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Weekender - The Science of Thanksgiving

TheThanksgiving holiday is a time to reflect upon all of the good things in our lives, and to give thanks for them. Some would argue, however, that our world would be a much better place if 'thanksgiving' became a daily practice rather than a once yearly pursuit, and it appears that science has now found proof to substantiate this viewpoint.

Recent studies indicate that experiencing genuine gratitude can have an extremely positive effect on every aspect of our lives, from our health and well being to our relationships and careers. Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., at the University of California at Davis has been researching the effects of gratitude for some time and has conducted numerous studies on the subject.

In a study carried out with colleague Mike McCullough at the University of Miami, Emmons discovered that subjects who kept 'gratitude journals' on a weekly basis reported fewer symptoms of physical illness, had a greater sense of well-being and optimism, and tended to exercise more frequently in comparison with those who recorded negative circumstances, thoughts or life events.

The participants in the study were randomly selected and given one of three different assignments to record in their journals. One group were told to record five positive events for which they had felt feelings of gratitude; another group were told to detail five unpleasant incidents which had upset or angered them, and a neutral group was told to record five events of their own choosing, but were not told to focus specifically on either positive or negative experiences. After a ten week period, the results were analysed and it was discovered that those in the 'positive' group were at least 25 percent happier than those in the negative group.

Emmons' website outlines a summary of his findings to date, and in one statement he suggests that gratitude is what keeps us motivated and helps us to achieve our desires in all areas of life:

" Participants who kept gratitude lists were more likely to have made progress toward important personal goals (academic, interpersonal and health-based) over a two-month period compared to subjects in the other experimental conditions."

Emmons discovered that his gratitude exercises also promoted a greater sense of compassion in people, with those in the positive group being more likely to offer help or emotional support to others, compared to those in the other negative groups who perhaps became more self-absorbed and focused only on their own personal issues.

Surprisingly, Emmons found that even subjects who had every reason to feel despondent benefited from grateful thinking. In his book, Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier (2007), he described the results of a study in which he specifically recruited adults suffering from congenital and adult-onset neuromuscular disorders (NMDs), with the majority having post-polio syndrome (PPS). Such disorders can be very debilitating, with symptoms of fatigue, muscle weakness and joint pain, yet after focusing on their blessings for just 21 days, even these very compromised participants achieved a greater sense of well-being compared with those who did not practise gratitude. They reportedly felt more satisfied with life, more optimistic and enjoyed a better quality and duration of sleep.

The positive mental attitude of those in the gratitude groups was also noticed by the participants' partners, friends and families, so the exercise appeared to produce beneficial effects in their inter-personal relationships. This fact has been substantiated by other studies: at the University of Washington, the effect of positivity in marriage has been researched for twenty years by Dr. John Gottman, and the results have led him to conclude that a good marriage requires a high ratio of positive to negative encounters - 5:1 or more - in order to survive. He believes that he can now determine how successful a partnership is likely to be after just three minutes of observation. He looks for a feedback system between the couple, and for every complaint or negative response during conversation, he said that he would expect to see at least five positive exchanges, such as a smile or compliment, if the relationship is destined to thrive.

So how is it possible to cultivate a positive attitude, particularly if you're currently feeling very depressed? Well, depression certainly seems to illustrate a lack of gratitude in an individual's life: several studies have indicated that depression is inversely correlated to a grateful state of mind. Conversely, the more grateful a person is, the less likely they are to be depressed. Philip Watkins, a clinical psychologist at Eastern Washington University, discovered that clinically depressed individuals displayed significantly lower levels of gratitude (nearly 50 percent less) than non-depressed controls.

With statistics for depression and suicide in the United States rising yearly, what, other than physical causes, creates this dissatisfied state of mind? Oddly, experts are now suggesting that it is the 'pursuit of happiness' which can often lead to dissatisfaction and depression. On Friday, October 18th, the 2013 Stanford Roundtable, "Are You Happy Now?" convened five experts to discuss what happiness is and why so many Americans are unhappy. The panel comprised Jennifer Aaker, professor of marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business; Firdaus Dhabhar, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford; Ian H. Gotlib, professor of psychology and director of the Stanford Mood and Anxiety Disorders Laboratory; David Kelley, founder of IDEO and head of the d.school (Hasso Plattner Institute of Design) at Stanford; and Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor of psychology at the University of California-Riverside and a 1994 Stanford PhD graduate.

The discussion highlighted the American preoccupation with achieving 'happiness', and revealed that during the past year over a thousand books on the subject were published on Amazon, illustrating that the pursuit of personal contentment is turning into a billion-dollar industry. Lyubomirsky suggested that our 'comfortable' lives in the West now allow us the luxury of taking our minds off day-to-day survival and instead, people are able to sit back and ask themselves "Am I happy?".

"If you're constantly asking yourself, 'Am I happy yet?' that can actually backfire and make you less happy," Lyubomirsky warned.

So the pursuit of 'happiness' can have the opposite effect and lead to a disillusionment with the present. A recent study looked at the happiness status in 50 countries, and the United States ranked a mediocre 23rd. It seems that the 'American Dream' - "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" - may actually prevent US citizens from attaining utopia in the 'present' . If our focus is always on the pursuit of something that will make us happier in the future, we forget to appreciate what we have in the present, and it becomes a perpetuating cycle with the result that true 'happiness' is never attained. Therefore, the secret of true happiness appears to lie in feeling gratitude for what we have now, rather than when we attain certain goals or possessions.

Aaker said that many people chase further 'highs' by always acquiring new things: relationships, jobs, or material goods. This point appears to be perfectly illustrated when, after the gratitude of Thanksgiving, we are immediately assaulted by "Black Friday" and we are all convinced that our future happiness lies in the accumulation of some new consumer item at a knockdown bargain price!

The experts suggested that a more positive attitude can be attained by appreciating what you already have and focusing on achievements, rather than material objects. Yet even this mind-set needs to be carefully monitored as the panel revealed that the US is in the grip of a "time famine", where people do not have enough hours in the day to accomplish necessary tasks, and become depressed if they do not achieve their day-to-day goals. Aaker said that these time constraints are causing chronic stress which can sap happiness, and Couric added that it's no wonder then that happiness eludes most Americans in a culture where "busy-ness is a badge of honor."

Assessing priorities and deciding whether tasks are really necessary would seem to be a sensible remedy for this; in the grand scheme of things, many of our daily tasks are essentially meaningless. Our health and well-being should be our most important considerations as these form the bedrock of our lives; without good health many of our other so-called 'important' issues cease to exist at all.

Whilst running madly through life like a hamster on wheel can cause debilitating stress, the panel agreed that the 'right sort of stress' could in fact be productive:

"Good stress," said Dhabhar," is fleeting and taps into the fight-or-flight response in the brain. It prepares people to protect themselves. In the modern context, many things trigger the type of good stress that brings out our best, such as the anxiety of a job interview, or performing."

So we need some form of 'good stress' to generate healthy, positive stress responses, but inevitably life will throw serious difficulties at us, and the way that we handle these is crucial. The experts postulated that another factor fostering a state of dissatisfaction stems from the expectation that one should be ecstatically happy at all times. Many of the self-help happiness manuals available seem to suggest that we should all be existing in a state of perpetual bliss, and that if our lives somehow fall short of this utopian ideal then we are somehow to blame. This can cause feelings of despondency, but accepting that difficulties are a normal part of life can be empowering. Looking for the positive in every situation can be helpful, as can accepting support from others; times of hardship are often a great opportunity to forge deeper connections with our friends and families:

"It's OK to be sad," said Dhabhar. "For stress as well as negative emotions, one of the most powerful buffers is genuine social support."

Socialisation can bring other dangers to threaten our contentment, however, as the experts described that if we compare our lives with the perceived happiness of others, and then conclude that our lives do not measure up in some way, this can be a major cause of despair. Social media can contribute to this problem, as users generally attempt to portray a rosy image which may be far from the truth, so using this as a yardstick for one's own happiness is extremely misguided. The panel did agree, though, that it was important to have 'meaning' in our lives and this could be achieved through having a job you enjoy, family life or good personal relationships; social media can play a very positive role in the cultivation of these relationships when used in a genuine and constructive way, as it helps people to build up vital support networks and friendship groups.

Aaker summarized by characterizing the transformation of happiness over a lifetime as "excitement, satisfaction, balance, savoring and contentment, " while Gotlib added "This old power of positive thinking is real. Changing the way one thinks is the bedrock of probably the most effective form of treatment for emotional disorders."

So, practising a few simple procedures could literally transform every area of our life for the better, though Emmons believes that the practice of 'gratitude' requires a long-term commitment in order to realize the greatest benefits. Frequency also seems to matter, with daily focus accomplishing more noticeable results than weekly, and the answer seems to lie in focusing on small things in our current situation rather than the attainment of future goals. So, even if you are feeling miserable, depressed and hopeless, start small and keep it simple; just making the commitment to find a couple of blessings on a daily basis could be the first step to transforming your life. Here are a few practical steps to get you started:

1) Make a commitment to keep a daily journal listing three things you are thankful for that day, or in general. If you can't do it daily, just do it as often as you can. It works well if done first thing in the morning, or just before you go to bed.
2) Try to find something nice to say to a partner, family member or friend.
3) Look at yourself in the mirror and find at least one thing that you like about yourself, or remember something that you have done well.

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Thank you :) What a lovely, honest, practical and genuinely helpful article this is. It is so true that the 'happiness gurus' are creating feelings of inadequacy and frustration when life's challenges continue to show up! What you say here is reassuring and real. Thank you again :)

I second Adam's comment.
Thank you!
Great article.

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