By Francis Koster, Ed.D.
As we come to the end of the turkey and dressing, and your visiting family pack up (to your regret and relief), it may occur to you that it is odd that we only devote one day a year for giving thanks. Think about how out of proportion this is to the total number of days of celebrating patriotism (4th of July), or remembering the fallen (Memorial Day), or celebrating the rights of the working class (Labor Day), or wearing masks of dead people (Halloween), or celebrating events in our spiritual traditions (Christmas and Easter).
I find it interesting that many of those days circle around the idea of birth and death, but little around appreciating and extending life, and making it better.
So, if we have just one national day a year dedicated to being thankful, perhaps we need to practice more of it privately. There are several reasons to want to do this – first, it makes you happier and live longer. Second, it makes others happier and live longer. And third, it lowers healthcare bills for your family and for taxpayers.
And it is simple: You just keep a daily Gratitude Journal in which you write that day’s events that you are grateful for, and all sorts of scientifically documented good things happen.
One of the key underpinnings of this technique is that in order to write down what you have gratitude for, you have to do two things: You must name it, and you must recognize its source. It could be for the wonderful weather which you attribute to God. Or it could be for that nice thank-you note you got from your son-in-law. By acknowledging the source, you remind yourself of your relationships and their benefits. And this leads to being more mindful of them, and making investments in them, which in turn leads to others increase in gratitude, and will come back to you in other gestures.
Another impact of keeping a Gratitude Journal is that people who do have been found to practice greater altruistic behavior. They help others more without expecting payback. This leads to a happier, healthier circle of friends, which in turn helps the generous soul spend their days surrounded by happy people – a new, positive take on “what goes around, comes around”.
For many years the psychologists and others theorized that each person had a natural set point for their personal happiness – that some folks were born happier than others, and that the dour liked leading their life with a frown – that they were happiest being unhappy! More recent research shows this not accurate. In fact, it is now known that everyone benefits from specific techniques to become happier, and among the main beneficiaries are the sourpuss’s. Prominent researcher in this field Dr. Lyubomirsky and her co-author Dr. Sheldon found that that up to 40 percent of our happiness might result from actions we choose to do to make ourselves happier. In other words, you can reset your happiness thermometer yourself.
In one interesting finding, Dr. Lyubomirsky found that while the “naturally happy” people and the “naturally unhappy” both may have a bad experience, the “naturally unhappy” people remember the experience as a bad one, and the “naturally happy” people remember it as a milestone from which they have progressed- sort of a “boy, life is so much better now” reference point. By writing down the things that they have gratitude for, the grumpy person writes “boy, I am glad that is over”, and puts it in perspective.
Lest anyone think this is just a “woo woo” feel good idea, the research shows that this technique has positive impacts even for people under the care of a doctor for mild depression. One study done at York University in Canada found that people who kept a daily log of what they were grateful for had less depression, and were more satisfied with their life. And this impact seemed to be bigger for those people who were most self-critical.
There are many guides out there to look to for inspiration. A good place to start is on a website called Greatergood.berkeley.edu, which has an entire section devoted to helping people keep Gratitude Journals. If you want to dig deeper, you can look into the works of Sonja Lyubomirsky Ph. D., at the University of California; Ms. Susan Sergeant and Myriam Mongraine, Ph.D., York University, Toronto Canada; and Michael E. McCullough Ph. D. of the University of Miami.
We are living in troubled times, and some of the solutions seem complicated and difficult to get others to agree to undertake. In this case, we can be thankful that one tool exists we can pick up all by ourselves, and benefit both ourselves and others.
Just write down every day what you are grateful for. The world will be better for it.
1. http://www.psy.miami.edu/faculty/mmccullough/gratitude/Emmons_McCullough_2003_JPSP.pdf, attributed to Weiner, 1985
2. Ibid, p.386
4. Susan Sergeant and Myriam Mongrain. Are positive psychology exercises helpful for people with depressive personality styles? The Journal of Positive Psychology. Department of Psychology, York University, Toronto, ON, Canada.
Copyright 2012. All rights reserved.