D: Way that the United nations, the World Health Organization, and to some extent, the World Federation see that part of our rights not only are to treatment, but to full access to life, to jobs, to homes, to education, to housing, to food, to all the things that impact our mental well being. And so it's broader than treatment. Treatment alone does not get us to recovery. Access to life does. So I see the theme as being Broader. [00:11:46] Speaker A: Loneliness was another hot topic. In 2023, the US surgeon General put out a report that makes the case for the dire mental health impacts of prolonged loneliness. Or, to put it another way, what the report actually refers to as the loneliness epidemic. And so, with the help of Jackie Hecht of the center for Health Equity Research at the UT Austin School of Nursing, we had a look at Loneliness. And here is a sample. [00:12:28] Speaker E: And as humans, we're social beings, and throughout history, our ability to rely on one another for survival was how we proceeded through generations. And the pandemic caused many of us to shelter in place, creating lots of physical distancing from loved ones and from community. And so whatever loneliness people were feeling before became magnified. And what we've learned is that loneliness has real impact on our physical health and well being and longevity. [00:13:04] Speaker A: For as long as I have been doing the podcast, it's been my conviction that mental health happens everywhere. And so it is not just mental health professionals who can have a positive impact on mental health. A recent example, my interview with Shaka Mehon. He is the founder and director of Dawa diversity and wellness, diversity awareness and wellness in action, also a grant partner of the Hog Foundation. Just to talk about some of the implications for an organization such as his, whose focus is more music and the arts when it begins to take mental health seriously. [00:13:53] Speaker F: Community frontliners are people that are going to do the work regardless. So when there's a crisis, these are the people that run towards it. Right. These are the people in the community that are going to be doing the work regardless. [00:14:09] Speaker B: Sure. [00:14:11] Speaker F: And we put creatives in that role because why do you have singing in church? Why? Because it does something for your spirit. Right. It does something that just talking can't do. Right. Just the sound of some, you know, of someone's voice in a certain. It does something for us, and that's why it's not going anywhere. So these are people. We need it. We need them, right? [00:14:37] Speaker C: Yeah. [00:14:37] Speaker F: And so the role that they play in terms of touching our spirit and giving us inspiration as creatives, as musicians, they're on the front line. [00:14:48] Speaker A: Speaking of music and Mental Health, in episode 148, we spoke with Cynthia Smith, founder of Sparks for Success, and Amber Sarpy, Austin area music therapist, to learn more about their work providing music therapy for kids. [00:15:08] Speaker G: So a lot of the time, when we look at music therapy as a viable option for treatment, we go in and we initially say, would this student benefit by music therapy in a general term? And it's because they respond to it in some way that's beneficial to either their educational experience or their emotional, social, emotional learning experience, or their awareness of how they can access language or just be able to engage in a therapeutic intervention. Simply put, music can engage both parts of the brain, and so it comes around the backdoor of the situation. So we look at a talk therapy session, and the person may sit there and they may not say anything for a long time, because it's just, how do I put all this together in my head? And when we're looking at small children or children that are elementary, middle school, high school, whatever, they may not want to be vulnerable in that way, to talk about what's going on for them, what their experiences have been. But when you sit and you build rapport by simply being in a space with someone to play a song, how many of us know that when you connect with people over music, it's instantly a bridge, it's a pathway, and it leads to forming connections that build rapport to allow folks to be able to open up and become vulnerable in a space where they wouldn't ordinarily be vulnerable. [00:16:34] Speaker A: So one thing that continues to weigh heavily on people's minds is the current political climate here in the United States and the particular ways that that manifests in our home state of Texas. So earlier this year, we spoke with two public school teachers about their experiences teaching in a time of cultural and political division. Nelva Williamson is a veteran educator of 42 years in the Houston Independent School District and Jesus Sosa, who teaches grades nine through twelve in the Richardson Independent School District. Here is what they had to say about what it means to be a Texas educator in 2023. [00:17:22] Speaker H: The parties that are typically going after the LGBTQ plus youth have had other ways to get the votes out, whether it's abortion, whether it's immigration or this or whatever. But since they've had a lot of wins in the Supreme Court in recent years, me personally, I believe they're running out of things that they can scare people on and making the case seem to be like, oh, these teachers. And that's the word I hear a lot, indoctrination. That they're indoctrinating our kids into believing certain things. That's probably the most damaging thing they can do rather than trying to help. [00:18:05] Speaker I: Well, the first thing that I would tell anyone setting policy is to listen to the teachers. Yes, listening to parents is just as important, but listen to the people who are in the classroom. Listen to the people who are in the school, because what the parent might be getting is totally out of context and in a vacuum. And if they have certain political leanings, they might take it one way or the other. So my caution to policymakers is to listen to teachers. I know that we are a much maligned group, for whatever reason. I know at one point in time in the history of this country, teachers were looked up to and supported and very much respected by policymakers. And I'm not sure when the change began, but it would do them well to listen to teachers. [00:19:02] Speaker A: Thank you for indulging me in this look back at the year in mental health. I return you now to my conversation with Bob Duke. Enjoy. [00:19:16] Speaker C: So, you know, the approach that we often take to mental health on this podcast is to kind of view it through, I guess you might call it a social lens. So we look a lot at the intersections of mental health with other states of being. Let's just call it that. That can, of course, include physical states of being also, one's like social or even socioeconomic condition. And so I'm just wondering, when it comes to gratitude, if there's any sort of less individualizing frame for it that we can kind of consider or talk about, because it seems that the only thing I ever see is kind of these admonitions for individuals to just remember the things that they are grateful for. Sure. Is there a bigger picture here? [00:20:20] Speaker B: Well, we are a social species. I mean, the reason our species have thrived as it has is because of our ability to interact and cooperate and socialize with others. Right. And I think one of the things that is a hallmark of expressing gratitude is personal interaction. I think when we imagine, what are the conditions of expressions of gratitude? Well, first of all, you probably feel pretty good about some components of your circumstances, and you're often interacting with another human being in a positive way. And those positive interactions are part of what leads to all of our thriving. Right. Because we're sort of feeling good about what we're saying ourselves, and we're feeling about how what we're saying, feeling good about how what we're saying is affecting the person we're speaking to. And I want to say one thing about that. Know, just the idea of gratitude being a conscious act rather than something that just sort of wells up within us. My wife and I are very fortunate because our grandchildren live here in Austin. So we've watched them grow up throughout their entire lives. And when they were little and we would go over to their house and go on trick or treating trips with them at the beginning when they were very small, I remember my daughter sending our grandchildren down the sidewalk to someone's house in their neighborhood, and they would say, trick or treat. And the nice person would give them some candy or whatever the hell they put in their little bags. And my grandchildren would start to turn around, and my daughter would say, what do you say? And of course, they'd turn around and go, thank you. Not very sincere, but they would certainly follow instructions. But why is it important to do that? Why is it important to have a young child, even though that didn't come from within them, to tell them to say thank you? Well, when they get to the next house and some kind adult gives them candy and they might occur to them to say thank you. Well, you think about what the response of that adult is like, oh, aren't you just the sweetest little girls to say thank you? And now there's this all positivity that goes back and forth between two people, because, first of all, the person expressing the gratitude is acknowledging that they have something or have gotten something or have experienced something as positive. And the feeling of the person who was part of that is now positive because you have these people smiling at you and saying some nice thing about what you just did for them. That's huge. And I think even when we think about gratitude being prompted, I sometimes hear people say, well, that's not sincere. You're just telling somebody to do that, and they're doing it, but it doesn't matter. What matters is that you've started this interaction that includes positive verbalizations and positive expressions between Human beings. And that's all to the good. Right. And I think a lot of times when people imagine what they want those interactions to be like, the first thought is, I'm not saying this very well, but I'll come around this again. The first thought is you want things to sort of feel it from inside. And what I'm suggesting is that even before you feel it from inside, right. To actually begin behaving in that way actually now generates a feeling inside. So it's not like the feeling precedes the act. The actions can actually bring out the feeling. [00:23:58] Speaker H: Yeah. [00:24:02] Speaker C: That gets me thinking about what I call the authenticity trap, where on the grounds that, well, I'm not really feeling it right now, so what is the point of going through the motions? And it's both understandable that people have a thought like that, but it can also be profoundly limiting. [00:24:27] Speaker B: Yeah. Oh, absolutely. [00:24:29] Speaker C: Because any way that you can overcome inertia and just get yourself doing things that are just kind of commensurate with greater well being. [00:24:51] Speaker B: If you think about everything that we do, it has an intellectual component, it has a physiological component, it has a feeling emotional component, and it has behavior. [00:25:05] Speaker F: Right. [00:25:05] Speaker B: And you think about which of those things can we control? Well, I can't really control my emotions. I can't will myself to be happy if I'm not feeling happy. And I can't really will my physiology really much either. I can't say, lower your heart rate or do whatever like that. And even sometimes I'm ruminating and I can't even will what I'm thinking, right. But I can take action and control my behavior. And what's interesting to me is that once you recognize that you're able to do that, the behaviors that you initiate has the potential to affect those other three things. And you think, well, that's a very powerful thing to think about as a human being. To think that all these things, when I feel like I have all this stuff that's not in my control, I feel the way I feel, and I'm having these thoughts, and these thoughts are just coming to me. But to know that I can act. And one action that's possible is to actually express, either in writing or verbally, gratitude. And it does several things. First of all, in a sort of a primitive way, it crowds out negative thoughts, because if I'm busy writing about something or talking to somebody about something, that's positive that I've experienced. Well, now I'm obviating, thinking about and ruminating about things that are negative. So just that much is a deal even before you start to think about the positive things that come along with that affect in your body. [00:26:32] Speaker C: Yeah. I tend to think that one of the hallmarks of kind of being in any sort of mental health rut, or let's say I'm referring to just all the ways that you can be functioning suboptimally, one of the hallmarks of that is you kind of give your moods a veto over everything. And what I've learned is that my moods are a very unreliable guide to what I, in fact, ought to do. [00:27:06] Speaker B: Yeah. [00:27:08] Speaker C: And so the art of being mentally well, to a large extent, is kind of getting some distance from whatever mood you're having in the moment. Of course, your mood is telling you that you don't want to exercise because that's what it tends to say whenever you consult your mood. So maybe you don't have to do that. [00:27:32] Speaker B: Right. And I think for most of us, right. When we're weighed down by feelings of sadness or even grief and at a loss or something like that, I'm not suggesting that those feelings aren't legitimate and shouldn't be experienced to the fullest. Right. But when you think, okay, I've done that now and I've expressed my grief and felt my grief on myself, so now what am I going to do? Well, what's not probably a good strategy is wait until you feel like I want to go interact with somebody or call somebody or go out and have coffee with somebody and actually taking that action, initiating that action, or even if you're lucky enough to have a friend who knows you need to go out and get A cup of coffee or whatever, following through with that now has the benefit of potentially changing your mood and changing that feeling. Yeah. [00:28:33] Speaker C: Okay, just tell me about. I mean, you've mentioned your grandkids. Tell me about just things you are grateful for. [00:28:40] Speaker B: Well, you just hit on two of them, are those lovely children which have been just a central part of our lives. And to be able to live in the same city as your grandchildren. And for a while, until my mother died a few years ago, she also lived in the city. So for them to know their great grandma and to have that many generations of family in one place was really just huge. The other thing is, I've been pretty lucky to be physically healthy through most of my life, and that's a really fortunate thing. I think that a lot of people don't get to experience. And also, I have the best job in the world. I mean, I'm on a university faculty and people often ask me because I passed retirement age, and they say, well, when are you going to retire? When I can't do this anymore. I spend every day surrounded by bright, curious, interesting young people. I can't imagine a better gig than that. And so I think family is a deal. Health is a deal, your work life is a deal. And I don't quote Freud very often because he was wrong about a lot of things. But one thing he was right about is that a well lived life is really based on meaningful relationships and meaningful work. And if you have both of those, that's a pretty great thing. Well, I should probably say one of the reasons that I feel so especially grateful for all of that is I realize how much of that has to do with luck. And that's another thing that we don't really think about. I think a lot of people operate under the assumption that you get what you earn and if you work harder, you get better stuff and that kind of thing. Well, sometimes. But luck has so much to do with how our life experience unfolds. And I think it makes it that much more important to be grateful, not necessarily to anyone or anything, but for the things that we're fortunate enough to experience when they're positive. That's a pretty great. [00:30:53] Speaker C: And that, I guess another thing I wonder about is how a pro gratitude message kind of, and the friction between that and certain elements of us culture, where as much as possible you're tracking your individual wins, those things that you can say that you did with little or no help or those things that you made happen, maybe even against whatever headwinds were going against you. And our movies celebrate that kind of a narrative, the heroic narrative. You all didn't think it could be done, and I proved that it could be done. [00:31:43] Speaker B: Sure. [00:31:44] Speaker C: Where gratitude is more about your enmeshedness, if that's a word. [00:31:49] Speaker B: It should be, though. Yeah. Well, I think it's certainly our egos are helped by thinking that we did more of what we got than we actually did. But to me, when you do think about the capriciousness of life experiences, to me that is a real incentive for even greater levels of gratitude, because once you sort of recognize that you're not the author of your own story entirely and that there are a lot of things that happen in your life to the good, which you actually had very little to do with, and it doesn't mean that what you did, you had no part in this. It's just that there's a lot of luck involved. It makes me feel, to me personally, it makes me feel a special sense of gratitude, because I know how this could be entirely different with the flip of a coin. [00:32:59] Speaker C: Yeah. Well, all right, Bob. I've enjoyed this conversation. [00:33:04] Speaker B: Oh, great. Me too. [00:33:06] Speaker C: Thank you so much. And give my regards to Dr. Markman. [00:33:09] Speaker B: I will do it. [00:33:10] Speaker C: All right. And if there's anything you got going on that you want to plug or just make sure our listeners are aware of, that'll still be timely when the episode comes out in a few weeks, you're free to mention that. [00:33:22] Speaker B: Great. Well, I always remind people, and art would be very unhappy with if I didn't, that two guys on your heads on KUT Radio every Friday at 750 and 150 and 450. And you can catch our podcast wherever you get our podcast. [00:33:38] Speaker C: Okay. Thank you so much. [00:33:39] Speaker B: Thanks, Ike. [00:33:42] Speaker A: And that does it for this episode. We're glad that you could join us. Production assistance by Kate Rooney, Darryl Wiggins and Anna Harris. Thanks as always, to the Hog foundation for its support. Just as taking care of ourselves helps us support others, so it is as well that by supporting others, we strengthen our own resilience. [00:34:01] Speaker C: Please leave us a review and subscribe. [00:34:03] Speaker A: To us on Apple Podcasts, Google Play. [00:34:06] Speaker C: Music, TuneIn, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcast. [00:34:10] Speaker A: And taking us out now is Anna's. [00:34:12] Speaker C: Good vibes by our friend Anna Harris. Thanks for joining us.

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