Monday, 26 August 2013

The Power of Gratitude

In a society where negativity often predominates and entire conversations centre around complaints, the experience of gratitude, an awareness and appreciation of the good things that happen, is refreshing and grounding. However, with the negativity bias, the human tendency to notice, remember and pay attention to the negative much more quickly than the positive (Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Finkenauer, & Vohs, 2001), gratitude requires conscious effort to rewire habitual patterns of thinking. Luckily, positive psychology research has empirically validated certain techniques, showing that "counting your blessings" is no longer a platitude, but a tried-and-tested way of enhancing your wellbeing and positive emotion.


Why be grateful?


Individual differences in gratitude have been linked with subjective well-being (high positive affect, low negative affect, and high life satisfaction) in 12 studies (as reviewed by Wood, Froh, & Geraghty, 2010). Wood, Joseph, and Maltby (2008) also found that gratitude predicts psychological well-being (autonomy, environmental mastery, personal growth, positive relationships, purpose in life, and self-acceptance) above the effect of the Big Five personality traits. Furthermore, gratitude has also been negatively associated with depression (e.g. Wood, Maltby, Gillett, Linley, & Joseph, 2008), perhaps because positive life orientation is incompatible with the negative cognitive biases associated with depression. Gratitude is also related to perceived quality of relationships, forgiveness, low narcissism, greater perceived social support, relationship connection and satisfaction, conflict resolution and reciprocally helpful behaviour (as reviewed by Wood, Froh, & Geraghty, 2010). Finally, gratitude improves your quality of sleep (Wood, Joseph, Lloyd, & Atkins, 2009), as grateful people are more likely to think about positive things as they are falling asleep, promoting sleep quality, instead of negative thoughts that impair sleep (Nelson & Harvey, 2003).

Not currently oriented towards gratitude? Not a problem at all - gratitude is a skill that everyone can develop, and that's where gratitude interventions come in! These are exercises specifically designed to increase your levels of gratitude, changes that can persist through practice. Indeed, Emmons and McCullough (2003) found that participants who were asked to reflect on five things they were grateful for in the past week, over 9 weeks, had more positive and optimistic appraisals of their life, fewer physical symptoms, higher levels of positive affect and lower levels of negative affect, were more likely to offer emotion support to others, had better sleep quality, and a sense of connectedness to others. Similarly, Seligman, Steen, Park, Nansook, and Peterson (2005) asked participants to write down three things that well well each day and their causes every night for one week. These 411 participants experienced increased happiness and decreased depressive symptoms, with the effect lasting for six months after the intervention. Seligman et al. (2005) also found that participants who were instructed to go on a "gratitude visit", where one writes a letter to someone they are grateful to, and reads it out to them in person, reported increased happiness and decreased depression both at the immediate post-test and at the 1 month follow-up. For these reasons, gratitude interventions are seen as the most successful psychology interventions yet.


The exercises...and some reflections


The exercises themselves are deceptively simple, but as pointed out above, are effective. Here are the basic steps:


What went well (WWW)? 


Try this for a week (or more!):

  1. Write down three things that went well with your day. These can be mundane (e.g. "The sun was shining today") or important (e.g. "I got a new job!").
  2. For each of these things, answer the question, "Why did this happen?" (e.g. "Because Spring is coming!"; "I worked hard to prepare for the interview").
Easy, right? Extending this into daily life, I've decided to start asking people WWW? more often, instead of the typical "How's it going/How was your day?". So far, there have been interesting responses. When I asked a group of peers at lunch the other day, they kinda looked a bit baffled, before responding along the lines of not being able to think of anything, or "nothing much", or even "nothing at all". Another friend thought that it was a nice question to ask. Recently, and more positively, one friend thought it was "kinda touching", because she felt that asking WWW instead of the standard "how are you" shows that you care, and also that it reminded her that things actually did go well that day, despite it being a difficult day. For the most part though, people are taken by surprise when they are asked this question. For me, this just illustrates the negativity bias. I bet you, if I had asked, "What went wrong today?", the response time would have been far quicker, and people would have thought of many more things to complain about. The threshold of activation seems far higher for positive events than negative events, as even minor annoyances seem to be remembered more readily than even relatively major positive events. However, any change in attitudes or norms takes repetition (and education), so I'll keep trying!


The Gratitude Visit 


People like to be thanked, but tend to be under-appreciated. It means something special to people when they are recognised for their efforts, to know that they are valued. So here's my challenge to you:

  1. Think of a person in your past who has benefited you in some way and who you have not properly thanked.
  2. Write them a gratitude letter, expressing your thanks and appreciation for what they have done for you. Be as specific as you can, and try to illustrate just what impact they have made in your life. Aim for around 1/2 a page to one page of text.
  3. Make a time to visit the person, but don't say what the visit is about. (If the person is overseas or interstate, Skype is ok, but probably not the phone)
  4. Visit the person and read the letter out loud to them. Read it slowly and mindfully, with meaning, intent, and eye contact. 
  5. Give the person time to respond to the reading. This will be probably be a highly emotional experience for them.
  6. Optional, but a highly likely outcome: Hug them! :)

I personally tried this out last week (I would be a hypocrite if I was writing this and I hadn't done it myself!), and thought I'd share a few reflections, which will be a bit unspecific when talking about the reactions of the person I thanked as I guess it is a personal experience in a way. 

I'll admit it, despite being in the habit of writing thank you letters and telling people I appreciate them, I felt quite a bit of aversion to the idea of actually reading a whole letter out loud to the person. To be honest, it took me awhile to think of exactly who I would write my letter to, but once I did, it made complete sense to thank them for what they had done for me. Writing out the letter helped me to further clarify exactly what I was grateful to them for, and enhanced my sense of appreciation for what they had done. It was actually quite a profound realisation. 

Before visiting her, I felt slightly nervous and awkward, but mildly excited. When I told her I had written a thank you letter and would like to read it out loud to them, she was surprised but went along with it. The actual reading felt really natural and authentic. Afterwards, she was clearly touched, and teary, and had realised the difference she had made in my life. There were smiles all around and a great sense of connectedness, understanding, and of course, gratitude, for both of us.

Immediately post-visit, I felt enthused, excited, and just plain HAPPY that I had helped her feel appreciated and valued. I felt connected and peaceful, and motivated to spread more kindness. I also took the Positive and Negative Affect Scale (PANAS) questionnaire online at the Authentic Happiness website (it's free!) the night before and immediately after the visit, and my positive affectivity had increased from 23/50 (~30th percentile of respondents) to 36/50 (~80th percentile), while my negative affectivity remained stable (11/50, minimum = 10). While that was probably rather unscientific as I was tired the night before, the subjective experience of increased positive emotion was undeniable.

In the end, the visit reminded me of how important it is to tell people you appreciate them, and how much it means to them. It also taught me that it is important to have the courage to SAY THESE THINGS. You will not be ridiculed or rejected or embarrassed. You will make someone's day, touch their hearts, and help them feel like they matter. This is the beautiful thing about positive psychology - it not only enhances individual wellbeing; it enhances the wellbeing of those around you too, contributing to the flourishing of whole communities.


Conclusion


A growing scientific knowledge base is showing that cultivating gratitude could be one of the most important things you can do to not only insure yourself against mental illness, but to support your overall wellbeing and flourishing. Granted, this requires active, intentional effort to overcome the negativity bias and focus on what you do have (vs. what is missing in your life), what has gone well (vs. what went wrong), and the good in others (vs. what's wrong with others). However, if you can achieve this subtle shift in mindset as often as you can, the most likely outcome is increased happiness and flourishing for you, as well as for those around you. The power of gratitude is in your hands.

Try it out!


What went well for you today, or this week? Would you go on a gratitude visit? If not, what's holding you back? Let me know in the comments!



References


Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C.,, & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5(4), 323-370.

Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 8(2), 377-389.

Nelson, J., & Harvey, A. G. (2003). An exploration of pre-sleep cognitive activity in insomnia: Imagery and verbal thought. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 42, 271-288.

Seligman, M. E., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410-421.

Wood, A. M., Froh, J. J., & Geraghty, A. W. (2010). Gratitude and well-being: A review and theoretical integration. Clinical Psychology Review, 30(7), 890-905.

Wood, A. M., Joseph, S., Lloyd, J., & Atkins, S. (2009). Gratitude influences sleep through the mechanism of pre-sleep cognitions. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 66, 43-48.

Wood, A. M., Linley, P. A., Maltby, J., Baliousis, M., & Joseph, S. (2008). The authentic personality: A theoretical and empirical conceptualization, and the development of the Authenticity Scale. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 55, 385-399.

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