BONUS:  Here is a blog by Erin Lusby-Donovan about healthy holiday living, ABA style!

Happy Thanksgiving to those who celebrated it yesterday.  I was able to get caught up enough Wednesday night to have a guilt-free, pajama-clad morning.  My original plan was a Turkey Trot, but registration was full by the time I got around to it.

There has been a lot of talk about gratitude in the popular press.  Authors such as Rick Hansen and Tara Brach say that gratitude is one of the gateways to happiness.  So, I thought I would do some research in what behavior analysis says about that.

I think the best way to start is looking at Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. ACT (said as the word, not the acronym) posits that much of human suffering comes from rigid, rule-bound behavior. For those of you who are struggling to see the connection to behavior analysis, let me try to break it down for you.

So, there are basically two ways to get a new behavior into your repertoire – either by learning a rule about it or by experiencing reinforcement.  A rule can come in many forms – signs, instructions, songs, even past comments.  If someone told me,  “teal is your color,” I might wear more teal.  However, if I learned the rule that bikinis make me look fat, I might not wear them.

Think of all the things you probably learned through rules:

  • Dress codes
  • What you eat for breakfast versus what you eat for dinner (Lentil soup for breakfast is gross in the U.S. but standard in other cultures)
  • Traffic and other laws

Let me give you some proof – “Ma Na Ma Na.”  You’re welcome for what comes next. What are the things that come to mind?

For those of you saying “huh?” I will teach you.  Watch this video and come back to this post either tomorrow or later today.

Here is the strange thing about rule-governed behavior – even when the environmental events change, that behavior doesn’t.  At least not easily.  Let’s say someone has a history of abuse.  The rule might have been, “don’t speak up or make waves, or trouble will start.”  Later in their life, they have trouble asking for what they need or want because the rule is you don’t do that. 

Much like riding a bike, you never forget your rules, because they become part of a network called a relational frame.  Train a few rules up in the right way and a whole new set of networks emerge without much training. Sometimes this is good, like in cases where you use your filter before speaking or stop at red lights.  Sometimes they can get sticky and rigid and sometimes irrational.

Here are some awesome videos that describe the phenomenon of relational networks and how they affect mental health, by the Great Steve Hayes:

So my long-winded post – what does ACT have to do with Gratitude?

I can’t seem to find anything published, but my guess is that if we expose ourselves to grateful experiences on a regular basis (also called multiple exemplar training), we’ll form a network of them.  That way, when we see similar situations, we’re more likely to think, “ahh, this is something that fits into the gratitude network.”

Anyway, I’m grateful for all of you readers, as well as my colleagues and clients.  You make all my chains concurrent.  (TLDR; Lots of reinforcement available at the same time for lots of different behavior)

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