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!

Finding Your Happiness Fit and the New Frontiers: Week 9 of “The Science of Happiness” on edX

On September 9, the first positive psychology MOOC (massively open online course) called “The Science of Happiness” launched on edX. A whopping 100,000 students were signed up to learn more about what researchers have discovered about how to be happier. Taught by Berkeley’s Dacher Keltner and Emiliana Simon-Thomas, the course promises guest lectures by Sonja Lyubomirsky and Barbara Fredrickson and is an amalgamation of videos, readings, and happiness exercises.

Now, the self-paced version of “The Science of Happiness” will run until May 31, when all quizzes and tests are due. If you’re taking the course and want a refresher, or are just a little curious, here’s a summary of the content for week 9, Finding Your Happiness Fit and the New Frontiers.

Intro to the cutting edge: Awe

The science of awe, beauty, and spirituality (Dacher Keltner)

One cutting-edge area in the science of happiness looks at profound positive states like experiences of awe, beauty, and spirituality.

We feel awe when we’re faced with something greater than ourselves that we can’t comprehend with our current knowledge. For example, we might feel awe on top of a huge mountain, or in the face of a revolutionary idea or a heroic person. Once reserved for the realm of religion, thinkers like Edmund Burke, Immanuel Kant, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Max Weber wrote about secular awe.

One study found that people feeling awe (induced by looking up at huge trees) felt less self-important and less entitled, and acted kinder and more generous (asking for less money to participate in the experiment).

Other research has shown that even brief experiences of awe increase modesty, humility, intellectual curiosity, and happiness, while having a physical effect that no other positive emotion does – lowering cytokine levels (associated with disease).

Our love of nature (or “biophilia”) makes sense from an evolutionary perspective: being drawn toward lush surroundings helps us find a resource-rich place to live.

As for spirituality, studies show that spiritual people are happier and less depressed. Why? The common answer is that spiritual people have strong communities, but it might also be because they have more experiences of awe.

“Can awe buy you more time and happiness?” by Stacey Kennelly

Various studies out of Stanford have shown that awe makes us feel like we have more time on our hands, even more than feelings of happiness do.

For example, writing about awe makes people less impatient and more likely to volunteer their time (but not their money) than writing about happiness. People feeling awe report being more satisfied with life and are more likely to choose to buy an experience (vs. a material good), which requires time to enjoy.

“Green peace” by Chris Young

To look at the effects of nature, Frances Kuo and William Sullivan studied Chicago’s poor Wells neighborhood, where some buildings have trees and some don’t.

They were surprised to find that 7-8% of the difference in crime between these buildings was accounted for by the presence of trees. Why on earth would this be the case? The researchers suggested that trees create a welcoming environment for socializing, and groups of people outside – and the social connections they create – deter crime. Also, while we may misinterpret people’s words and actions and escalate to violence when we’re fatigued and stressed, trees can help reduce that strain.

Kuo and Sullivan also found that greener areas were associated with more feelings of community and safety, and (for girls) more self-discipline, delayed gratification, impulse control, and concentration – all factors that contribute to success.

For children with ADHD, spending time in a park lowered their symptoms more than walking in an urban area.

Happiness practice #11: Writing about awe

Take 15 minutes to write in detail about an experience of awe. You might write about an encounter with nature, challenging ideas, art, an impressive speech or performance, or religion. This will boost your happiness because it helps put everyday troubles in perspective, gives you a sense of purpose and connectedness, and shakes up your routine ways of thinking.

Cutting-edge topic: Laughter and play

The functions and benefits of laughter (Dacher Keltner)

Laughter may seem frivolous and silly, but it actually evolved to help us survive. We laugh in response to contradictory pieces of information, reinforcing our curiosity and desire to learn. Laughter improves social relations by signaling playfulness and cooperation – and, in fact, primates do a laugh-like “pant hoot” when they want to play. Cultures around the world all have people whose role is to make others laugh. And while laughs vary in sound and intensity, they all involve a similar biological mechanism, a few bursts of air emitted from our throats.

While kids start laughing at age 4 and laugh hundreds of times a day, somehow adults have forgotten how to laugh – we can go weeks without a single laugh. On average, adults laugh 17 times a day while kindergartners laugh 300 times. But research suggest we could get a lot of benefits out of cultivating the art of laughter:

  • Health: Laughter calms the cardiovascular system, decreases blood pressure, and enhances immune function. For the elderly, it improves depression and sleep quality and (combined with exercise) reduces chronic pain and improves health.
  • Coping: Middle-aged widows who laughed when describing their partner six months after their death were in better psychological health several years later – less anxiety and depression, more purpose, and better relationships.
  • Relationships: Laughter can bring partners, strangers, and even adversaries closer together – although there are gender differences in how we laugh.

In the end, laughter makes us more light-hearted and reminds us that there are some things in life that just don’t matter.

“Why scientists want to make rats laugh” by Elizabeth Walter

Evidence from other species shows that laughter may play many important social functions – preventing conflict, promoting cooperation and bonding, and inviting play.

Rats laugh when playing, anticipating play, or anticipating reward. They also laugh when encountering new environments or new people, which scientists have likened to nervous laughter. When fights are brewing, they may laugh to diffuse the tension.

Likewise, chimpanzees “play-pant” while being tickled or chased, possibly an indication they want to play. In effect, laughing during a play fight ensures that things stay light and don’t escalate into real conflict. Chimps also laugh around their superiors as a way to appease them.

Play and the pursuit of happiness (Dacher Keltner)

Play is defined as unstructured, free, joyful time with other people, ranging from physical or mental games to bantering to play-acting. Play should feel purposeless and improvisational, be voluntary and fun, and allow us to forget about time and self.

Like laughter, play seems frivolous but plays (no pun intended) important functions. We can try out different skills (like pretending to be a chef), cultivate our identity, and learn about the physical world (like building sand castles). We also learn boundaries of safety, like when we play-wrestle and accidentally get hurt. And by thinking about different ways to use objects as play-props, we actually learn that there are different perspectives on the world and begin to cultivate empathy.

As such, it shouldn’t be surprising that play correlates with creativity, learning, and solving problems. It also boosts social connectedness and well-being while lowering stress. One investigation into people prone to pathological violence found that they never played when they were young.

“Can we play?” by David Elkind

For children these days, there’s a disturbing trend toward less play. Kids play eight hours less a week than they did 20 years ago, and over 30,000 schools have eliminated recess. In 2003, kids spent 50% less time outside than they did six years before.

A variety of factors are driving this trend. Technology is drawing kids indoors, and more single and working parents means more kids sent off to be supervised by coaches and tutors. Thanks to a precarious job market, parents are pushing their kids to focus on academics to get ahead.

But they may actually be holding kids back from the benefits of unstructured, self-motivated, imaginative, and independent play.

Particularly when kids are very young, play shapes their brains. Babies babble to learn the sounds of language, and then play around with their legs to crawl, stand, and walk. “Socio-dramatic play,” or acting, lets kids find out if they’re more comfortable as leader or follower, outgoing or shy, and cultivates their faculties of imagination and prediction.

Studies have shown that play-oriented early childhood programs improve IQ, and play preschool decreases anxiety and boosts creativity and positive attitudes toward school (compared to academic preschools). Rather than being a waste of time, recess can make kids more attentive and better-performing in school.

As kids get older, play has different functions:

  • Early childhood: Learning colors, shapes, tastes, sounds, and more.
  • Elementary school: Learning respect, friendship, cooperation, and competition.
  • Adolescence: Exploring identities, staying healthy, and blowing off steam.
  • Adulthood: Promoting flow.

To cultivate more play, parents can schedule time for it, give kids more choice of what to do, and actually model it by playing themselves. Schools should put more value on recess and bring play into the classroom with more creative activities and less teaching to the test. And communities can set up more playgrounds.

Cutting-edge topic: Finding your “fit”

Person-activity fit (Emiliana Simon-Thomas)

Once we find activities that boost happiness, the next step is to figure out which activities work for which people. Research so far has shown that various factors make a difference:

  • Motivation and effort: How driven and committed we are to doing it.
  • Efficacy beliefs: Whether we believe we can do it and it will work.
  • Baseline affective state: How happy we are to begin with.
  • Social support: Whether other people will encourage us to do it.
  • Demographics: Age, sex, culture, socio-economic status, and more.
  • Characteristics of the activity: How often, how much, and what type of activity it is (e.g., social and interpersonal or reflective and individual).

“How to be happy: The fine print” by Stacey Kennelly

Here is some of the preliminary evidence on how these factors might make a difference:

  • Motivation: The same activity has a stronger effect when you call it a happiness exercise vs. a cognitive exercise – possibly because the people who sign up for a happiness exercise expect benefits. We also get better results when we’ve expressed a preference for a certain exercise before.
  • Effort: People who put in more effort get better results.
  • Baseline affective state: In general, happiness activities work better for people who are mildly depressed, not people who are happy or severely depressed.
  • Social support: Happiness practices work better after we read fake testimonials that say they’re effective.
  • Demographics: Westerners tend to get more benefit out of happiness practices than other cultures, but Asians may benefit more from activities that serve others. Adults tend to get better results than adolescents.
  • Characteristics of the activity: As we’ve seen in previous weeks, gratitude journaling is most effective once a week (vs. every day), and acts of kindness are more powerful when you perform five on the same day. In general, variety can help prevent an activity from becoming routine and stale.

When we’re choosing happiness practices, we should also think about our personality and life circumstances. Extroverts may enjoy more social activities, while incredibly busy people should find practices that don’t take much time.

Person-activity fit diagnostic

One preliminary way to measure whether an activity is a good fit is to see how much “self-determined motivation” we have to perform it. Self-determined motivation involves five factors:

  • Natural: The best activities feel easy to do.
  • Enjoyable: The best activities are fun, interesting, or pleasant.
  • Valuable: The best activities are the ones we believe are worth doing.
  • Guilt: The best activities aren’t done out of a sense of guilt or shame.
  • Situational: The best activities are ones we choose, not ones we feel forced into based on our circumstances or social pressure.

Sonja Lyubormisky: Happiness takes work

In the end, Lyubormisky views getting happier like dieting: it’s not easy, and it’s not something we do for a month and then stop. But the good news is that happiness practices can become habitual over time and take less effort from us.

Your happiness narrative

The power of narrative (Dacher Keltner)

Narratives are symbolic structures we use to make sense of our lives, and there are two main types:

  • Micro-narratives: Telling stories about our daily struggles and stresses.
  • Meta-narratives: The broader story of the self and our journey through life. It can include many elements of regular narratives like conflicts, turning points, themes, and major characters. Often, the narrative centers on ideas like suffering, compassion, forgiveness, or empathy.

Studies show that people who tell more vivid and engaging narratives have higher well-being later in life. Having more “possible selves” – different stories or identities – is correlated with less depression. And as we saw earlier, the Best Possible Self exercise increases health and happiness as we construct a narrative about a bright future.

“How stories change the brain” by Paul Zak

As a species, we’ve used stories to transmit values and information across generations long before writing. But powerful stories also have the potential to boost our oxytocin levels and make us better people in the long run.

Effective stories hold our attention and actually transport us into the characters’ world. As oxytocin levels increase, we emotionally resonate with the characters and imagine ourselves having their experiences.

Stories that do this tend to follow similar patterns, starting with something surprising, increasing tension and difficulties, and ending with a thought-provoking climax. The “hero’s journey” is one such story, where a hero helps out an innocent by changing and becoming a better person.

Oxytocin is that link between consuming stories and becoming better people: elevated oxytocin makes us more likely to donate to charity and plan to avoid unhealthy behaviors like smoking. And in one study, the people who donated to cancer research after watching a moving story about it had more empathic concern and well-being. So watching stories and being affected by them is linked to being more moral and being happier.

Activity: Expressive writing

Spend 20 minutes, four days in a row, writing about your strong feelings about a struggle in your life. Try to write without stopping, exploring how you’ve been affected and how it relates to important events and people in your life. Optionally, after four days, you can try writing about the struggle from the perspective of someone else involved.

This exercise has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression; strengthen the immune system and reduce doctor visits; improve work and school performance; and increase happiness up to months later. The idea is that we regain control of the difficulties in our lives when we write and give structure to them, rather than being plagued by rumination.

Synthesis and farewell

After nine week of “The Science of Happiness,” here are the key lessons that Dacher Keltner and Emiliana Simon-Thomas hope you’ll take away:

  • Kindness and compassion are in our biology.
  • Negative emotions are part of life, and what matters is how we deal with and recover from them.
  • Our attention is limited, and we are happiest when we’re focused on (mindful of) whatever we’re doing.
  • Change is hard, but possible.

They also encourage us to reflect on questions like these:

  • What information in this course was most engaging? Easiest or hardest to take in?
  • Which happiness practices were easier or harder to do, and why?
  • How can you improve your happiness beyond this course, by continuing some happiness practices or setting life goals?
  • How can you become more social, kind and compassionate, mindful, grateful, or positive?
  • How has your life narrative changed after learning all this information?
  • How can you spread happiness in your community?

Year of Happy two linesWant to keep learning about the science of happiness? Join us for The Year of Happy, a free online course starting January 4 to help you get happier in 2016. You’ll get weekly readings and videos by email and learn to apply the science of happiness to your own life, all in 2 hours a week. Find out more or sign up here!


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Gratitude: Week 8 of “The Science of Happiness” on edX

On September 9, the first positive psychology MOOC (massively open online course) called “The Science of Happiness” launched on edX. A whopping 100,000 students were signed up to learn more about what researchers have discovered about how to be happier. Taught by Berkeley’s Dacher Keltner and Emiliana Simon-Thomas, the course promises guest lectures by Sonja Lyubomirsky and Barbara Fredrickson and is an amalgamation of videos, readings, and happiness exercises.

Now, the self-paced version of “The Science of Happiness” will run until May 31, when all quizzes and tests are due. If you’re taking the course and want a refresher, or are just a little curious, here’s a summary of the content for week 8, Gratitude.

Week 8-1: Intro to gratitude and happiness

Intro to gratitude (Dacher Keltner)

Robert Emmons, the pioneering researcher on gratitude, defines it as the a feeling of reverence for something given. It occurs when, thanks to other people, something good happens to us that we don’t necessarily earn or deserve. Michael McCullough adds that gratitude involves benefitting from someone’s costly, intentional, voluntary action.

During the Enlightenment, gratitude was recognized as a major moral emotion that promoted cooperation. Robert Trivers, an evolutionary thinker, believed that reciprocal altruism was driven by gratitude.

More of gratitude’s benefits are discussed below, but we’ll see that it brings more optimism, life satisfaction, and happiness as well as less envy, possessiveness, anxiety, and depression. Gratitude is linked to more cooperation, generosity, compassion, and happier relationships. It makes leaders more pro-social and reduces post-traumatic stress in certain groups.

Robert Emmons: The power of gratitude

According to Emmons, gratitude includes two components. It’s a fundamentally positive mindset, where we recognize that there’s some good in the world. Because it’s always directed at something outside ourselves, it’s also a recognition that we’re dependent on others.

There are two types of gratitude: a momentary feeling we experience when someone benefits us, and a more long-term mindset, where we see everything in life as a gift.

In contrast, ungrateful people see life as a burden. They focus on the negative and see everything they don’t have, instead of what they do.

“Pay it forward” by Robert Emmons

In one study, people were asked to list five things they were grateful for once a week for 10 weeks. Compared to control groups, they felt more optimistic, better about life, and 25% happier. They also had fewer health complaints and symptoms of physical illness, and spent more time exercising.

In another study, people were asked to keep a gratitude journal every day for two weeks. At the end of it, they came out more joyful, enthusiastic, interested, attentive, energetic, excited, determined, and strong. They were more likely to support or help others, and other people did in fact rate them as more helpful. For people with neuromuscular disorders, this exercise led to more optimism and connection to others, positive emotions, and life satisfaction; along with fewer negative emotions. They were able to fall asleep faster, sleep longer, and feel more refreshed in the morning.

Research on grateful people has found that friends rate them as more supportive, kind, and helpful. As one study showed, gratitude is even more effective than a good mood in getting people to help others.

Why is gratitude so powerful? It’s hard to feel like the world is terrible when we notice all the things that other people are doing for us. And when we express that gratitude, it deepens our connection to others.

Happiness practice #9: Gratitude journal

This week’s first happiness exercise is the gratitude journal. One to three times a week, spend 15 minutes writing about five things you’re grateful for (doing it daily doesn’t have the same effect for most people). It helps if you get into the habit of doing it at a certain time.

To get the most out of it, focus on being specific and detailed instead of coming up with more things. If you need inspiration, think of the people you’re grateful for, any negative things you don’t have to deal with, and surprises in your life. Try to cultivate the attitude that good things in life are gifts. If you repeatedly list someone or something, focus on a different aspect of it.

This practice works because it helps shift our focus from the obstacles and negatives of life to the positives. And actually writing things down gives them more emotional impact.

The psychological benefits of gratitude

Psychological benefits of gratitude (Emiliana Simon-Thomas)

Grateful people and people who train to be more grateful experience more happiness and pro-sociality and less negative emotions, stress, and anti-social feelings.

How does this happen? On the positive side, gratitude helps us not only see more of the good in life but also get more benefit out of it as we savor the experience. And afterward, gratitude helps us remember and reminisce about positive experiences. In this way, it reduces habituation – we take things for granted less.

On the negative side, gratitude helps us get past crises in life. Grateful people are more likely to see a crisis in a positive light and less likely to disengage and blame themselves.

“Why gratitude is good” by Robert Emmons

Gratitude has a number of different benefits:

  • Psychological: Grateful people have more positive emotion and pleasure, and are more optimistic, energetic, joyful, and happy. Gratitude helps reduce the frequency and duration of depression.
  • Physical: Grateful people have stronger immune systems and lower blood pressure. They’re less bothered by aches and pains and take better care of their health, like exercising more. They also sleep longer and feel more refreshed in the morning.
  • Social: Grateful people are more helpful, generous, compassionate, forgiving, and outgoing; and less lonely and isolated.

By spotlighting something good, gratitude discourages us from taking things for granted, increases our pleasure, and bolsters our self-worth (because we can’t be that bad if people are being kind to us, right?). The positive attitude of gratitude helps us move past stress and actually prevents us from experiencing negative emotions like envy, resentment, and regret.

But gratitude is a bit radical in our society. It’s an admission that we’re not fully in control or self-sufficient, and we don’t always get what we deserve in life – we get more. It also challenges our “self-serving bias,” the way we tend to take credit for good things in life but blame the bad things on external causes.

In addition to the gratitude journal, we can cultivate gratitude by simply counting our blessings (in our head) daily.

Sonja Lyubomirsky: Gratitude brings happiness

Lyubomirsky’s study had people do a five-item gratitude journal for six weeks, either once or three times a week. She found that people became more grateful, but only if they did the exercise once a week.

“Stumbling toward gratitude” by Catherine Price

Price’s story of reluctantly becoming more grateful reminds us that the practices work, but we still have to allow ourselves to feel bad once in a while – we can’t be happy all the time.

“How gratitude can help you through hard times” by Robert Emmons

We might think that gratitude is only useful when things are going well, but it’s actually a powerful tool when life is hard. Although gratitude in these moments might not make us feel good, it can shift our perspective toward the positive.

For example, we can compare the current situation to the worst time in our life (or, alternatively, think about mortality). Probably, today will come out looking a little better.

We can also reframe the situation, or find positive ways of looking at it. After a negative experience, this gives people more closure and fewer negative emotions and intrusive memories. For example, people with debilitating illness express sincere and intense gratitude – often about everyday things. This shows us that gratitude can be a choice.

To reframe the experience, we can start by thinking about how we learned and became a better person. Although painful, it may have brought out some of our virtues or shown us what we have to be grateful for.

The physical and social benefits of gratitude

Physical and social benefits of gratitude (Emiliana Simon-Thomas)

Researchers call gratitude the “find, remind, and bind emotion”: it helps us find people to form relationships with, remind us of their good qualities, and bind us closer to them. For example, receiving gratitude from a partner makes us more satisfied with the relationship, and grateful sorority sisters made more friends three weeks later.

“Scientific insights from the Greater Good Gratitude Summit” by Jeremy Adam Smith

The Greater Good Science Center’s “Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude” was a three-year research project that funded 15 grants and 15 fellowships for grad students. Among some of the findings discussed:

  • Brother David Steindl-Rast (Benedictine monk) and Buddhist psychologist Jack Kornfield: The difference between miserable people who are well off and happy people who aren’t is gratitude.
  • Christina M. Karns: Gratitude is linked to cognitive control and reward systems of the brain.
  • Jeff Huffman: Gratitude helps people recover from heart attacks and deal with psychiatric problems.
  • Teri McKeever: Gratitude in sports can improve team spirit because people recognize how they help each other
  • Chris Murchison: People are less likely to express gratitude at work than anywhere else.

Wendy Berry Mendes: The physiological benefits of gratitude

The preliminary findings of Mendes’s research shows that grateful people have lower resting blood pressure, lower blood pressure responses to stressors, higher good cholesterol, and lower bad cholesterol. The mechanism by which gratitude affects health could be our oxytocin networks, potentiated behavior, vagus nerve, or stress pathway.

Philip Watkins: The social benefits of gratitude

Watkins compared the “three good things” gratitude journal to writing about things that made us proud or just random things, and found that the gratitude journalers became happier and kept becoming happier after the exercise. He believes that gratitude journaling trains our minds to notice good things, interpret situations positively, and think about positive events from the past.

Watkins characterizes gratitude as a moral or pro-social emotion. When we feel gratitude, it’s an indication that other people are acting properly toward us; it encourages us to return the kindness and express gratitude ourselves, reinforcing the moral behavior.

Gratitude strengthens our relationships several ways. We simply like grateful people, perhaps because they seem happier and more likely to help us. And they do help us, whether we have been kind to them before or not. Grateful people are more likely to want to work in groups (vs. alone), and they include others even at a cost to themselves.

“Love, honor, and thank” by Jess Alberts and Angela Trethewey

One of the biggest struggles between married couples is the division of chores: if one partner feels it’s unfair, they’re more likely to be dissatisfied and consider a divorce.

But sometimes the problem isn’t actually the division but the lack of gratitude. What happens is that one partner has a lower “response threshold,” which means they get annoyed by the mess and notice it earlier than the other partner. So they end up always being the person to take out the trash or do the dishes. Over time, that becomes “their” chore and their partner expects them to do it, so it’s no longer a “gift” that requires thanks.

The first way to solve this problem is to be aware of it. When you’re starting a relationship, remember this dynamic and don’t get assigned a chore by default. If you’re already further along, recognize that the partner with the higher response threshold isn’t lazy; they simply don’t notice the mess as early as you do. When they realize that you’re constantly taking out the trash (or whatever the chore is), they can start to express gratitude and will probably start feeling the desire to give back, too. Or, you can remind them when it’s time for a chore to be done and express gratitude when they do it. You can even take turns so both of you appreciate what the other is doing.

In the end, couples who feel appreciated by their partners resent the division of labor less and feel more satisfied in their relationships.

Challenges to gratitude

Two types of challenges to gratitude (Dacher Keltner)

On one hand, we may have trouble practicing gratitude because we run into tensions with our daily habits or personality. Gratitude goes against individualism, narcissism, materialism, and feelings of entitlement. Simply feeling too stressed and busy can also get in the way.

But we might also have reservations about gratitude because we worry it will make us complacent or over-accommodating. Or, perhaps we think we’re already grateful – we say thanks, of course – and gratitude during suffering isn’t possible.

Tom Gilovich: The psychological barriers to gratitude

Tom Gilovich is famous for researching differences in how experiences and material things make us happy, and he applied these notions to gratitude.

One barrier to gratitude is the “headwinds/tailwinds assymetry” – the way we tend to notice obstacles holding us back (headwinds) but not the things that push us forward. The solution is to take advantage of the headwinds – people prefer to hear about our experiences, and stories about obstacles are more interesting, so we can delight them with tales of our struggles. That way, we begin to see our struggles more positively (or at least get some social benefit out of them).

Another barrier is adaptation, but it turns out we adapt more to things than experiences. Over time we become happier with experiences we’ve had, while we become less happy about things we’ve acquired. As Gilovich explains it, experiences become part of who we are and connect us to others. We’re also more grateful for experiences than things, and thinking of an experiential purchase makes us more generous – while thinking of a material purchase makes us less generous.

“What gets in the way of gratitude?” by Robert Emmons

Emmons discusses other psychological barriers to gratitude, including misconceptions about gratitude itself. When we believe gratitude is just a feeling, we might think that there’s nothing we can do to feel more grateful. But in fact, gratitude is a deliberate way of thinking.

Another barrier, particularly common among Americans, is the desire to not be indebted to other people.

The last difficulty is narcissism: people who are ungrateful also tend to be self-important, arrogant, vain, and seeking admiration and approval. These sort of people tend to be self-absorbed and focus on their own issues, which makes it difficult to empathize with their helper and express gratitude. Although narcissism isn’t common, all of us exhibit some amount of narcissism from time to time.

Amie Gordon: Potential pitfalls of gratitude

Gratitude isn’t good for everyone in all places at all times. Gordon outlines five ways we might be doing gratitude wrong:

  • When we do it too much: We get the biggest happiness boost when we do gratitude journaling less than daily and detail a handful of things we’re grateful for.
  • When we don’t take any credit: We shouldn’t feel so grateful to others that we forget how our own contributions and effort made something possible.
  • When we’re grateful to the wrong person, as in an abusive relationship.
  • When it hides serious problems: We shouldn’t look for things to be grateful for when someone has seriously wronged us.
  • When there’s a power imbalance: Gratitude can be tricky in a superior/inferior situation, where superiors perceive gratitude from inferiors as sucking up.

“Five myths about gratitude” by Robert Emmons

Here are the myths Emmons described:

  • Gratitude makes us complacent, accepting whatever we have as enough. In fact, in one six-week study, people doing a gratitude exercise worked harder at their goals and made 20% more progress. In general, grateful people aren’t more satisfied with their progress toward their goals than less grateful people.
  • Gratitude is just a fluffy form of positive thinking. In fact, gratitude may come with some negative emotions from the realization that we’re dependent on and indebted to others. Also, gratitude increases positive emotions more than it reduces negative emotions, and it doesn’t reduce anxiety, tension, or unhappiness at all.
  • Gratitude makes us self-effacing. Studies have shown that recognizing the contributions of others doesn’t reduce how much credit we take.
  • We can’t be grateful in hard times. As Emmons details above in “How gratitude can help you through hard times” and “Pay it forward,” gratitude is particularly useful after a crisis and can help us see the bigger picture.
  • Gratitude is for religious people. Although religious people are a bit more inclined to be grateful, anyone can do it – and being grateful to God doesn’t mean we’re less grateful to other people.

Cultivating gratitude

Cultivating gratitude (Emiliana Simon-Thomas)

Besides the gratitude letter and the gratitude journal, we can become more grateful in our daily lives by saying thank you more and trying to appreciate and savor positive experiences.

“Six habits of highly grateful people” by Jeremy Adam Smith

Very grateful people:

  • Think about death and loss. Thinking about losing something we have, or actually giving it up for awhile, makes us appreciate it more.
  • Stop and smell the roses and take delight in little rituals.
  • See life as a gift, and themselves as bound to all of humanity with give and take.
  • Are grateful to people, which activates biological systems of trust, affection, pleasure, and reward. In contrast, being grateful to something like nature doesn’t make nature happier or strengthen our bond to it.
  • Are specific about their gratitude. Saying exactly what we’re grateful for seems more authentic – instead of a “Thanks for everything you do!” – so very grateful people express their understanding of the giver’s intentions, costs, and value given.
  • Can even be grateful for adversity.

Giacomo Bono: How can we cultivate gratitude in schools?

Bono’s Youth Gratitude Project looked at gratitude in kids and adolescents. He found that as children get older, the objects of their gratitude change: from basic things (like sharing food or cleaning up) to people meeting their psychological needs (like sharing or teaching them something) to socio-emotional things (like inclusion, support, and encouragement). The things they’re grateful for also start to overlap more with the ways they’re generous toward others, indicating the cultivation of empathy.

Bono has started to see that gratitude can be taught to young people and can increase their well-being. For certain children, gratitude was associated with more well-being, hope, meaning, pro-social behavior, and social integration (and less depression) four years later. Girls tend to be more grateful and less anti-social than boys, and the more grateful children have more role models, more caring teachers, and more extra-curricular activities.

“How to foster gratitude in schools” by Giacomo Bono and Jeffrey Froh

Teaching gratitude to adolescents and high schoolers has many of the same effects we observe in adults:

  • High school freshmen have more positive emotions, hope, meaning, life satisfaction, and happiness – and less negative emotions and depression – four years later.
  • Middle school students who keep a gratitude journal experience more optimism, satisfaction with school, and life satisfaction, as well as fewer negative emotions and physical complaints.
  • Students who do gratitude visits have more positive emotions up to two months later.
  • Adolescents who feel grateful tend to help others and feel like they’re using their strengths to contribute to society.

To foster gratitude in young people, we can teach them to notice other people’s intentions when they give or offer help, as well as the costs those people may incur. We can also teach them to value the benefits they receive as gifts, not things they’re entitled to.

Sara Algoe: How does gratitude affect romantic relationships?

Being grateful in a relationship reminds us how valuable the other person is, encourages us to do something nice for them, and increases our overall satisfaction with the relationship. To infuse your relationships with gratitude, fight off the tendency to take things for granted and notice the other person’s actions, and show your gratitude in a genuine way.

“Gratitude is for lovers” by Amie Gordon

Studies have shown that grateful couples feel closer and more satisfied in their relationships, and they’re less likely to be broken up 9 months later.

Gratitude actually creates a cycle of generosity. When we feel grateful, we want to stay in the relationship and work to maintain it with caring and attentive listening. Our partner then feels appreciated and grateful, and the cycle begins again.

“Four ways to make the most of gratitude” by Amie Gordon

To use gratitude to improve our relationships, we should focus on giving first – thanks to that cycle of generosity, it will eventually come back to us. We should think about giving the person something they want, which will generate more gratitude than an expensive gift we took hours to find. We can also try surprising them with something, or simply saying thanks for who they are as a person.

“Five ways to cultivate gratitude at work” by Jeremy Adam Smith

Work is a paradox, as far as gratitude goes: we want to feel appreciated and enjoy saying thank you to colleagues, and grateful bosses have better-performing teams. Yet work is the last place we can expect to experience gratitude – in fact, 60% of people never express gratitude at work.

The environment is certainly tricky: everyone gets paid to do a job, so gratitude might seem misplaced. And, as mentioned above, gratitude could be seen as weakness – admitting we need others’ help – or a form of sucking up.

But gratitude can actually make us feel respected, enhancing our sense of accomplishment, purpose, and self-worth. It can build trust between colleagues and make them more likely to help each other out.

Here are Smith’s five tips for cultivating gratitude at work:

  • Have the boss start, so the rest of the team feels comfortable with expressing gratitude.
  • Thank people with thankless jobs.
  • Focus on quality gratitude (that goes into detail) rather than lots of cursory thanks.
  • Let people express and receive gratitude in their own style, from gratitude walls to gifts to little gestures of help.
  • Use gratitude to help the team get through a crisis and see the positives.

Happiness practice #10: Gratitude letter

For the second happiness practice this week, the gratitude letter, think of someone whom you haven’t properly thanked and spend 15 minutes writing them a 300-word letter. Explain how they helped you, what impact it had on your life, and why you’re grateful. Also mention what you’re doing now and how you remember what they did for you.

The gratitude letter is most effective if you read it to them in person, but you can also do it over the phone or online. Set up a meeting but don’t tell them the exact reason for it. When the time comes, ask them to listen to the whole thing and then respond. As you read, observe their reactions and your own. Be open to having a conversation about it afterward, and give them the letter.

The gratitude letter’s happiness boost lasts over a month but less than six months, so some researchers recommend you do it every six weeks. It’s so effective because it reminds you that people in the world are looking out for you and strengthens your bond with one of them.

Year of Happy two linesWant to keep learning about the science of happiness? Join us for The Year of Happy, a free online course starting January 4 to help you get happier in 2016. You’ll get weekly readings and videos by email and learn to apply the science of happiness to your own life, all in 2 hours a week. Find out more or sign up here!


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Mental Habits of Happiness: Week 7 of “The Science of Happiness” on edX

On September 9, the first positive psychology MOOC (massively open online course) called “The Science of Happiness” launched on edX. A whopping 100,000 students were signed up to learn more about what researchers have discovered about how to be happier. Taught by Berkeley’s Dacher Keltner and Emiliana Simon-Thomas, the course promises guest lectures by Sonja Lyubomirsky and Barbara Fredrickson and is an amalgamation of videos, readings, and happiness exercises.

Now, the self-paced version of “The Science of Happiness” will run until May 31, when all quizzes and tests are due. If you’re taking the course and want a refresher, or are just a little curious, here’s a summary of the content for week 7, Mental Habits of Happiness.

Intro to week 7 (Emiliana Simon-Thomas)

This week, we’ll be learning about some of the mental habits that promote and detract from happiness. In particular, we’ll look at how to cultivate self-compassion, flow, and optimism while warding off perfectionism, materialism, and frazzle. We’ll also look at how setting the right goals can make us happier.

Toxic thoughts vs. training the mind for happiness

The fundamentals of training the mind for happiness (Dacher Keltner)

While a happy mind has positive patterns of thought, negative patterns are implicated in conditions like depression and anxiety. Toxic patterns of thought include:

  • Perfectionism, where we strive for perfection and almost always find ourselves lacking. Being praised in childhood for intrinsic traits (like intelligence) rather than changeable traits (like effort) can promote perfectionism.
  • Social comparison. Comparing ourself to those who are better off than us leads to lower self-perception, while comparing ourself to those who are worse off than us makes us look down on them.
  • Materialism. In fact, research has shown that buying experiences gives us much more of a happiness boost than buying things.
  • “Maximizing” rather than “satisficing.” Maximizers try to make the optimal choice (a form of perfectionism), while satisficers pick the first available choice that fits their criteria. Maximizers tend to feel more regret over decisions, and be less optimistic, more depressed, and less satisfied with life and with any success they do achieve.

In contrast, cultivating an optimistic pattern of thinking – where we believe the future will be socially desirable, good, and pleasurable – is good for our health and happiness. Optimistic people have higher subjective well-being, positive emotions, and vagal tone. In one study, optimistic young men were found to be healthier 35 years later. This is true as long as we don’t go to the extremes into wishful thinking or recklessness.

“Are you a maximizer?” by Christine Carter

Satisficing may seem to generate sub-optimal outcomes, but in fact it frees up our decision-making power for the more important choices. To become a satisficer, define your criteria for any given choice and stop looking when those criteria are met.

The next step is to focus on the positives of our choice, which our brains are wired to do. Studies by Daniel Gilbert have shown that we like our choices even more after we’ve made them – but only if we perceive them as set, unchangeable. In one case, participants ranked paintings and got to take home their third or fourth choice; 15 days later, the third had gone up in their estimation and the fourth had gone down. In another, participants who got to pick between two photographs were happier if they didn’t have a few days to change their mind.

“How to trick your brain for happiness” by Rick Hanson

We know that meditation shapes the brain, thickening areas like the insula and prefrontal cortex (areas used to observe our inner state and control attention, respectively). Routine meditators also retain more brain cells, while the rest of us lose 4% of ours as we age. These are all examples of how the mind can affect the brain, strengthening and connecting brain areas and releasing different chemicals. We also know that changes in the physical brain can affect our thoughts, emotions, and memory.

So how do we exploit this two-way pathway? We can change our minds by changing our brains by changing our minds. By scanning the world for little positive moments and savoring them, like a jewel or a warm light entering us, we can kick off changes in the brain that will make us happier not just today but down the road as well.

Misconceptions about training the mind (Emiliana Simon-Thomas)

We might be skeptical of these mind-training techniques because we believe they don’t work, or because the outcome seems undesirable. Isn’t the point of life to change and improve, rather than just accept things the way they are and naively believe the future will be better? In fact, mindfulness and the other techniques discussed help put us in better touch with reality so we can see things clearly and act from there. And thanks to neuroplasticity, science has shown that we are able to change.

Self-compassion: A path to resilience and happiness

Why we need self-compassion

Self-compassion, a concept pioneered by Kristin Neff, means changing our inner dialogue from critical to supportive, understanding, and caring.

Self-compassion goes against many countervailing trends in our history, culture, and religion. For example, ancient philosophies of virtue-based happiness and religious conceptions of martyrdom and sin preach the benefits of painful effort. Ideas like natural selection, behaviorism, and the primacy of competition lead us to think that only the best do (and should) survive, and the weak or the wrong should be punished. We have Freud on one side telling us we’re selfish and destructive, and the self-esteem movement on the other telling us to see ourselves as better than average. In short, a kind and accepting view of the self – flaws and all – doesn’t fit in here.

Kristin Neff: The three components of self-compassion

The three components of self-compassion, identified by Neff, are:

  • Self-kindness, the desire to comfort and soothe ourselves, and alleviate our suffering.
  • Common humanity, the ability to see our problems as something that every human experiences.
  • Mindfulness, the ability to notice and sit with our suffering.

“Why self-compassion trumps self-esteem” by Kristin Neff

Self-esteem and self-compassion might seem like opposites, but they actually go hand in hand. Self-compassionate people tend to have higher self-esteem, and both correlate with less anxiety and depression and more happiness, optimism, and positive emotion.

But the differences between the two are telling. As Neff explains it, the pursuit of self-esteem is the desire to be special or above average – and since half of us aren’t, we tend to get inflated egos and look down on other people. We may refuse to see our weaknesses and be at risk for narcissism, self-absorption, self-righteous anger, prejudice, or discrimination.

Self-compassion, on the other hand, starts with accepting ourselves despite our flaws. We feel less fearful, negative, and isolated because making mistakes is okay – everyone does it. For example, self-compassionate people are less likely to feel humiliated and incompetent when imagining a big mistake, and less anxious when admitting a weakness in a job interview.

Somewhat surprisingly, self-compassionate people actually take more responsibility for their actions. In one study, self-compassionate people who got neutral feedback about their speaking skills were more likely to attribute it to their personality (instead of, say, a mean observer) than people with high self-esteem. Mistakes and criticism don’t threaten them as much as they do for people who have to perform well all the time.

Finally, the self-worth of self-compassionate people varies less over time. Self-compassionate people engage in less social comparison, and they also have less of a compulsion to be right or get petty revenge.

Kristin Neff: Overcoming objections to self-compassion

Self-compassion might seem misguided: should we really just do whatever we want and then pardon ourselves, never holding ourselves to higher standards?

As we’ve seen above, self-compassionate people actually take more responsibility and admit their faults. Self-compassion includes the desire for long-term well-being, so self-compassionate people won’t spend all their lives relaxing because it takes too much effort to do anything. And self-compassionate people won’t wallow in self-pity because mindfulness gives them some distance from their feelings and common humanity gives them some perspective.

Perhaps the most challenging objection to self-compassion is the idea that we need an admonishing voice in our heads to spur us toward success. And we do – just not the self-critical voice that we’re all so used to hearing. Self-criticism scares us into believing that failure is unacceptable, and self-critical people tend to be more depressed, less confident, and afraid of failure. In contrast, a self-compassionate voice would motivate us with the desire for health and well-being – and we’d be more likely to listen.

The benefits linked to self-compassion (Emiliana Simon-Thomas)

Many studies have shown associations between self-compassion and different positive traits and circumstances, although they haven’t proven that self-compassion causes them. Combatting the negatives, self-compassion is associated with less anxiety, depression, rumination, perfectionism, and fear of failure. Self-compassionate people cope better with stressors and are more willing to acknowledge negative emotions.

On the positive side, self-compassionate people tend to be more wise, emotionally intelligent, curious and exploratory, optimistic, and happy. They tend to take more personal initiative and have better relationships, perhaps because they are more empathic, altruistic, and forgiving.

As for health, self-compassion is linked to better diet and exercise, less smoking, and seeking medical treatment when necessary. Tests of self-compassionate people showed less cortisol and greater heart-rate variability.

One study of self-compassion did show causation by training participants in it and observing how they changed from start to finish. Those who did the training indeed became more self-compassionate, as well as more mindful, socially connected, and satisfied with life. They were less depressed, anxious, stressed, and avoidant, suggesting that self-compassion is the cause of many positive outcomes.

Happiness practice #7: Self-compassionate letter

One of this week’s happiness practices is the self-compassionate letter, where you write a letter to yourself about something you’re ashamed or insecure about. Describe how it makes you feel, and express compassion and understanding. If that’s difficult, try to imagine you’re writing to a loved one. Remember that everyone has flaws, and think about how life circumstances may have contributed to you developing this quality. Think about how you could improve or cope with it, and read the letter later when you’re feeling down.

This practice has been shown to reduce shame and self-criticism while increasing motivation for self-improvement. Repeated over time, it can quiet our critical inner voice and cultivate a kind one.

Finding “flow”

Introduction to flow

Flow is an intrinsically rewarding state of mind that comes when we’re intensely engaged in an activity. With our hyper-focus, we can lose track of time and forget completely about ourselves and the environment around us. In flow, we tend to be more creative and productive and (afterward) feel exhilarated and satisfied.

For flow to occur, we need to have a clear goal and our skills need to match the challenge in front of us. We also need an environment where we can fully concentrate, and immediate feedback on whether we’re moving in the right direction.

Daniel Goleman: Focus, flow, and frazzle

Depending on the skills we have and the challenge we’re confronted with, we may be in a state of boredom, flow, or “frazzle.” In flow, we actually have moderate stress. Boredom is a state of low stress, where we try to focus but cannot. In frazzle, we’re stressed but performing poorly because we’re distracted by negative emotions.

“Can schools help students find flow?” by Jill Suttie

Unfortunately, today’s schools aren’t particularly conducive to engagement or flow. Students are obsessed with grades rather than learning, and everyone is forced to go at the same pace and change classes every hour. The low pay for teachers isn’t enough to attract the best talent, who would be better at engaging student attention. And in fact, almost 50% of students are bored every day at school (2009).

While being motivated by grades puts students at risk for cheating, depression, and drug abuse, the internal motivation of flow would have extraordinary benefits. Several studies have found that flow in a course makes students more likely to sign up for another course in that field or even major in it, and flow is also correlated with good grades.

To encourage more flow at school, we need to spark students’ internal motivation. For example, students tend to be more engaged when taking tests or working individually or in groups – active activities – rather than passively listening to lectures or watching videos. Students are more motivated to learn when they feel in control and challenged to do something that’s relevant to real life, with a supportive teacher standing by.

The Montessori method is one example of bringing more flow into the classroom. Students pick their own tasks and go at their own pace, and grade levels are intermixed. A study of Montessori found that students have less distraction and more positive emotion, energy, internal motivation, and flow.

“What Mel Brooks can teach us about group flow” by R. Keith Sawyer

While flow often happens when we’re alone, it can also make groups more creative and productive. Many of the conditions for group flow require a balance of structure and freedom to allow for the group to perform at its best.

For example, goals have to be focused but open for some interpretation. Group members should feel in control and autonomous, but flexible and responsive to the other members’ contributions.

In addition, it’s best if group members are familiar with each other so they have tacit knowledge about each other. When group members communicate, they should listen closely and participate equally. Rather than contradicting each other, groups should set their egos aside and follow the best ideas.

The ideal environment for group flow is somewhat separate, where the group has its own space and identity. And the potential for failure – like a band performing live, for example – adds the right amount of challenge and motivation to ignite flow.

How goal-setting can foster happiness

How goals can foster happiness

Goals give us a sense of hope, meaning, and purpose in life. But not all goals make us happy – we’re happier if we pursue “intrinsic” goals that are inherently valuable. These goals involve basic psychological needs around autonomy, competence, and connection to others. In contrast, extrinsic goals (like fame) are instrumental, pursued in order to get something else (like approval from others).

Beyond that, goals that also benefit the well-being of other people will give us a happiness boost. They’re called “non-zero” goals (as opposed to “zero-sum”).

Christine Carter: Mental habits that contribute to “the overwhelm”

Carter describes something called “the overwhelm,” the feeling that we don’t have enough time to get everything done in life. According to statistics, 2/3 of people feel like they don’t have enough time to finish their work, and 94% of working parents have felt overwhelmed “to the point of incapacitation.”

Carter identifies three modern habits that are to blame for “the overwhelm”:

  • The expectation that we can be productive all the time. Instead, we should recognize that our bodies go through ultradian cycles of energy and our willpower muscles eventually get depleted. To avoid burnout, we should work in small bursts (60-90 minutes) with breaks in between and try to reduce the number of little decisions we make every day.
  • Our commitment to multitasking. What we think is multitasking is actually task-switching, and it can increase the effort or time required for a task by 25%. In other words: stop multitasking!
  • Our digital addiction. Our constant access to email means we could work all the time, so we never have blocks of true relaxation. The solution is to set up times and areas where we don’t use our technology, and to strategically respond to messages instead of reactively replying immediately at all hours of the day.

Happiness practice #8: Best possible self

This week’s second happiness practice is the Best Possible Self exercise developed by Laura King. Take 15 minutes to write about a future life where everything is going as well as possible, from family and personal life to career and health. Be creative and specific, and focus on your potential rather than any past shortcomings.

Doing this daily for two weeks has been shown to increase positive emotion, possibly because it helps us identify goals, feel more in control of our lives, and maybe even decide to change things.

Year of Happy two linesWant to keep learning about the science of happiness? Join us for The Year of Happy, a free online course starting January 4 to help you get happier in 2016. You’ll get weekly readings and videos by email and learn to apply the science of happiness to your own life, all in 2 hours a week. Find out more or sign up here!


Read more Science of Happiness summaries!


Mindfulness: Week 6 of “The Science of Happiness” on edX

On September 9, the first positive psychology MOOC (massively open online course) called “The Science of Happiness” launched on edX. A whopping 100,000 students were signed up to learn more about what researchers have discovered about how to be happier. Taught by Berkeley’s Dacher Keltner and Emiliana Simon-Thomas, the course promises guest lectures by Sonja Lyubomirsky and Barbara Fredrickson and is an amalgamation of videos, readings, and happiness exercises. Now, the self-paced version of “The Science of Happiness” will run until May 31, when all quizzes and tests are due. If you’re taking the course and want a refresher, or are just a little curious, here’s a summary of the content for week 6, Mindfulness.

How paying attention can make you happier

Roadmap for week 6

This week looks at mindfulness, a nonjudgmental awareness of the present reality – our thoughts, feelings, sensations, and environment. In a mindful state, we aren’t thinking about the past or future but fully attuned to the now.

Matt Killingsworth: Want to be happier? Stay in the moment

Matt Killingsworth’s project, Track Your Happiness, looks at the correlation between happiness and mind wandering. It sends participants emails or text messages throughout the day and asks them how they feel, what they’re doing, and whether they’re mind wandering about pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral things. So far, he’s collected over 650,000 responses from 15,000 people and discovered that we mind-wander 47% of the time. You might think that mind wandering is a positive thing, since we can daydream of happy things or plan for a better future. But in fact, Killingsworth’s data shows that people are less happy when their minds are wandering. This is true even if we’re doing unsatisfying activities like commuting, and even if we’re thinking of neutral or pleasant things. Killingsworth was also able to show that mind wandering leads to unhappiness, rather than the other way around.

Defining mindfulness vs. mind-wandering

Although we might think mindfulness and mind-wandering are opposites, that’s not quite true. Mindfulness, according to pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn, is deliberately paying attention to the present moment in a non-judgmental way. Shauna Shapiro, another expert in the field, believes that mindfulness requires open, kind, and discerning attention. But we can actually be mindful while observing the wanderings of our mind.

“How to focus a wandering mind” by Wendy Hasenkamp

When our mind wanders during meditation, a group of brain areas called the “default mode network” activates. Scientists aren’t exactly sure what this network does – it may be directly involved in mind wandering or simply be carrying out brain maintenance when we aren’t thinking about anything in particular. As soon as we realize our mind is wandering during meditation, other brain regions for detecting relevant events light up. As we refocus our attention on the breath, the executive brain network takes over. Experienced meditators who repeat this process thousands of times start to show differences in the brain. They develop more connection between the self-focused part of the default mode network and brain regions for disengaging attention, which makes it easier to shut off that area of the brain when they realize their minds are wandering. Over time, meditation improves working memory, fluid intelligence, and standardized test scores.

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness techniques and the emergence of MBSR

There are many different types of mindfulness techniques, including breathing, sitting, and walking meditations; loving-kindness meditation; the body scan; and yoga. Meditations train the mind to cultivate a certain state, often relaxation. One of the most famous techniques is the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979 at the Massachusetts Medical School. The eight-week program helped translate Eastern traditions of mindfulness into a secular and mainstream context. He’s famous for the raisin meditation, where you imagine a raisin and examine it with all five senses. A 2011 meta-analysis of MBSR showed that it reduces symptoms of distress, anxiety, and depression. For people with physical conditions like chronic pain, it can enhance wellbeing.

Jon Kabat-Zinn: What is mindfulness?

The goal of meditation is simply to become awake. In fact, the Chinese character for mindfulness means “presence of heart.”

Jon Kabat-Zinn: The stars of our own movie

One of the great illusions that comes from a lack of mindfulness is seeing ourselves as “the stars of our own movie.” Everything is filtered through the lens of I, me, and mine. We get caught up in our thoughts rather than truly experiencing the world through our senses. But when we deliberately start cultivating awareness, we see that it has no center or boundary. Kabat-Zinn says that meditation is not the goal; the point of cultivating mindfulness is to learn to live our lives like they really matter now, rather than constantly living in regret or anticipation.

Shauna Shapiro: Intention, attention, attitude

These three characteristics are crucial to mindfulness. Intention involves knowing why you’re doing what you’re doing – having a goal or a north star. Attention means focusing on the present and not succumbing to the 12,000-50,000 thoughts we have every day. Attitude is how you do all of this – ideally, with acceptance, openness, curiosity, kindness, gentleness, warmth, and trust. “What you practice becomes stronger,” says Shapiro.

“What is mindfulness?” by Barry Boyce

Boyce prefers to think of mindfulness as something we already have, a basic human ability. We have the power within us to stop feeling reactive and overwhelmed, if only we cultivate it. That can be done through meditation, doing activities (like sports) meditatively, or just pausing from time to time in everyday life. Mindfulness does reduce stress and has other benefits, but it’s best if we do it as an end in itself rather than for the perks.

Happiness practice #5: Mindful breathing

Practice mindful breathing 15 minutes a day for a week or more. To do that, find a comfortable position and relax your body. Breathe naturally and start to notice where you feel your breath. Keep observing your breath; when your mind wanders, gently say to yourself “thinking” or “wandering” and bring your attention back to the breath. To come out of the exercise, notice your body again and feel grateful for the experience. This kind of mindful breathing helps us deal with stress and negative emotions and concentrate better. It’s been shown to elevate vagal tone and improve our ability to regulate our emotions, since it creates distance between ourselves and our thoughts and feelings.

Benefits of mindfulness for mind, brain, and body

Mindfulness and psychological well-being

Studies on mindfulness are mixed but mostly promising. Various types of meditation and mindfulness practices have been shown to promote coping; increase positive emotions (like compassion) and life satisfaction; and reduce stress, anxiety, pain, depression, depression relapse, and negative emotions. For teachers, mindfulness also reduced critical self-rumination as well as contempt and hostility for other teachers, while making them more able to judge others’ emotions. But some meta-analyses have suggested that mindfulness has no effect on positive emotions or no effect on life satisfaction.

Mindfulness and physical well-being

Beyond affecting the mind, mindfulness and the MBSR program lead to real changes in our bodies, too. They have helped people reduce chronic pain, improve psoriasis, and increase their immune response to the flu shot. One study of mindfulness/compassion meditation out of Emory University showed reductions in stress markers, and even a simple long exhale (ahhhh) increases vagal tone. And – last but not least – a three-month meditation training program boosted telomerase activity, indicating longer telemores and perhaps a longer life expectancy.

Mindfulness and neuroplasticity

Mindfulness literally changes our brains, making some areas more responsive, interconnected, and dense. In particular, these are areas related to empathy (the insula); memory, emotion, and emotion regulation; and reward circuitry. In response to distressing stimuli, meditators see more activation in their prefrontal structures (for awareness) and less in their fear-driven amygdala. Taken together, these changes make us more attentive and less distracted, more in touch with our emotions, more resilient and quicker to recover from stress, and more pro-social, optimistic, and kind – in a word, happier.

“Stalking the meditating brain” by Tracy Picha

Richie Davidson founded the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds (CIHM) at the University of Wisconsin. His studies show changes in gene expression after 8 hours of meditating in the lab. In other words, practices like meditation can have an effect on which of our genes are activated, changing us mentally and physically.

Shauna Shapiro: Mindfulness meditation and the brain

According to set point theory, our attitude and behaviors have a bigger effect on our happiness than our external circumstances – and that’s good news for mindfulness. Mindfulness shapes our brain by increasing gray matter in areas related to attention, learning, self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy, and compassion. One study of biotech employees who had never meditated before showed an increase in their left-right ratio of prefrontal cortex activity – which is associated with more positive mental states – as much as four months later. In other words, meditation can have a lasting impact on our brains and thus our happiness.

“A little meditation goes a long way” by Jason Marsh

Another study of the eight-week MBSR program showed increases in gray matter in three brain regions: the hippocampus (for learning, memory, and emotion regulation); the temporoparietal junction and posterior cingulate cortex (empathy); and the cerebellum (emotion regulation).

Happiness practice #6: Body scan meditation

Three to six days a week for a month, spend 20-45 minutes doing the body scan meditation. In this exercise, we focus on different parts of the body and notice any areas of tension or relaxation. We learn to be non-judgmental of our bodies, more accepting of any pain or discomfort rather than feeling bad about it. We may even learn to appreciate our bodies more and make healthier choices around them. The body scan incorporates observation and non-reaction, two aspects of mindfulness, and has been shown to improve psychological well-being.

“Which kind of mindfulness meditation is right for you?” by Hooria Jazaieri

There are many different types of mindfulness meditation, and (as with happiness practices) everyone has to find the right fit. One study looked at three types: sitting (breath), the body scan, and mindful yoga. It found that all three types reduced rumination and improved self-compassion and well-being. But sitting and mindful yoga were most useful: yoga improved well-being the most, while sitting made people less judgmental about their feelings and experiences. Both sitting and yoga improved emotion regulation.

Real-world applications of mindfulness

Applications of mindfulness research

Mindfulness techniques are used across a variety of disciplines, from relationships and childbirth to education and health care to prisons. Besides the effects mentioned above, here are some of the results:

  • More mindful partners report more sexual satisfaction.
  • More mindful students participate more.
  • More mindful teachers burnout less.
  • More mindful health professionals burnout less and have more self-compassion.
  • More mindful prisoners are less angry, hostile, and moody.
  • More mindful people with post-traumatic stress disorder have less symptoms of trauma, intrusive thoughts, avoidance, and hyperarousal.

In general, mindfulness improves our social interactions and makes us feel better about the world and our ability to deal with it.

“Mindful kids, peaceful schools” by Jill Suttie

The goal of teaching mindfulness to students is to create a better learning environment. In particular, it should help reduce anxiety, social conflict, and attention disorder while making students more aware, curious, non-judgmental, and calm. Susan Kaiser’s nonprofit, Inner Kids, is one of the organizations bringing mindfulness into schools. A study of 4th-7th graders found that mindful awareness techniques had many of the desired effects. Students became less aggressive and less oppositional to teachers, and were sent to the principal less often. Plus, they had more positive emotions and became more attentive, optimistic, and introspective. Another study showed that teaching mindfulness to teens with ADHD reduces their anxiety and increases their focus.

“Mindfulness at work” by Tara Healey

Mindfulness at work means noticing and examining the habits of behavior, thinking, and feeling that we’ve created. Sometimes, what appears to be a problem is only a problem because of the expectations or feelings we attach to it, not the reality itself. Healey encourages us to create some distance between ourselves and our emotions and simply observe. We can also keep an eye out for little assumptions or habits that are making us unhappy, like jumping for the phone when it rings. Finally, we can cultivate mindfulness by meditating as well as injecting it into everyday experience.

“To pause and protect” by Maureen O’Hagan

Even police and soldiers are being trained in mindfulness. One study of Marine reservists found that those who had trained in mindfulness had better cognitive performance and less stress. For police, the goal of these programs is to help them be less reactive and more thoughtfully responsive, less aggressive and more assertive.

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