I have just arrived back from sharing my work around the connection between Positive Psychology and gratitude with 180 people on the “Ocean of Gratitude Cruise,” which was a fabulous 8-day opportunity to learn, relax, and soak up the kindness and thoughts of others. So many Positive Psychology friends have asked for an update on this event that I wanted to share some of this experience here, as well as what I taught in my presentations that might be helpful to people who come here in search of the latest frontiers in the world of Positive Psychology.Why/how did this cruise even come about? Karol Avalon, the brains behind this special trip, had a brainstorm at her family’s kitchen table one year ago. She wanted to bring together a wide-ranging variety of speakers to celebrate gratitude, and she suspected that others would enjoy that experience, particularly if it took place on the water. Through diligent marketing, she brought together terrific speakers like M.J. Ryan, Dr. Masuro Emoto, and Mary Morrissey, all of whom have followings and published books in this field, to share their thoughts and experiences with hundreds of people from around the world.
Karol found me through a website I dreamed up after learning about the connection between gratitude and happy people while studying in the University of Pennsylvania’s Masters in Applied Positive Psychology program. If the connection between gratitude and well-being was so profound, I wanted to make it as easy and fun as possible for people to thank others. My extraordinary web designer and her partner went to work, and within days a new site was born, “The Gratitude Club.” This site allows you to send free ecards to people, but it also includes a reminder service on Monday mornings to remember to thank others. This was the site that Karol found, and that convinced her that we needed the Positive Psychology research on the cruise (isn’t it interesting how profound, genuine expressions of gratitude can result in such wonderful blessings?).
I found that the cruise participants were hungry for the research I brought, and they were very inspired to learn more, for example, about Robert Emmons and Mike McCullough’s work on counting blessings versus burdens. Emmons and McCullough confirmed in their 2003 paper what many already suspected — counting blessings in daily and weekly diaries resulted in higher well-being, both among college students and adults with neuro-muscular disorders, and that counting burdens or listing neutral topics didn’t help at all with subjective well-being.
The same was found in a “Counting Kindnesses” intervention among Japanese college students. This research determined that happy people are not only more grateful than unhappy people, but that happy people are quicker to notice kindnesses than those whose views of life are slightly darker. That helps to explain why holding the door for some people results in a huge smile and “Thank you!” while others don’t even notice when you do that. This research also found that the depth and breadth of gratitude was larger in happy people, who felt blessed in broader and more profound ways than less happy people.
Jon Haidt, the author of “The Happiness Hypothesis,” also gave me permission to present some of his slides from the Positive Psychology Conference in Washington, DC last fall, where he talked about the “brilliant” character improvement project that had been done by one of his students as a final project. To address her self-described pessimistic and downbeat attitude at times, “Sarah W.” had resolved to write down her blessings every morning for two minutes and check any resistance to doing so. As a result of doing this, she not only noticed more and more blessings over the course of eight weeks, but her well-being went up and her negative affect went down at the same time. Not only that, but the positive subjective well-being results tapered off when she stopped doing the blessings exercise, which shows that you need to continue to work at being grateful, and that it’s not just something that happens regularly because you do a short-term intervention into your life.
In my final presentation on the cruise, we designed a “Gratitude Intervention,” and I shared some of the research on savoring and happy memories (happy people think happy thoughts twice as often as unhappy thoughts, which is why scrapbooking is such an amazing hobby). People in the audience took turns telling me the ways they already intervene in their lives to remind themselves of their blessings, as well as some of the newer ways they intended to leave the cruise and work on their “gratitude muscle.” Here are a few ideas for everyone to ponder:
- When you come to a stop sign, use the word “Stop” to prime yourself to think about every good thing that has happened to you that day.
- When you groom your pet, thank that pet for the joy and love and laughter he/she brings into your life.
- Throw a gratitude party once a year for everyone you are grateful to, and tell them that is why you are throwing that party.
- Stop at a church once a week (a church you’ve never been inside, if possible) and light a candle for someone you would like to bless or thank.
- When you hear a fire engine siren, instead of wincing, use this as a cue to pray for the person they might be rushing to save (my grandmother taught me this when I was in kindergarten and I’ve never forgotten it or had anything other than a kind reaction to a siren. This is a tribute to her ingenuity and remarkable spirit!)
In the course of having meals and enjoying excursions during the cruise, I was asked a number of provocative questions, including one that I would like to throw open to everyone. A brilliant singer, Joe Dickey, asked me if there has been any research on what happens when you actually VOICE your gratitude when you feel it as opposed to just thinking about it. He used the example of how he felt when his fiance got him a special glass of iced tea, and he thought about how grateful he was, but then experienced a “chemical rush” when the words came out of his mouth. He wanted to know if there is a chemical change in our bodies when we give voice to gratitude, much the same way we experience the benefits of singing versus hearing the song in our heads. Any thoughts out there?
Going back to the full circle of how gratitude brings joy and blessings, according to the emerging and established research:
- Happy people are more grateful than unhappy people
- Gratitude interventions boost well-being
- Working on gratitude boosts well-being, but the intervention needs to be continued or “changed-up” for the positive outcome to continue
- Gratitude is part of the “upward spiral of well-being” that Barbara Fredrickson talks about, and expressions of gratitude are correlated with more creativity, zest and flexible thinking
- Gratitude feels good!
If you would like to join “The Gratitude Club” and be reminded to thank others, please visit: http://www.gratitudeclub.com/. And if you’d like to try the “Three Blessings” exercise that has been popularized by Marty Seligman and others, you can get a free download at my website: http://www.carolinemiller.com/ on the home page.
May you use sirens, stop signs and sunsets in new and powerful ways today to induce more gratitude and see the many kindnesses those around you are constantly doing for you and others!
Emmons, R. & McCullough, M. Eds. (2004). The Psychology of Gratitude (Series in Affective Science). Oxford University Press.
Haidt, J. (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. New York: Basic Books.
Cruise ship courtesy of Dennis Jarvis