The Gratitude Attitude
I can’t believe we’re almost at the end of 2014. At the start of the year my partner and I were still in Ireland, getting ready to submit our application forms for master’s degrees in Finland, trying to decide what we’d do if one of us got in and the other didn’t, and getting excited about the opportunity for developing our careers and having a big adventure as a couple. I’m typing this from our Finnish apartment, with the snow falling in the pine trees outside the window (here’s a pic!), and a few assignments left to hand in before our first semester’s over.
My master’s is in music psychology and technology, and my research interest is in how music can be combined with positive psychology to boost wellbeing. I’ll be sharing my findings next year, but I wanted to focus this seasonal post on one of the most powerful tools in positive psychology: appreciation. I’ve mentioned the scientifically-proven benefits of appreciation in previous weeks; this week I’ll describe in more detail a couple of exercises you can do to start enjoying (even) better wellbeing. These are taken from the research of Martin Seligman, ‘father’ of positive psychology, as outlined in his 2011 book Flourish.
The Gratitude Visit
Think of someone in your life who did or said something that changed your life for the better. Someone who may not know just how grateful you are, or what impact they had; someone you could go and talk to in person. We often say thanks quickly, enthusiastically even, but without fully expressing what the other person’s acts or words have meant to us – here’s your chance to do just that!Write a letter to this person expressing your feelings about what they did for you, and how it has helped or affected you. Write about 300 words, and be specific. Tell them what you’re doing now and how often you remember what they did. Then call the person and ask to come visit them, without giving away what you’re planning. When you meet them, read your letter to them. (Yes, I know you may be cringing reading this, but any embarrassment will quickly give way to happy, warm feelings!) If they try and interrupt with an ‘ah stop’, tell them you’d really like them to listen to it all. Then when you’re done, have a chat about what you wrote and how you’re both feeling. According to the experts (and there are studies backing this up), you’ll be happier and less depressed one month from now.
Daily Gratitude Exercise
As I’ve written about previously, our brains are wired to focus more on the negative (for evolutionary, survival reasons). As is much of the research and advice out there about heath, physical and mental – in fact, the mission of positive psychology was to rebalance the focus of psychology from being overly fixated on what goes wrong in people’s lives, to also looking at what’s going right. What we focus on creates our reality. Getting rid of depression and anxiety doesn’t guarantee happiness – but focusing on the positive, on what’s working and what’s going well, is more effective at immunising us against mental ill health. This isn’t about denying negative emotions or trying to always be positive; a healthy life includes ups and downs, successes and failures, celebrations as well as commiserations. This exercise is a mini, daily celebration of what went well, to balance the human tendency to dwell on what went wrong. Every night for the next week, make time at the end of your day to write down three things that went well and their causes. It can be a pen and paper exercise, or a computer one. (For the sake of your sleep, try not to be on your computer too late at night, and use a program like f.lux – free from justgetflux.com – to drain the blue light out of your display as the sun’s going down. The blue light from our electrical displays is thought to inhibit the secretion of melatonin, affecting our circadian rhythms and disrupting our sleep.)
The three things don’t have to be huge; they can be simple pleasures, like “my partner cooked dinner for me tonight”, or important events, like “my brother and sister-in-law are enjoying their first Christmas with their gorgeous, healthy new baby”. (Happy first Christmas Finn!) For each, add the reasons for them going well, e.g. “because my partner’s really thoughtful and takes good care of me”, or “because my sister-in-law did everything right during pregnancy, and was well supported by family and friends”. Do this every evening for a week and the odds are you’ll be less depressed, happier (and, Seligman claims, addicted to this exercise) six months from now.
Every year Christmas advertisers bombard us with images of perfect, sparkly parties full of smiling friends, snogs with beautiful people under the mistletoe, effortlessly-prepared feasts and warm feelings of friendship and familial love. If Santa brings all of that, be grateful! But it’s also helpful to lower expectations, recognising the advertisers’ mirage and accepting that when groups of us flawed human beings get together, there are usually some kind of tensions. (Especially when you add the Christmas sherry to the mix.) Focusing on what you’re grateful for at Christmas can help keep perspective when someone’s throwing a strop, or throwing up on your new dress, or falling out over a rowdy game of Christmas charades. As to the Christmas dinner, who cares if the sprouts are as hard as baubles, the gravy’s lumpy, and the trifle’s sunk? (I can’t help thinking of the Christmas episode of ‘Bottom’; farewell Rik Mayall, you legend.) We don’t need a bunch of celebrity musicians to remind us to feel grateful for what we have, do we? Whether religious or secular, the Christmas season is an easy time to be thankful for what we have – and to give back to others via many of the gifting schemes, volunteering opportunities and other charitable programmes that work so hard to help those in need. If you’re struggling this Christmas, please do reach out for help. There are many organisations who can help if you get in touch – do an internet search for support organisations in your area.
Finally, I’d like to say a public thank-you to our wonderful family and friends who supported us in our move here, at various stages of (the sometimes frantic) proceedings; to the new classmates and faculty who’re making our Finnish adventure so worthwhile; and to you for reading this column and the blog. To your health and happiness!