August 11, 2009

Activity One: Gratitude: The Mother of All Virtues

If you’ve been coming back to this site for new material, I apologize for the delay in posting new blogs. In March, I wrote that I would be posting some of the activities that I have students complete in my 80 hour Positive Psychology program at Evergreen, as well as the offenders who participate in the prison programs I do.

In the first blog, I want to address perhaps the most powerful activity one could engage in to improve satisfaction with life, and that is to express gratitude. The second blog is focused on how one can enhance the “savoring” of life, as we are often in such a great hurry, we forget to enjoy our experience.

Activity One: Gratitude: The Mother of All Virtues

Gratitude is defined by researcher Robert Emmons as “a felt sense of wonder, thankfulness, and appreciation for life.” If you are focused on this moment, appreciating your life as it is today, and thinking about what made this so, you are in a state of being grateful. It is probably best to consider what gratitude is on your own terms, but if you “think” about your life from a grateful perspective, the benefits are numerous.

Look at this list that is related to overall well-being. Those who practice gratitude experience increased happiness, more positive emotion, energy, and hope, and they are more helpful and empathic toward others. Grateful people are more forgiving, and experience of more personal control, personal growth, purpose in life, and self acceptance. Those who are more grateful are also less depressed, stressed, lonely, neurotic, and envious, and they experience better sleep, and more satisfaction with relationships. Finally, grateful people use more positive coping strategies to deal with life’s adversities, and use fewer strategies of avoidance, denial, self-blame, or escaping into substance use. Pretty amazing, eh!

Life satisfaction researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky has found that gratitude boosts happiness in eight different ways. The practice of gratitude …
1) promotes the savoring of positive life experiences; 2) bolsters self worth/self esteem, confidence, and self efficacy; 3) helps one cope with stress and trauma; 4) encourages pro-social behavior (helping others, being less materialistic); 5) builds existing relationships and new ones; 6) inhibits negative comparisons with others; 7) is incompatible with negative emotion (it may actually diminish anger, bitterness, and greed); and 8) helps us make positive experiences last longer.

One way to practice this strategy is with a “gratitude journal” in which you write down five things for which you are currently thankful – from simple things (a greeting from a friend or stranger) to the magnificent (a child’s first words). Try this activity only one night a week for six weeks at first. The research shows that people who do this activity notice a significant boost in life satisfaction. You may try to do this more often or less often. Due to individual differences, we need to find out what works for each of us.

Another very powerful intervention to express gratitude is to think of a person in your life for whom you are grateful, but that you have never properly thanked. Sit down and write a short letter that addresses the specific things that another has done for you. Then, schedule time with that person and read it aloud to them.

You will be astounded by how this simple act affects both people involved. I have even seen this happen in prisons. During the “honoring the significant women in your life” events, held annually at two different Washington State corrections centers, I have witnessed up to 80 male offenders read gratitude letters to their loved ones behind screens set up for some privacy. There is rarely a dry eye in the house during the reading of these letters. My students do this activity as well and write about the transformative impact it can have on both people. I will come back to address gratitude in future blogs, due to its nature in helping us be more satisfied in life.