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.

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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.

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!