Lyuobomirsky, Sheldon, and Schkade (2006) argue that one’s chronic happiness level is determined partly by a genetic baseline or set point (50%), partly by circumstances (10%), and partly by intentional activity (40%). Practicing gratitude is an intentional activity that can make a real and ongoing difference in chronic happiness levels. Emmons and McCullough (no date) report that people who conduct certain gratitude exercises are healthier and feel better about their lives, make more progress toward goals, are more optimistic, and are more likely to help others than people in control groups.
So how do we increase the level of gratitude we experience in our jobs and our lives? Here are a few suggestions:
- Pay attention to good things, large and small. This often requires intentional thought because bad things are more salient to us than good things. For example, I have a friend in his 80’s with arthritis in his hands. He becomes aware of it whenever he knocks something over or has trouble picking something up. I suggested that whenever he finds himself saying, “My poor crippled hands,” that he follow it with “My magnificent legs that let me walk every day without cane or walker.” That does not mean ignoring the painful or disabled. It means balancing it with occasional thoughts of how lucky we are to have so many working parts! We have to work a little to give the positive thoughts space in our brains.
- Pay attention to bad things that are avoided. I recently tripped over a small stump and fell flat on my face during a practice hike to get ready for our trip to the mountains. When I picked myself up, I was very grateful to have only a deep bruise on my thigh, no broken bones. It will take a while for the gorgeous 8 inch bruise to go away, but I can still hike. Thank goodness!
- Practice downward comparisons. That means thinking about how things could be worse, or were worse, or are worse for someone else. I don’t particularly like the idea of making myself feel more grateful by thinking of others who are worse off than I am. But it doesn’t have to be interpersonal. You can use downward comparison by remembering your own times of adversity or being aware of adversity avoided. The poet, Robert Pollock, said it thus: “Sorrows remembered sweeten present joy.” Here’s a work example. I have two friends who recently moved into the same department in the same company. One is relieved and happy because the situation seems so much better than before. The other is dissatisfied because the teamwork characterizing the old job is no longer there. The first has an easy time with downward contrast. The second will have to work a little harder to find reasons to be grateful.
- Establish regular times to focus on being grateful. Gratitude is a character strength that can be enhanced with practice. So practice. Marty Seligman describes two exercises in Authentic Happiness, the Gratitude Visit and a form of keeping a gratitude journal. The efficacy of gratitude interventions has been studied with clinical populations by Duckworth and colleagues and student populations by Sheldon and Lyubomirsky.
- When facing a loss or a difficult task or situation, remind yourself to be grateful both for what you haven’t lost and for the strengths and opportunities that arise from facing difficulties. Tennen and Affleck found that benefit-seeking and benefit-remembering are linked to psychological and physical health. Benefit finding involves choosing to focus on the positive aspects of the situation and avoiding the feeling of being a victim.
- Elicit and reinforce gratitude in the people around you. Negative moods are catching, but positive ones can be as well. The character, Pollyanna, helped other people see the benefits in their situations by teaching them the Glad Game. Sometimes, having someone else see what is good in your own life makes it visible to you.
Gratitude is a character strength admired around the globe. To increase gratitude, a good first step is to notice the good things that happen to us, large and small. These practices can help us take fewer blessings for granted.
This is not the first Positive Psychology News Daily article on the subject of gratitude, and it won’t be the last. I invite you to look at other articles on the subject, including (not exhaustively)
Your Life Metaphor Matters by David J. Pollay
Generosity, Empathy, and Moral Philosophy in Airport Conversations by Iris Marie Bloom
Gratitude at the Bridge House by Nicholas Hall
The Energy of Gratitude by Caroline Miller
The Happy-Well: Positive Psychology Tips for Living Well and Longer by Sherri Fisher
Aaronson, L. (2006). Make a gratitude adjustment. Psychology Today Online.
Duckworth, A. L., Steen, T. A., and Seligman, M. E. P. (2005). Positive psychology in clinical practice. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 1, 629-651.
Emmons, R. & McCullough, M. E. (no date). Highlights from the research project on gratitude and thankfulness: Dimensions and perspectives of gratitude.
Emmons, R.A., & McCullough, M.E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: Experimental studies of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 377-389.
Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. New York: Penguin Books.
Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K. M., & Schkade, D. (2005). Pursuing happiness: The architecture of sustainable change. Review of General Psychology, 9, 111-131.
Seligman, Martin (2004), Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.
Sheldon, K. M. & Lyubomirsky, S. (2006). How to increase and sustain positive emotion: The effects of expressing gratitude and visualizing best possible selves. Journal of Positive Psychology. Special Issue: Positive Emotions, 1(2), 73-82.
Tennen, H. & Affleck, G. (2003). Benefit-finding and benefit-reminding. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (eds.), Handbook of Positive Psychology. 584-587. New York: Oxford University Press.
giving thanks courtesy of TheAlieness GiselaGiardino