Shannon Polly, MAPP '09, is a facilitator, speaker and coach in Washington, D.C. and the founder of a boutique consulting firm, Shannon Polly and Associates, where she applies positive psychology to leadership development. She also co-founded Positive Business DC (@positivebizdc) and she has facilitated resilience training for the U.S. Army. Full bio. Shannon's solo articles are here, her articles with Louisa Jewell here, and her articles with Genna Douglass here.
I just came back from taking my youngest daughter to the emergency room (ER). It wasn’t a huge deal. Just a raisin up the nose, but apparently the Ear-Nose-and-Throat (ENT) clinic only services ears. Noses have to go through the ER machine. Coming home with a healthy kid should have made me feel very grateful. I should have felt grateful that it only took me 2 hours and 15 minutes to discover that there was, in fact, no raisin in her nose any more. I’ve averaged 4-5 hours every other visit to the ER. Plus I really should have felt grateful that when I left my wallet in the hospital bathroom, someone returned it to security with EVERYTHING in it. The nurse said that in eight years she has never seen a wallet returned before.
I have read the research on gratitude. I’ve taught gratitude to C-suite executives and Army sergeants. Yet I left the ER feeling more annoyed that my cautious husband had strongly suggested we check this out (three months after a pediatrician visit also found no raisin) than grateful that all of these good things happened.
So why is that? Do I just suck at gratitude? Maybe so. It’s one of my lower strengths on the Values in Action Character Strength Survey. (Take it for free at the VIA Institute on Character). It’s a pretty damning accusation for a positive psychology practitioner, or as my friends call me, the happy expert. Or is it just negativity bias? Hedonic adapation? Or is gratitude just difficult?
Do You See What I See? The Negative
I have a coaching client that described seeing the world as a glass half empty. His wife was annoyed by his viewpoint. He asked me if there was something wrong with him. He seemed reassured when I discussed the negativity bias.We are all hardwired to see the negative first and to weight it more heavily than the positive. That caveman who was appreciating the beauty of the lone flower outside his cave while his relative was scanning the horizon for predatory beasts was probably eaten and didn’t pass on his genes. So there are adaptive benefits to scanning for threat. But the problem is that our brain equates scanning for threat and missing a deadline as the same thing. The same cortisol rushes through our systems, wreaking havoc when it is over expressed. Living in gratitude seems like a good antidote.
We Adapt… to Almost Everything
But we adapt to the good in our lives. That new car doesn’t make us as happy for as long as we think it will. Dan Gilbert has pointed out that humans are very poor at predicting what will make them happy. Ed Diener discusses the diminishing well-being returns as income increases past a certain point. Tim Kasser shared at the Canadian Positive Psychology Association Conference that focusing on material goods makes us less empathetic to other people.
It seems that hedonic adaptation can apply to gratitude as well. The most famous validated positive psychology intervention is the ‘Three Good Things” exercise where every night you write down three things that happened to you, what they mean to you, why they happened, and what you can do to get more of that good thing. Research has shown that this exercise leads to better health, better sleep, better relationships, and so on. But Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, and Schkade found that when people did it every day, it made them less happy than if they did it once per week. It seems that people adapted to the gratitude exercise.
Don’t get me wrong. Gratitude works. Look at any of the research from Bob Emmons. I have seen grown men reduced to tears when they started to see the good things in their lives and what they weren’t appreciating about their own families. But it isn’t easy for everyone. One size does not fit all.
I’m More Well Off Than Other PeopleOne strategy that helps is downward social comparison. On the trip of a lifetime to India, I remember standing outside the Taj Mahal thinking how amazing this structure was, how I had finally seen one of the wonders of the world, when a little boy with no legs and one arm rolled up to me on a piece of wood with wheels. He was begging for money. It was such a shocking juxtaposition that I was frozen, not knowing how to react.
I came back from that trip and thought, “I am never going to Starbucks again. I am donating all of our money to charity. I am going to make a change in the world!” Then I adapted. I went back to Starbucks. I haven’t changed the world, yet. But I haven’t forgotten that moment.
Downward social comparison doesn’t always work to induce gratitude, however. I was overwhelmed with sleep deprivation after the birth of my second child and not feeling so grateful at my good fortune in parenting two healthy children. That well-meaning woman who saw me struggling probably should have refrained from sharing that story about her friend whose child passed away at birth. That was heartbreaking, but it made me feel judged, not grateful. I think that gratitude is a strength that needs to be worked on individually. It can be encouraged by others, but not forced.
So if you know that gratitude is good for you but it is still a struggle, how do you work on it?As part of my downward social comparison, I try to have triggers to remember that I am part of the luckiest 1% of humans on the planet, whether it be a picture of that trip to India, a letter from an orphanage I worked with in Mexico tacked to my office message board, or weekly calendar reminders. You have to work at it. Just like going to the gym.
Then I have to schedule time to give back. Otherwise with two young children it won’t happen. I also have to select a way to give back that I’m likely to do. I’m doing a workshop on resilience for a group that helps improve the psychological, career, financial, and legal well-being of women, men, and their families, regardless of their ability to pay. Many of the women have been subject to abuse. In leveraging a strength of mine, I’m able to give in a unique way which also makes me remember how lucky I am to have a stable home in which to raise my kids.
Finally I try to surround myself with people who are grateful. I had a few pro bono clients when I was going through my coaching certification. One, who interestingly headed a non-profit, had a top strength of gratitude. He made me feel like a million bucks every time we had a session. He was so grateful for the opportunity to be coached for free, and I worked harder for him. My other client was at a high level in a professional services firm. She made me feel as if she were doing me a favor by giving her time while she was getting free coaching. I started to watch the gentleman who headed the non-profit and learn how he did it. How did his gratitude become his superpower? I realized part of it was allowing himself to be helped. He didn’t struggle to control everything. As a result he got more done, and made others feel good for helping him. I heard Bonnie St. John comment in a speech that the most successful people in life are the most helpable.
So what can you do to be helpable? To be grateful? Not to adapt to the best things in life? If I can do it, anyone can.
Editor’s Note: This article was commissioned for the character strength, Gratitude, in the Positive Psychology News book, Character Strengths Matter.
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Britton, K. H. & Maymin, S. (Eds.) (2010). Gratitude: How to appreciate life’s gifts. Positive Psychology News Series.
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Pollay, D. J. (2007). Positive psychology progress: Empirical evaluation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5): 410-21.
Photo Credit: via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Child’s nose courtesy of betsyjean79
Predatory animal courtesy of Arno Meintjes Wildlife
Begging child courtesy of prunejuice
Taj Mahal courtesy of Gustible