Reflecting a Little on All That is Good

Wed, 10 Oct. 2012 - 2:31 a.m. MT
Credit: ARA Staff - American Running Association

Along with the holidays, and perhaps year’s end itself, often comes a reflective feeling of literally giving thanks. It turns out that from a mental health perspective, this may be one of the easiest (and least expensive) therapies one can self-prescribe. Studies of gratitude now abound, and show that it can contribute significantly to human happiness.

Like exercise, simply being grateful can provide a powerful weapon in the arsenal against depression, anxiety, and other manifestations of unhappiness. Tal Ben-Shahar is a Harvard University psychologist who for the last several years has taught a course called Positive Psychology, itself a growing subspecialty of psychology. In the class, Ben-Shahar cites the work of, among others, Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami. In one of their studies, the two psychologists asked participants to write in a notebook a few sentences each week, focusing on particular topics.

One group wrote about things they were grateful for that had occurred during the week. A second group wrote about daily irritations or things that had displeased them. Group three wrote about events that had merely affected them (with no emphasis on whether positively or negatively). After 10 weeks, those who recorded their gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. They also had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on sources of aggravation. The results are promising given the uncomplicated nature of this perhaps three-minute daily intervention which is available to all, and aside from the cost of pen and paper, is completely free.

How does gratitude help? The idea is that by actively thinking of elements in your life you feel lucky for, happy about, or grateful of, you gently force yourself to acknowledge the goodness in your life and thereby increase your awareness of that goodness. Do this on a regular basis, and the cumulative effect becomes significant. In addition, in the process of recording their gratitude, people come to recognize that the source of the goodness lies at least partially outside themselves. As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals—whether to other people, nature, or a higher power.

In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build stronger relationships.

People feel and express gratitude in multiple ways. They can apply it to the past (retrieving positive memories and being thankful for elements of childhood or past blessings), the present (not taking good fortune for granted as it comes), and the future (maintaining a hopeful and optimistic attitude). Regardless of the inherent or current level of someone’s gratitude, it’s a quality that individuals can successfully cultivate further.

More research to be grateful for. Another leading researcher in positive psychology is Martin Seligman, from the University of Pennsylvania. He assigned 411 subjects to write and personally deliver a letter of gratitude to someone who had never been properly thanked for their kindness, and compared these to a control assignment of simply writing about early memories. Participants immediately exhibited a huge increase in happiness scores after completing the gratitude assignment. This impact was greater than that from any other intervention, with benefits lasting for a month.

Of course, studies such as these cannot prove cause and effect. But the budding science of gratitude so far supports an association between it and an individual’s wellbeing. Other studies have looked at how gratitude can improve intimate relationships. For example, a study of couples found that individuals who took time to express gratitude for their partner not only felt more positive toward the other person but also felt more comfortable expressing concerns about their relationship.

There’s reason to believe that gratitude can have a worthwhile home in the workplace—to foster happiness, yes, but also productivity. Researchers at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania randomly divided university fundraisers into two groups. One group made phone calls to solicit alumni donations in the same way they always had. The second group received a pep talk from the director of the annual giving program, who told the fundraisers she was grateful for their efforts. During the following week, the university employees who heard her message of gratitude made 50 percent more fundraising calls than those who did not.

Four ways to cultivate gratitude. So what can we do, daily, to significantly increase our gratitude, and therefore improve our mental health and happiness?

Keep a gratitude journal. Before you go to sleep each night—or even just once a week—simply write in a notebook five big or little items in your life for which you are grateful. As you write, be specific and think about the sensations you felt when something good happened to you. In addition to increasing your awareness of them, by requiring of yourself that you find things so regularly for which to be grateful, you may just start to see them everywhere. And how could that possibly lead to anything but a happier you?

Write a thank-you note. You can make yourself happier and nurture your relationship with another person by writing a thank-you letter expressing your enjoyment and appreciation of that person’s impact on your life. Make a habit of sending at least one gratitude letter a month. Once in a while, write one to yourself.

Thank someone mentally. No time to write? It may help just to think about someone who has done something nice for you, and mentally thank the individual.

Meditate. Mindfulness meditation involves focusing on the present moment without judgment. Although people often focus on a word or phrase (such as “peace”), it is also possible to focus on what you’re grateful for (the warmth of the sun, a pleasant sound, etc.).

To affinity and beyond. Apart from the focus on gratitude—appropriate though it is during the holidays—other self-administered, more general happiness strategies that Ben-Shahar recommends include: 

Savor loved ones, friends, and family. Our affections for and rapport with those closest to us, combined with making quality time for those connections to flourish, is perhaps the number one predictor of our mental health and wellbeing. Something extraordinary happens when we take time to be with those we care about and who care for us. 

Simplify! Hand-in-hand with the above is the need to turn phones off, suggest text-free zones, and occasionally remove multimedia distractions to get the most out of just sitting and chatting. We are generally too busy, trying to squeeze in more and more activities into less and less time. Quantity influences quality, and we compromise our work quality, our relationships, and ultimately our happiness by trying to do too much.

Accept negative emotions. Painful emotions are part and parcel to being alive. Acknowledge feelings of anxiety, sadness, disappointment, and envy. As Ben-Shahar points out, two types of people who do not feel these emotions are the psychopath and the deceased—be grateful you are not among them. 

Grant yourself permission to be human. When we accept negative emotions, we are more likely to overcome them. Permitting our own humanity opens us up to positive emotions as well. Rejecting our emotions—positive or negative—can lead to frustration and unhappiness.

Mens sana incorpore sano. The ancient Romans had it right: “A healthy mind in a healthy body.” As discussed in detail in More Evidence for a Potent Mind-Body Connection, what we do or do not do with our bodies affects our minds. Some research has even suggested that 40 minutes of moderate exercise three times a week can be the mood-lifting equivalent of some of our most powerful psychiatric drugs. And in addition to physical fitness, our mind and our mood depend greatly upon adequate sleep and healthy eating habits.

To your (mental) health. The treasures of happiness—small and large—are all around us, but also within us. The problem, as Tal Ben-Shahar sees it, is that we only appreciate them when something terrible happens and they are taken from us. When we become sick, we suddenly appreciate our health. When we lose someone dear, we appreciate them, and sometimes our own life, all the more. We do not need to wait. Give thanks and enjoy increased optimism, stronger immunity, better relationships, and benevolence you may just find returned to you tenfold.

 

The Big Think, Oct. 2, 2009, “Five Ways to Become Happier Today,” by Tal Ben-Shahar, http://bigthink.com/series/23/series_item/2531

 

Harvard Health Beat, Nov. 22, 2011, “Giving Thanks can Make you Happier”

 

Six Tips for Happiness, by Tal Ben-Shahar, March 22, 2006

(RUNNING & FITNEWS® November / December 2011 • Volume 29, Number 6)



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