A Kompass to Kompassion

compassion kindness

Guest article by Kristen Truempy

There is a problem with the Dalai Lama, our mother, and our grandmother. We idolize them as the kindest people on the planet, but unfortunately the discussion ends there. Chances are we can recall the names of more actors, singers, and supermodels than compassionate people. While it’s a quality that apparently everybody seeks in a partner, we as a society have made remarkably little effort to illuminate the nature of kindness and compassion.

It’s rewarding to investigate what compassion means to us as people. Where does it flourish, who embodies compassion, and how do they express it? Does compassion limit itself to people only? What evokes tender feelings in us – a readiness for compassion, so to speak? In which instances are we compassionate with ourselves? Who shaped our ideas about what compassion is? Are these ideas serving us? What are the dark sides of compassion?

While it’s great to participate in random acts of kindness, I would like to argue that understanding our relationship to kindness and compassion has even longer-lasting benefits. On an individual level, it is not that easy to keep compassion at the forefront of our mind if we only have a superficial understanding of it. Could you imagine what would happen if each and every one of us took learning about compassion as seriously as we take the Kardashians? (Even if you hate them, you probably know a lot more about them than you’d like to admit.) So what would keeping up with compassion look like?

1. Notice compassion

We would train ourselves to notice compassion in others and even in situations when nobody else is around. We would be aware of instances when compassion is not about doing stuff but about refraining from doing stuff: like when our boss cuts us some slack for frequently cursing or when someone gives us the benefit of the doubt. We would notice the compassion of the stranger in the bus who gets bumped into but then decides to apologize and smile for being in someone’s way, even if anger would have been appropriate.

2. Broaden our idea of compassion

Keeping up with compassion would also mean expanding our idea of what compassion is. The philosopher Alain de Botton, for example, said that paying taxes is an act of compassion. Whether this is true or not is not that important; the point is to question what counts as compassion. In my country, I am frequently grateful for the thoughtful people who constructed benches in nice places and who make sure that the area stays clean enough to enjoy the view in peace. They had a future-directed compassion for whoever was going to walk by and sit down to rest.

3. Look for opportunities for compassion

If we’d like to keep up with compassion, we would be genuinely interested in identifying situations when we could respond with compassion toward people, animals, the natural world, and, of course, ourselves. No change is too small and sometimes doing nothing at all is the most compassionate thing we can do, like refraining from asking a friend who is out of work how the job search is going. Sometimes questions meant to signal that we care can make the person feel worse, so not bringing up such topics can be an act of compassion.

4. Don’t be compassionate sometimes

We could also think about situations when compassion is hard or possibly even a bad idea. I have not yet found ways to react with compassion toward people at work who try to exert pressure to get something done quickly that has no objective reason to be rushed. It bums me out because there is no rational explanation and it happens over and over. Sometimes, compassion toward people who exert power over us could just end up making us suckers.

5. Be self-compassionate

If we genuinely try to keep up with compassion, it’s clearly not as simple as whether we’re a compassionate person or not. It’s about how often we succeed in being compassionate and how we can broaden our ability to think and act compassionately across different situations. What sets the Dalai Lama apart is not that he never has negative emotions or is never tempted to act without compassion. I am pretty sure he is confronted with these issues on a daily basis. However, as someone who has kept up with compassion all his life, he can snap out of that attitude faster and find the compassionate seed inside of himself – even when exceptionally negative circumstances would trip up the rest of us.

The Dalai Lama, our mother, and our grandmother should be celebrated for their compassionate behaviour. But it would be nice if we cared enough to know the names of more people, famous or not, who are role models for compassion.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons / Finetooth / CC BY-SA 3.0

Kristin TruempyKristen Truempy accidentally discovered the strengths approach when she was 11 years old and captain of a girl’s soccer team. She used her skills of keen observation to discover each player’s talent, structured the practices accordingly, and a year later the team won the cup. In 2012, she had to admit to herself that this experience would not suffice to convince companies to pay her to set the strengths of their employees free, so she embarked on the adventure that is obtaining a Master of Science in Applied Positive Psychology (and recently passed). She can be found at http://strengthsphoenix.com/listen.

2 simple exercises to boost your happiness


Guest article by Dineke Kroesbergen

When I talk to a new coaching client, I always begin by explaining what positive psychology is. People tend to think that it’s only about looking at the upside of life while trying to avoid negative things, but it goes way beyond this superficial notion. When you implement positive practices from this field, you don’t disregard the bad stuff – you learn how to deal with it more resiliently while keeping the focus on the positive. You gently tip the balance toward a greater sense of well-being.

You can’t outrun the bad things in life, but you can counterbalance them by adding good stuff into the mix. Because of the negativity bias, we tend to give more weight to bad things and see positive things as neutral or normal – not special. However, when we learn to refocus our attention by becoming aware of all the good in our lives, we can rewire our brain over time.

To do this, I recommend combining two exercises: 3 Good Things and the Balance Exercise.

3 Good Things

The positive psychology exercise 3 Good Things asks you to focus on three good things that happened to you on a given day. In the beginning, you might find it difficult to come up with something that you consider “good enough” to be on your list – that’s perfectly normal and no reason for self-criticism. You will find that it gets easier over time and that once you think of one good thing, more good things tend to follow. It’s best to do the exercise daily for 10 minutes until it becomes a habit.

For each good thing, give it a title (a sentence that summarizes what happened), then write down as much detail as possible. Try to recall how you felt during the event and consider how it makes you feel now. The final step is to write about how this event came about – what caused it?

For example, a 3 Good Things entry might look like this: 

  1. My boyfriend cooked me my favorite dinner.
  2. When I came home tonight, I was surprised to find my boyfriend cooking my favorite dish. He knows how much I love it. He had set the table and uncorked a bottle of wine when I entered the dining room. Soft tones of Katie Melua music and the delicious smell of this lovely food filled the room with warmth.
  3. The event made me feel very loved and appreciated. When I think back, I still feel warm and happy inside.
  4. It happened because my boyfriend took the time to show me his appreciation of our relationship, like I also do on occasion.

The Balance Exercise

To get even more benefit from 3 Good Things, you can combine it with the Balance Exercise.

Take out a sheet of paper and divide it into four columns. Columns 1 and 2 are titled Energy Givers and columns 3 and 4 Energy Takers. Columns 1 and 3 get the subtitle Things I Can Do Without and 2 and 4 are called Things That Have to Be Done. Look back on a representative week and fill in the columns with as many items as possible. For example: Column 1: reading, Column 2: spending time with friends, Column 3: grocery shopping, Column 4: commitments concerning my job.

This exercise alerts you to “energy leaks” that are tipping your well-being balance toward the negative. See if things in column 4 are really necessary or if you can handle them differently (or let them be handled for you). Maybe, after a closer look, they aren’t as nonnegotiable as you thought.

Furthermore, try to come up with new things you can add to the Energy Givers column. To do this, you can now consult your 3 Good Things exercise: pick out the things that routinely make you feel good and try to schedule them for the future. Planning things by writing them down is proven to work better than just planning them in your head.

In combining the Balance Exercise with 3 Good Things, we come to a better understanding of happiness: it’s about taking responsibility and consciously adding things to your life that make you feel good, while leaving out things that are unnecessarily dragging you down.

Photo by Flickr user Digitalnative

Dineke KroesbergenDineke Kroesbergen is a psychologist from the Netherlands. She studied Social Psychology and is currently working on becoming an expert in Positive Psychology. She has recently started her own company Happiness First, which focuses on coaching people to obtain more happiness in life, in order to reach their full potential. The three cornerstones for this are: finding a sense of serenity within yourself, obtaining good relationships with people around you, and from that focusing on becoming the best you can be. She also offers coaching internationally through Skype. For more information, see www.happinessfirst.nl

3 ways to be mindful without meditating

coffee meditation

Guest article by Kristen Truempy

When people hear mindfulness, they usually think about meditation. But meditation is not the only way to become mindful. Actually, almost anything you enjoy is perfectly suited to improve your mindfulness.

Before we start, let’s look at what we mean by mindfulness: the ability to direct our attention and to experience what is going on in the present moment. Being present in the moment increases the quality of the experience we are having, so it’s not just about future benefits. It’s about letting the present truly touch you.

1. Writing

When I started writing short stories, I suddenly became much more aware of my surroundings. I left the house each day and experienced something new: a glittering piece of plastic or a whiff of earthy river that I had passed by for years and years. My writing friends forced me to take notice and use these details in my stories.

When you write, the character you’re describing does not just drive a car but actually drives a frog-green Mini because it’s an ice-breaker with the ladies. Details matter – without the lost glove on the street or the smeared coffee cup, readers are less willing to enter your fictional dream because it just doesn’t seem real enough. So if you’re interested in writing, that can be a great way to hone your powers of observation and mindful recording of what’s going on. 

2. Photography

Photography deepened my mindfulness by teaching me to pay attention to the quality of light, where it’s coming from, and how lines are everywhere, from actual lines at pedestrian crossings to the ones our eyes perceive when we see a few lampposts in a row.

My point is that the ability to work on our attention can be practiced when we’re doing things we enjoy and are motivated to learn anyway. If you don’t like meditation for some reason, it doesn’t mean that the benefits of mindfulness have to elude you forever. You can enter mindfulness through any activity you enjoy.

3. Sports

Games like soccer are another wonderful way of practicing mindfulness. You pay attention to people’s strengths and weaknesses because you want to beat them. “That guy is a fast runner, but can’t stop a ball well enough to hold on to it.” This very ability to notice small things about our fellow human beings is a great way to train your attention. If you can do it on the soccer field, you can do it in daily life.

Writing, photography, and sports are only three possibilities to train mindfulness without meditation. Can you think of any others?

Why would you care about such things? Because even one tiny moment, devoid of anything loud and exciting, can be filled with so much happiness that you remember it forever. Even years later, you can experience profound peace in recalling the simple act of watching a waiter pick up used coffee cups with a clink or staring at a spider web full of twinkling raindrops illuminated by the sun. Meditation surely helps, but it’s not the only way to mindful living.

Photo by Flickr user { lillith } 

Kristin TruempyKristen Truempy accidentally discovered the strengths approach when she was 11 years old and captain of a girl’s soccer team. She used her skills of keen observation to discover each player’s talent, structured the practices accordingly, and a year later the team won the cup. In 2012, she had to admit to herself that this experience would not suffice to convince companies to pay her to set the strengths of their employees free, so she embarked on the adventure that is obtaining a Master of Science in Applied Positive Psychology (and recently passed). She can be found at http://strengthsphoenix.com/listen.

4 ways to become more optimistic

mindfulness tips

Guest article by Kristen Truempy

There’s a missing link in lots of articles about optimism: they often tell us what we shouldn’t do. Don’t take things personally, compare yourself to others who are better off, or pay attention to negative news or people.

All of this is true and valuable, but the brain does not like space. Once we make some headspace by clearing out the negativity, it needs to fill in the gaps.

So it’s not enough to stop doing something. For everything that you stop or avoid, it’s best if you replace that activity with something that is truly interesting or fun to you. Otherwise, as you sit miserably by yourself instead of joining in the gossip at work, you won’t last for long. If you just stop watching TV but then stare at the pile of dirty dishes, chances are the TV will be on again soon.

Instead, we have to fill up our brain with the equivalent of healthy veggies and fruits. Here are some suggestions:

1. Set your homepage to something inspirational so that you get to see positive articles at least once a day without having to think about it. Chances are you will get interested and start reading more positive articles and fewer negative ones.

2. Customize your Facebook or Twitter stream. If one of your acquaintances is constantly posting the slogans of the political party you hate and it bums you out every time you see it, why not do something about it? Remove them or at least adjust the settings so you don’t have to see their updates all the time.

Maybe someone is always posting memorable quotes or images that lift you up? Make sure to configure your settings so you see most of that person’s updates. You only have to do this a couple of times and from then on, your feed will automatically become a more positive place to hang out. Also make sure to connect with more like-minded people. Joining Facebook groups or setting up Twitter lists is a great way to do this.

These two strategies require very little effort and will put positivity right in front of your nose. The next two strategies are for those of you who would like to spend even more time thinking about things you find interesting and enjoy.

3. Try audiobooks and podcasts. Are you still listening to the radio even though you don’t really like what’s on it? You just prefer to listen to something instead of silence? Switch to audiobooks or podcasts instead. Podcasts are audio files you can download and subscribe to for free and listen to anywhere on your phone. They are a great way to be entertained or educated about something that is interesting to you. This can be your substitute for the negativity, that something to fill your headspace – and make you much less tempted to fall back into old habits.

4. Develop a skill you enjoy. Learning something interesting gives your brain a healthy obsession. It will also automatically change the way you perceive the world. You will become a connoisseur instead of just a judge, who boxes everything into “like” and “don’t like.” Once you learn to pay attention to how websites are designed or really good pictures are taken, for example, you will appreciate the efforts of others, even if you don’t always resonate with the topics they cover or their passions.

The suggestions above sound simple and maybe small. But every moment you spend thinking about something interesting or positive is a moment you are not thinking pessimistically. And from emotion research, we know that positive emotions don’t just feel nice; they build resources for the future as well. As you add more and more small positive moments to your day, the good feelings they create, the knowledge you gain, and the relationships you build and deepen will all contribute to a more friendly climate in your brain.

Photo by Flickr user Ali Karimian

Kristin TruempyKristen Truempy accidentally discovered the strengths approach when she was 11 years old and captain of a girl’s soccer team. She used her skills of keen observation to discover each player’s talent, structured the practices accordingly, and a year later the team won the cup. In 2012, she had to admit to herself that this experience would not suffice to convince companies to pay her to set the strengths of their employees free, so she embarked on the adventure that is obtaining a Master of Science in Applied Positive Psychology (and recently passed). She can be found at http://strengthsphoenix.com/listen.

The grandpa of positive psychology

colorful socks

Guest article by Kristen Truempy

No, I am not talking about Mike or Marty. Gratitude is the grandpa of positive psychology: constantly re-telling the same old tales as we politely sit there, do the eye-rolls, and think, “I have heard this a million times.” Count your blessings, three good things, yadda yadda yadda.

Or how about the recurring Facebook challenges where people state what they are grateful for – and after about 10 days of this, people get gratitude overkill and it all dies down?

Haven’t we covered that enough? Isn’t it more important to delve into other, less-researched positive psychology topics? Hasn’t gratitude reached mainstream, mission accomplished?

First of all, it’s remarkable that 10 days or two weeks of Facebook gratitude peeve people off more than, say, 15 years of cat pictures. But wait: if people posted the same three cat pics for days, weeks, or years, surely nobody would care about them anymore? Repeating the same stereotypical reasons you are grateful (my family, my health) helps you tick off something from your to-do list; but in terms of raising your happiness, you might as well de-fluff your belly button if you can’t be bothered to put a little bit more effort and thought into the exercise.

That’s precisely the heart of the matter: reading the same stuff about gratitude gets boring. Reading about gratitude gets boring, period. Feeling authentic gratitude never does. When your heart is open, raw, and genuinely touched, it’s not possible to be bored.

Like so often in life, we need variety and a little bit of effort. Not too much effort though, I promise, because you can be grateful about almost everything. Look at your socks. No, really, take a break from reading this article and look at your socks.

Do you have any idea how many things had to happen so that you could walk into the store and buy socks? How, luckily, no great bug plague of biblical proportions descended on the cotton fields and ruined all the cotton? Somebody actually picked the cotton. Other people had to figure out the best way to clean it, store it, and transport it. Many years of science went into how to transform the fluffy stuff into cloth. Then they converted the cloth into the socks. On it goes; you get the picture.

Sure, all these people were doing their jobs. But if you think about it, your socks have seen more of the world than you might have and they’re an everyday miracle that keep your feet from smelling and blistering up. So much had to go right just so that you could wear a pair of socks.

And that’s not even touching on the real miracles: people with blue hair and a rat on their shoulder reminding us that maybe looks and conformity are not the only possible path. Our desire to become a better version of ourselves and do something about it, like reading this article right now. Or seeing the face of a loved one witnessing the New Year’s Eve fireworks.

If gratitude is boring to you, maybe add blue hair and a rat to it and see what happens. Be grateful for something you have never been grateful for before. Express your gratitude even if the little voice in your head says it’s weird or unnecessary. Take risks, go deeper, or just be a little crazy with your gratitude. That should take care of your boredom alright.

Photo by Flickr user Theen Moy

Kristin TruempyKristen Truempy accidentally discovered the strengths approach when she was 11 years old and captain of a girl’s soccer team. She used her skills of keen observation to discover each player’s talent, structured the practices accordingly, and a year later the team won the cup. In 2012, she had to admit to herself that this experience would not suffice to convince companies to pay her to set the strengths of their employees free, so she embarked on the adventure that is obtaining a Master of Science in Applied Positive Psychology (and recently passed). She can be found at http://strengthsphoenix.com/listen.

Beat the winter blues with gratitude

winter blues gratitude

Guest article by Karen M. Pettrone-Keber 

Winter has arrived and with it an increase in SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) cases. According to long-standing research conducted by the National Institutes of Health, the winter season ignites feelings and moods of depression for many, especially for those living in the northern parts of the US with less daily sunlight.

I am one such unwilling victim of SAD, and it has taken more than just sitting in front of a light box to quell my dis-ease with the symptoms! So, as a middle-aged person, I decided not to wish away one-third of my life each year. Instead, I make it a habit to practice ways of enriching the dark days of winter – and these rituals start and end with gratitude.

So, if you are game, let’s begin!

First off, I “Jot ‘n Journal” the start of my day in gratitude. Before my feet touch the floor, I take a deep breath and smile. I keep a notebook by the bed and jot down a few things I will be thankful for during the hours to come. For example, a warm shower, a great forthcoming project that needs work, or a hot cup of morning tea. These written reminders can keep me focused on what I have and not on thoughts of lack, scarcity, or stressors of the day ahead.

Next I drop, stop, and give myself 10-15 minutes of fun. Yes, you read that right! This time off might even come in the middle of a project. I make this a regularly occurring priority each day to drop what I am doing and engage in an activity I love. Whatever it is, I make sure it is not work- or errand-related. Examples could include a short walk outdoors, enjoying a simple piece of fruit, or a social phone call to a friend or family member. Just remember, it is not a chance to “catch up” or remove something from the endless to-do list! “Productive” is not a word attached to this planned activity.

Finally, as the day grows to a close and darkness returns, we come full circle back to gratitude. I call it “thanks for the memories” time. In the same journal I started my day with, I end with moments of reflection and thanksgiving. I jot down at least one thing I felt good about during the day. It could be something that woke up one of my five senses, like a wonderful scent, or a good deed gone unnoticed, a great meal, or anything that makes me remember the infinite, wonderful things in life.

Taking it one step further, I enter something to be grateful for that I recall another person did during the day. A favor, a smile, or gestures of kindness are all examples of such.

And the final journal entry is a short list of things to be continually thankful for such as health, happiness, and simply being. Research shows, and your body knows, that when the focus is on the positive you will always feel the warmth, the light, and the happiness life has to offer, regardless of the season…guaranteed!

Photo by Flickr user malavoda

Pettrone-KeberKaren M. Pettrone-Keber is a life strategist who helps individuals explore their creative, expressive nature. With a degree in psychology and an advanced degree in education, she continued her schooling by successfully completing a certificate program in nutrition, herbalism, and aromatherapy from the American College of Healthcare Sciences. In addition to establishing her coaching business, Karen has spent decades as an educational consultant and literacy specialist. Today, Karen offers a wide range of programs and services to people of all ages, including families with young children, women seeking a new and exciting path, or anyone seeking a more balanced and happy life journey.

Discovering self-compassion at age 57


Guest article by Franca De Caria-Fagan. 

The idea of practicing self-compassion is not easy for me to consider. When I think of it, like I have now and then, I find myself dismissing it quickly, as if spitting out a bitter concoction meant to heal my flu overnight.

I am at a life crossroads right now. A 57-year-old version. Not as romantic in theory as when I was in my late 30s, or early 40s. There seemed to be more cheerleaders then, and more hands reaching out to support me. Of course, there is also more darn baggage to carry this time! 

The biggest of all is a neon sign over my head, blinking maniacally like those crazy Christmas lights. It reads: “failure.” A simple word. Expressive. Telling. “Thanks, failure, nice of you to drop by…l was just starting to, well, think you’d forgotten where I live.”

I am ending a 16-year relationship. To be honest, it ended long ago. I just hung on. I was still there holding on to the rafters, barely surviving emotionally. Years of excuses to myself. Did I say excuses or self-compromise? Years of self-compromise. Did I say self-compromise or dishonesty? Years of dishonesty to my heart.

My problem: I did not want to face the pain of being alone, feeling I did not succeed, feeling like a failure. None of my coworkers or friends shared this torturous embarrassment. They all appeared to have loving, supportive husbands. They were deeply committed. Happy, emotionally fulfilled. They belonged to an exclusive club that I couldn’t be part of. Secretly, I felt inferior to them. Depending on which team of friends I was trying to gain support from, I talked about my situation differently. 

Needy and desperate version: “Oh my God, I’ve done everything for that man! I’ve been like a wife to him. I cleaned, did laundry, cooked, shopped – what didn’t I do for him? Whyyyy won’t he commit to me!”

Cool and nonchalant version: “Oh, I don’t know. Whatever. I’m fine. I mean, we have companionship. If we got married, it would wreck everything – guaranteed. I think staying uncommitted keeps it fresh. I’m pretty happy with the way things are. Really.”

Unauthentic version for my boyfriend: “I love you. I understand. You are afraid. It’s okay. I can live like this forever, uncommitted. We are still happy. I love you. It’s all okay. We should feel blessed we have anything at all. No need to be greedy!”

Poor team of friends. Poor boyfriend. Poor me. If only I had known about positive psychology and the science of happiness at the time. I could have been authentic – I could have had just one version of thoughts and feelings to deal with.

Being an actor in your own home is easy when you play a part. But finally, in my home, it seems the curtain is down. The play has ended. The props are packed. I am taking off my makeup and removing my costume. Plop! Who is this I see in the mirror, shyly looking back at me? I look different. Stronger. More certain. Resilient. Hopeful. Deserving. “Allow me to introduce myself,” self-compassion says to me as she extends a strong arm and shakes my hand. “What can I say?” I reply, as I shake her hand happily in return. “I’ve waited 57 years to meet you.”

The science of self-compassion was pioneered by Kristin Neff of the University of Texas at Austin. It means changing our inner dialogue from critical to supportive, understanding, and caring. With self-compassion, I notice the neon failure sign on my head is gone. It seems failure has left again, hand in hand with “unsuccessful.”

One day at a time. More and more, I hear the new version of myself: “I’m not perfect. But I am learning to love myself. Starting over will be hard, but I am confident I will be okay. Really.”

Photo by Flickr user Abhi_Ryan

FaganFranca De Caria-Fagan is a certified member of the Canadian Health Information Management Association. She has worked in hospital settings for 34 years. Franca enjoys yoga, writing, cooking, and gardening, though she has yet to purchase a good green thumb. The science of happiness excites, challenges, and motivates her.

How to keep the gratitude going beyond Thanksgiving

6101003565_4cc39015fb_zIf you ask a psychologist how to become more grateful, most likely they’ll give you the typical advice: keep a gratitude journal.

Gratitude journals not only make us more grateful, but they’ve been scientifically proven to make us feel better about life as a whole; feel more optimistic, energetic, determined, and attentive; offer more support to others; and have fewer health complaints.

Still, not everyone has the discipline to sit down at night and write three things they’re grateful for. Even if you use an app like Happier, as I do, you can still find yourself in a gratitude slump from time to time.

But there’s a reason why we all manage to scrounge up something to be grateful for on Thanksgiving: social pressure! If you can’t come up with anything to share around the dinner table, well, you’re just making everyone wait that much longer to take a juicy bite of turkey.

Luckily, we can use that social pressure (or accountability or motivation, if those sound less burdensome) throughout the rest of the year. All we need is a gratitude buddy, someone who also wants to stay grateful and is willing to share their objects of gratitude with us. Here are three ideas for how to do it:

By email

A week ago, I decided it might be nice to do a gratitude exercise with my dad. We talk on the phone weekly and email occasionally, and I thought this could help us stay in touch, stay positive, and share our lives with each other. I sent him a few things I was grateful for and invited him to reply.

Now, I look forward to getting those emails full of positive things in the life of someone I love, ranging from the funny to the heartfelt:

  • “Two big branches fell down in yesterday’s heavy snow and just missed Mom’s new car.”
  • “Knicks are getting better…they lost again, but in overtime.”
  • “I am grateful I have found my love of sculpting.”
  • “I am grateful that a cow gave me a new heart valve that seems to be working so well.”
  • “To finally realize what I should have been…an explorer.”

At the dinner table

After discovering such strong links between gratitude and joy in her research, Brené Brown started a gratitude practice with her family at dinner. For the past few years, after saying grace, they all have been saying one thing they’re grateful for.

“It changed my family and the way we live every day,” she says. “Not only does it absolutely invite more joy into our house, it’s such a soulful window into my kids’ lives.”

Her young son is often grateful for things like bugs or frogs, but sometimes he talks about getting picked up early from school or understanding adjectives. For a full month after a friend’s mother died, Brown’s daughter was grateful that her family was healthy.

Although her kids were a little hesitant at first, now they’re fully playing the role of accountability partners in gratitude. Brown recalls, “On those crazy-busy nights, where we’re trying to get to soccer and piano and homework, and [my husband] and I just say a quick prayer and we start eating, my kids are like, ‘Woah. What are you grateful for?’”

Before bed

Gratitude journaling has been shown to help some people fall asleep faster, sleep longer, and feel more refreshed in the morning. This led researcher Robert Emmons to conclude: “If you want to sleep more soundly, count blessings, not sheep.”

So a little gratitude before bedtime couldn’t hurt, right? We can do this with our kids or with our partner. Professor Martin Seligman does an exercise with his kids called “Best Moments,” where they review the things they liked and didn’t like about the day. With our partner, we might list things we’re grateful to them for or just positive moments from our day.

Beyond giving us some motivation and accountability, having a gratitude buddy will probably end up strengthening our relationship to them – which is something else to be grateful for.

Photo by Flickr user Kate Ware

Year of Happy two linesWant to learn gratitude and 11 other happiness habits? Join us for The Year of Happy, a free online course starting January 1 to help you get happier in 2015. Explore the science of happiness and apply it to your own life, all in 2 hours a week. Find out more or sign up here!

7 surprising scientific facts about gratitude

gratitude thank you

If conversation is lagging around the Thanksgiving dinner table and your relatives are threatening to tell embarrassing stories about you, why not break out some of these scientific facts about gratitude?

Gratitude is one of the most well-researched concepts in positive psychology, with countless studies looking at its benefits and how to maximize them. Keeping a gratitude journal, or “counting your blessings,” is one of the most-recommended happiness practices ever.

So what does the science have to say about gratitude, beyond the fact that it’s the best thing since apple pie and you should be doing it more? Here are some surprising facts about gratitude: 

1. Women are more grateful than men

A national survey on gratitude, which polled over 2,000 Americans, found that women tend to be more grateful than men. This confirms the findings from another study, which found that American men are particularly uncomfortable expressing gratitude (compared to women and compared to Germans). The Youth Gratitude Project also found that girls are more grateful than boys, suggesting that the difference starts early.

2. People are less likely to express gratitude at work than anywhere else

That same national survey found that work is the last place you’re likely to hear gratitude. Only 10% of people say thank you to their colleagues on any given day, and 60% of people never express gratitude at work.

3. Gratitude is good for your cholesterol

UC San Francisco professor Wendy Berry Mendes is investigating the health effects of gratitude, and her preliminary findings show that grateful people have higher good cholesterol and lower bad cholesterol, as well as lower blood pressure. One of the reasons for this might be gratitude’s effect on stress.

4. Grateful people spend more time exercising

More grateful people – who see their health as a blessing or a gift – may take better care of themselves. In one study by professors Robert Emmons and Mike McCullough, people were asked to list five things they were grateful for once a week for 10 weeks. Among a host of other benefits, they spent more time exercising than a control group. 

5. Gratitude can improve your zzz’s

In another study, people were asked to keep a gratitude journal every day for two weeks. For people with neuromuscular disorders, this exercise improved sleep (among other benefits). They were able to fall asleep faster, sleep longer, and feel more refreshed in the morning. This led Emmons to conclude: “If you want to sleep more soundly, count blessings, not sheep.”

6. Gratitude could help you achieve your goals

In one six-week study, people doing a gratitude exercise worked harder at their goals and made 20% more progress toward them. This might be because gratitude makes us more energetic.

7. You can overdo it

Despite all the benefits of gratitude, you can practice it too much. A study by UC Riverside’s Sonja Lyubomirsky asked people to journal five things they were grateful for weekly or three times a week for six weeks – and only the weekly journalers became more grateful. That doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t count your blessings every day, just that the average person shouldn’t. Gratitude can become a routine chore, so it’s important to find your ideal frequency and mix things up from time to time.

Photo by Flickr user Jen Collins

Year of Happy two linesWant to learn gratitude and 11 other happiness habits? Join us for The Year of Happy, a free online course starting January 1 to help you get happier in 2015. Explore the science of happiness and apply it to your own life, all in 2 hours a week. Find out more or sign up here!

Why Americans are bad at gratitude

be thankful

“I’m thankful for myself, my work ethic, and my flawless skin-care regimen. What about you, Aunt Karen?”

According to gratitude researcher Robert Emmons, anyone who gives this speech before Thanksgiving dinner is not only (probably) a narcissist but doesn’t understand gratitude at all. By its very nature, gratitude is directed outward – toward people, things, or a universe that has benefitted us.

Even when we say we’re grateful for something that seems internal, like our health, what we really mean is that we’re happy with our good fortune. We’re not patting ourselves on the back for eating salads for lunch. The way Emmons sees it, we cannot be grateful to ourselves. Proud or happy, perhaps, but not grateful.

As a result, gratitude means admitting that we’re not fully independent – which can be a scary thing. “In both extraordinary circumstances . . . and in more mundane affairs, we are dependent on countless others. Insomuch as we value our own autonomy, acknowledging dependence can be intimidating,” writes Emmons in his book Thanks!

A study published in the 1988 British Journal of Social Psychology found that Americans aren’t as comfortable with gratitude as other cultures. According to Happier Human, only 20% of Americans rated gratitude as constructive and useful, and only 10% experience it regularly and often. In contrast, 50% of Germans value gratitude and 30% feel it regularly.

This aversion was particularly palpable for men: one-third of American men preferred to conceal gratitude, some rated it as unpleasant or humiliating, and older men found it hard to express openly.

“Gratitude pre-supposes so many judgments about debt and dependency that it is easy to see why supposedly self-reliant American males would feel queasy about even discussing it. We don’t like being reminded that we needed help. We don’t want to be beholden to our saviors,” explains Emmons.

Seen this way, gratitude seems to run against many themes in American culture, like independence, individualism, and self-sufficiency. Good luck – that goes above and beyond what we deserve and inspires gratitude – suggests that meritocracy isn’t the only force at work in the world.

“We (especially in this society) do not like to think of ourselves as indebted. We would rather see our good fortunes as our own doing (whereas the losses and sufferings are not our fault). Like the emotion of trust, [gratitude] involves an admission of our vulnerability and our dependence on other people,” Emmons writes.

But Emmons’s recommendation isn’t for us all to sit around the fire and sing Kumbaya, arms linked as a symbol of our eternal dependence. The reality is more nuanced than that. Yes, we are interconnected to and interdependent on many other people, and relationships are a major source of happiness in life. To flourish, we need to find people whom we can trust and then accept their love and support. But it’s still our job to take responsibility for and determine the course of our lives. 

“Life is about giving, receiving, and repaying. We are receptive beings, dependent on the help of others, on their gifts and their kindness,” he writes. “Life becomes complete as we are able to give to others who are now in need of what we ourselves received in the past.” 

Photo by Flickr user Cindi Albright

Year of Happy two linesWant to learn gratitude and 11 other happiness habits? Join us for The Year of Happy, a free online course starting January 1 to help you get happier in 2015. Learn about the science of happiness and apply it to your own life, all in 2 hours a week. Find out more or sign up here!