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

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!

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.

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