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Just so you know: gratitude has been around slightly longer than the Internet. It has always and everywhere been a virtuous thing; the Roman philosopher Cicero deemed it “the greatest of virtues”. The world’s major religions foster a sense of gratitude with prayers of thanks and litanies of blessings. “Count your blessings” is truly timeless advice.
So why this renewed interest? Are we becoming a more grateful society? Oh, that’s too funny! Despite the recent conspicuous output of thankfulness by women, it doesn’t appear to be true. Most of us never hear a word of heartfelt praise at work, even though 81% of us say we’d work harder if we did. We say we’re grateful for family and friends, but only 52% of women and 44% of men express gratitude on a regular basis, according to a survey conducted last year for the John Templeton Foundation. All in all, the survey found, most of us think people have become less grateful over the past 20 years.
What is new is the vogue for gratitude among psychologists. “Gratitude research has never been hotter,” says Dr Shane Lopez, a professor at the University of Kansas and the editor of the Encyclopedia of Positive Psychology. His latest book is titled Making Hope Happen. “Brief gratitude interventions are quite effective at promoting wellbeing. Few other psychological interventions are as potent and as universally beneficial.”
These “interventions” aren’t complicated. Most involve little more effort than spending a few minutes at the end of the day jotting down a few things you’re grateful for.
For example, the psychologists Dr Robert A. Emmons and Dr Michael E. McCullough, devised a three-part experiment to determine the physical and psychological effects of “a grateful outlook”. For the first part, 65 students in a “gratitude” group were each asked to submit a list of five things they were thankful for (rainbows, air-conditioning) during the prior week; 64 students in a “hassles” group each submitted a list of five annoyances (stupid drivers, messy roommates) from their week; and 67 students in an “events” group each turned in lists of five neutral events (learned CPR, took the car in for an oil change) from theirs.
The result: after 10 weeks, the gratitude group felt happier and more optimistic about the upcoming week. These students also had fewer physical complaints and exercised more (nearly an hour-and a-half more each week!) than the ones in the hassles group.
Oh, and if you think gratitude promotes passivity, I’d be very grateful if you’d think again. In the second and third experiments of the study, varsity students and a sample of 65 adults with neuromuscular conditions – multiple sclerosis or Guillain-Barré syndrome, for example – were surveyed daily. Those in the gratitude groups reported feeling more life satisfaction, more optimism about the week ahead and more connected to others, and they slept better and longer at night than those in the control groups.
In a word, Emmons calls it remarkable that the effects of gratitude interventions studied are consistent, significant and quantifiable – “that a seemingly simple practise of counting blessings produces almost immediate results.”
A little gratitude leads to more than just a misty feeling of oneness with the universe. What you won’t see on Twitter is a decade’s worth of proof from scientific studies showing its power to improve three key areas of your life:
(1) Your health
(2) Your marriage
(3) Your job
As far as your health goes, a gratitude intervention among inner-city dwellers with hypertension found that it significantly lowered systolic blood pressure. A study of 401 residents of several cities in England found that those who felt most grateful about life slept better at night. Grateful people, it seems, have more positive thoughts and fewer negative ones just before sleep; the result is longer, deeper sleep and better functioning during daytime. Research also links the experience of feeling grateful emotions to an increase in the body’s parasympathetic nervous system activity, which is beneficial in controlling stress.
Regarding your marriage, a nifty study led by Dr Sara Algoe, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, found that – please sit down – gratitude is like a booster shot for romantic relationships. She recruited 67 California couples and asked each partner to independently respond “yes” or “no” to two statements each night for 14 nights. First statement: “I did something thoughtful for my partner.” Second: “My partner did something thoughtful for me.” Here’s what I like about this study: Algoe discovered that the good deeds we do for our soulmates go completely unnoticed about half the time. Oh, your wife is oblivious to the fact that you filled her petrol tank when you borrowed her car? Get over it, man!
Still, Algoe notes, “Women are better attuned to the thoughtfulness of the gesture.” So keep trying, even if you score only half the time. If you feel thankful, say it. “Something might happen in your own head,” says Algoe. “But without expressing it, you lose an opportunity to solidify the relationship at that moment.”
As for your job, Dr Adam Grant, an organisational psychologist and management professor at the Wharton School, has run several experiments that tested the power of “thank you” in the workplace. In one, 69 students were asked to provide comments on someone’s job application letter. Afterwards, 35 of them got an enthusiastic “Thank you so much!” email from the “applicant” and 34 got a flat “received your feedback” email. Then they were all asked by that (supposed) applicant to provide additional comments, this time on a second letter, even though the experiment was supposedly over. Significantly, 23 of the 35 students who’d been thanked provided more help; only 11 out of 34 who hadn’t been thanked gave more feedback. (I’m thinking, Who were those 11 suckers?)
“The absence of gratitude can send as powerful a message as the presence of it,” Grant, the author of Give and Take, told me. “Somebody not thanking me is a strong signal that this is someone I can’t trust.” Hmm… no wonder men don’t do as well in the team-oriented workplaces of the 21st century. They’re awkward about expressing gratitude, they’re less likely to say thanks and they receive less help in return. “The effectiveness of teams,” notes Grant, “depends on the amount of helping among peers.”
If you think it’s tough for men to utter those two words, consider the difficulty of this next experiment. Dr Martin Seligman, director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, came up with the idea of writing a gratitude letter. He recruited 411 people who’d visited the website of his 2002 bestseller, Authentic Happiness, and asked them to perform one of five tasks purported to foster wellbeing. The gratitude task was this: write a letter expressing thanks to someone who has been especially kind to you but who never received proper thanks. (See “The Happiness Project”, below.) Deliver that letter, in person, and watch the person read it. This wasn’t an easy assignment, but the payoff proved to be huge. Of all the positive interventions, this task provided the biggest boost to happiness and the biggest decrease in depressive symptoms – and the 80 respondents who were assigned the task were still feeling the afterglow at one-week and one-month follow-ups.
That’s what’s striking about these results, says Dr Philip C. Watkins, a professor of psychology at Eastern Washington University. “In positive psychology, the benefits actually increase after treatment, whereas with most treatments, like cognitive therapy, the benefits fall off.”
Watkins found the same increasing effect in his recent study in which varsity students were asked to recall three things that went well in the prior 48 hours and then to write about how those events made them feel grateful. They showed an immediate uplift after the test – and then continued to improve and were feeling their best five weeks later.
It’s even possible to feel grateful about a bad thing. Watkins and his colleagues had study participants dredge up a memory that made them feel angry, sad or frustrated. Some were asked to write about a positive consequence of the event that they could be grateful for. Their instructions included such prompts as: how has this event benefited you as a person? Were there personal strengths that grew out of your experience? How has this event helped you appreciate the truly important people and things in your life?
Psychologists call this “positive reframing”. I call it a cool trick: you really can stop bad memories from creeping up on you. For those who focused on the positive reappraisal, the memory became less intrusive and caused less emotional distress. In other words, they felt some closure.
Even the guys! Still, there was a clear difference between men and women, Watkins told me. “Men enjoyed the three-grateful-events exercise the least, and women enjoyed it the most. However, the men showed greater gains from it,” he said. “We have more to gain, probably because we’re naturally less grateful.”
Why does gratitude make men so un-comfortable? Why do we suffer from “gratitude deficit disorder”, as Emmons puts it? Theories abound: gratitude implies that we need help, and we don’t like looking weak; gratitude implies dependence and we don’t like being dependent; gratitude is an emotion and we don’t like emotions. These theories border on male-bashing, so I’ll stop there. The standard reply from gratitude researchers: men tend to confuse gratitude with indebtedness.
I’ll let Doc Watkins explain.
“Men tend to operate according to the rules of exchange relationships,” he says. “Women operate in communal relationships. Women are more willing to accept the fact that they are dependent on others.” Women can easily tell the difference between a straight-up gift, without any expectation of reciprocity, and a tit-for-tat exchange; men are all confused and conflicted in these situations. “We’re more likely to feel like, ‘How am I going to repay this person?’ We feel more of an obligation to balance the books, ” says Watkins. As in: Oh, no! Now I owe you one!
That’s especially true if the benefit comes from another man. That really freaks us out. Dr Todd Kashdan, an associate professor of psychology at George Mason University, and his colleagues recruited 77 older adults of both sexes ranging in age from 59 to 85, and asked them to write about their most meaningful gratitude experience of the prior week. The researchers assumed that grateful feelings would come more easily and be less troublesome to older men. Well, forget that! The women reported more pleasantness and less of a sense of burden than the men. And the older men who recalled receiving a gift from another man reported the most unpleasant feelings of all.
“Men treat their relationships like financial transactions,” says Kashdan. “Your relationships are not going to be optimised if you’re always worried about the ledger.”
So does Kashdan have any advice for us? Thanks for asking! “When you do receive a gift, don’t reflexively feel as if you have to give something in return,” he says, with feeling. Example: you’re out for beers with a friend, and he grabs the tab. What happens next? You know: “A fight to the death,” says Kashdan. “I see it all the time. Let’s split it! You’ve now just ruined the experience, you’ve ruined the moment. Instead, you just need to say, ‘This is why I like having you as a friend. I hope I can be as good a friend to you as you are to me.’ It’s freaking annoying when someone will not accept a gift. And they’re missing out on this great social glue that binds people together.”
Tonight’s homework: go out, and let him buy. How hard could that be?
No, gratitude does not come easily to men. You know Robert Emmons, the UC Davis professor I’ve been quoting all along here? For the last 15 years he has made gratitude his specialty; in fact, he’s considered the world’s leading expert on gratitude. Does that mean he’s at ease with gratitude personally? Ask his wife. She once told him, aiming straight for the jugular, “You’re the most ungrateful person I know.” Bam! “I think it was because she was mad at me at the time,” he explains. (You think?) “And probably because I do not express enough gratitude in our relationship.”
If the world’s leading expert gets busted like that, is there any hope for the rest of us? Maybe we should just sit this one out?
“If we sit it out,” Emmons says, “then we miss out on all the benefits. Younger men are seen as more attractive by women if they freely express gratitude, husbands are better liked by their wives, workplace gratitude is associated with productivity, grateful men take better care of their health. Sit it out? Not a chance!”
Okay, professor. Oh, and, uh, thanks for all the advice.