“A person with a healthy self approaches life with a lens of agency and gratitude. Even in the face of difficulty, engagement and enthusiasm for life persist.”
This is how psychiatrist Paul Conti kicks off a four-part series on what it takes to thrive mentally, hosted with neuroscientist Andrew Huberman.
What’s at the core of this thriving?
Agency and gratitude.
While out on my morning walk through the windy streets of Lisbon, something about these two words made my ears prick up.
- Agency is your ability to shape your circumstances. To make decisions that can improve and change your life. Agency comes from a place of empowerment.
- Gratitude is about having appreciation for the things you experience, stemming from a sense of humility.
Dr. Conti, who trained at Stanford, completed his residency at Harvard and later founded his own clinical practice, went as far as to say, “show me a person who lives their life from a place of gratitude and agency who is unhappy, and you will be showing me something that I have never seen.”
Pretty big statement.
So if you can find a way to cultivate these two qualities, you’ll have a strong and healthy mind to deal with pretty much anything life throws at you.
Okay, so practically, how do we do that?
(IMO, we should be as obsessed with that question as we are with having white teeth and a six-pack!)
I’m not claiming to have a one-size-fits-all answer here, but as I was listening to Dr. Conti speak, I realised I have unknowingly been working my agency and gratitude muscles over the past two years.
From “what the hell?!” to “what can I do?”
Imagine these two real-life scenarios:
- Working on a presentation
- Feeling stuck, anxiety slowly building up
- Downing coffee like it’s water, and back to the screen
- Critical self-talk for not having made more progress
- Working through the evening, feeling deflated and unsatisfied about my work
- Still working on that presentation
- Still feeling stuck, anxiety slowly building up
- Downing water, going to another room for 5 minutes of slow, deep breathing
- Going outside for a walk, while brainstorming about the presentation and taking notes
- Coming back to it 2 hours later to try again
In scenario 1, I’m at the mercy of my thoughts and emotions. There is no space between what I’m thinking, feeling and doing. It’s all one big blurry mess. Everything feels heavy and out of my control.
In scenario 2, there is space. There is detachment. I observe what’s going on in my mind and body. I make conscious decisions on what to do next.
I know my brain needs oxygen after hours of sitting down, making it difficult to focus and think creatively.
I recognise my fight-or-flight response is activated. I become aware of my breathing—it’s rapid and shallow.
I realize my dopamine levels are low, affecting my motivation and energy levels.
I reframe the feelings of intense frustration as a signal that my brain is processing complex information. It doesn’t mean I’m not capable. It just means my brain needs rest.
I flip the script from "What the hell is wrong with me?!" to "What can I do right now?"
I move. I drink. I breathe. I close my eyes.
In scenario 2, I have agency.
Scenario 1 used to be my default mode. And I still wobble and get frustrated all the time, but the difference is I catch myself much quicker, and I know I can pull myself out of it. I don’t get stuck in an hours-long vortex of self-flagellation and self-criticism anymore. (Just minutes-long now. 😉)
The first time I noticed myself pausing and taking a deep breath, instead of panicking, I knew something had shifted. It genuinely felt like I discovered some kind of secret superpower.
So what changed between scenario 1 and scenario 2?
I started learning about my nervous system. Books, podcasts, online courses. I decided to prioritize meditation and breathwork. And really this time, no excuses or empty promises. I made walking a part of my daily schedule. I started going for runs without podcasts.
And one thing became painfully clear to me.
A positive feedback loop of control, agency, awe and gratitude
I’ve been taking my body and my brain for granted.
I don’t know anything about them. I don’t even really take that good care of them, yet I expect them to work flawlessly for me—day in day out.
The more I learned, the more curious I became.
I felt this child-like wonder, as if I discovered how to use a swing for the first time. I started writing this newsletter because I wanted to get all my thoughts out on paper, and share what I was learning with more people. I kept telling my partner about the facts I was discovering. “Did you know a baby forms 2 million new neural connections PER SECOND?!” and excitedly telling her to “expand her visual field!!”
The sheer complexity of it all. How miraculous it is that we are here, with these bodies, and that everything functions the way it does.
And most importantly: how much control we have over our day-to-day experience. I simply had no idea.
And I think that when you feel awe, you can’t help but to feel gratitude.
And for me, this has become this positive feedback loop of control, agency, awe, and gratitude.
It has honestly made life feel so much richer.
Get in touch with your body
Learn about your nervous system. Observe and experiment with your nervous system.
Do everything you can to get in touch with your body.
I’m not claiming it’s the answer to everything. And it won’t make everything in your life magically better.
But you’ll learn a lot about yourself. And if that does for you what it did for me, you might just add some extra sense of control and gratitude to your life.