As we take time this week to think about what we’re grateful for, let’s add gratitude itself to the list.
The practice of gratitude is a gift not only to others, but also to ourselves, as it’s been associated with many health benefits including: greater well-being and life satisfaction, improved sleep, fewer physical complaints, healing from trauma, greater empathy and optimism, and a lower overall lifetime risk of developing psychiatric disorders such as anxiety and depression, alcohol and substance abuse and eating disorders (e.g., Kendler et al 2003; Emmons & McCullough 2003; Wood et al 2010, among many other research studies).
Gratitude involves developing the capacity to appreciate and savor life experiences. There are so many ways to feel and express gratitude. Here are a few to consider:
Though the cultural tendency may be to focus on what’s not going well (in order to address current challenges, solve problems and secure necessary support), we would do well to also practice a grateful outlook.
Gratitude is both a positive emotion that makes us happy and a personal strength that we can build like a muscle. Giving thanks is not just a one-day affair!
I'm grateful for science solving world problems!
Check out the Qingdao Saltwater Rice Research and Development Center and how Chinese researchers have developed rice that grows in saltwater, leading to productive initial yields in the United Arab Emirates.
A recent study of people living with middle stage HIV investigated the effect of compassionate love on their survival (Ironson, Kremer and Lucette, 2018).
Compassionate love has been defined as love that focuses on the well-being of the other person including: supporting the other’s free choice and valuing and empowering them, holding an accurate understanding of the other and their situation, and openness towards spirituality and responding from the heart.
The stress, coping and health status of the study participants was assessed every six months for seven years. The results found that offering oneself compassionate love predicted better survival. This was found even after controlling for other variables such as social support. The findings might be explained, though, by the fact that those who gave themselves compassionate love also tended to demonstrate better medication adherence.
The most significant finding though (not mediated by medication adherence) was that givingotherscompassionate love also predicted survival, whereas receiving it from others did not.
Simply put: giving to others is good for us – whether we give materially, or of our time, or through our compassionate stance towards others. It’s why volunteers tend to live longer; they receive the mental and physical benefits of giving. And now this research shows that, even if we are ill and living with a chronic condition, the giving of compassionate love to others and to ourselves, can also extend the quality and duration of our lives!
David Shutts, several years after receiving a diagnosis of stage four cancer, launched a website helping those with chronic medical conditions find meaningful work. After having experienced the negative impact of his own identity shrinking to that of “cancer patient,” David decided to start a nonprofit that would help people with illness remember their value and contribute their talents to society.
Check it out: www.astriid.org.uk
Interestingly, while feeling attached to the animal was positively associated with satisfaction and mood, a high degree of attachment was found to have the opposite effect (lower subjective well-being). This finding is replicated in other studies, suggesting, perhaps, the disadvantage of too much attachment to animals should it come at the expense of human relationships.
No worries – plenty of care and affection to go around – to people and animals!
Did you know...
The British Fashion Council has ended the use of animal fur in its London fashion shows as of this September. A number of high profile designers, such as Versace, Burberry, and Stella McCartney, have also dropped fur from their global collections.
Check it out:
Joy is not just happiness. Joy is its own unique positive emotion, usually activated in response to good news or the arrival of a hoped-for event.
But not everyone responds to such occasions with joy. Researchers have investigated what makes some people more prone to feeling joy than others and have found that people flourish more in response to having a “disposition” of joy than relying on isolated experiences of intense but short-lived joyful emotion (Watkins et al 2018).
A disposition toward joy is a subtle enduring state, characterized by the following type of outlook: “In a typical day, things often happen that tell me my life is working out the way it should” or “Many things can bring me delight,” or “Even in the midst of bad situations, I can usually find something to rejoice about.” It is a perspective that life is being well-lived.
A clear relationship also exists between joy and gratitude, with findings suggesting that gratitude predicts increases in joy over time. Interestingly, dispositional joy also predicts enhanced gratitude.
In other words, it appears that the more grateful we are for what we have, the more able we are to experience joy in our lives. And, by being more joyful, we are then able to find more to be grateful for. It’s an upward spiral of increasing well-being, available to us all should we choose to jump aboard.
A study by the University of Exeter in 2017 found a relationship between the number of birds that people could see near their homes in the afternoon and decreasing levels of anxiety, stress and depression experienced. The study adds to the already compelling research documenting the mental health benefits of engagement with nature.
Check it out:
When feeling insecure about ourselves or our relationships, we may try to overcompensate – to show our partners how smart, competent, or attractive we are. A recent study of intimate relationships reveals, however, the significant association between humility and relationship happiness (Dwiwardani et al 2018).
The study included participants from the US and India who were in exclusive romantic relationships of at least three months duration. The results showed that perceiving one’s partner as humble significantly predicted relationship satisfaction. The opposite was found as well: Being perceived as superior negatively predicted one’s partner’s relational satisfaction. Other virtues such as forgiveness, gratitude, and relationship commitment were also found to be associated with perceived humility.
The study provides evidence for how having an accurate view of oneself can be protective for relationships as opposed to self-enhancing. Acknowledging one’s own shortcomings can help repair conflicts and strengthen the relationship bond. So too can acknowledging the virtues of one’s partner, such as appreciating their humility.
Inspiring Story ….
Dennis Frandsen, a successful Midwest banker, has twice paid for the full community college education of an entire graduating class in his hometown in Wisconsin. Owner of manufacturing companies and banks across several states, Frandsen never went to college himself. He reports wanting to help local youth come out of college without any debt.
Check it out:
A recent study out of Columbia University and CUNY (Midlarsky et al 2018) investigated how simply visualizing helping another would affect one’s mood and emotions among participants aged 60 and older.
Results showed that visualizing helping a needy stranger led to more positive affect than visualizing being social with friends or walking down the street (the control condition).
However, differences were found among the participants such that those who reported high levels of social responsibility demonstrated significantly greater positive affect than those who didn’t. Those who self-reported less of an altruistic orientation to life actually experienced an increase in negative emotions when imagining helping others.
Clearly, individuals vary. Not every one values social responsibility and altruism. But for those who do, the research shows that prosocial behavior (even the imagining of it) will make you feel positive emotions and experience greater overall mental health.
Here are a few inspirational stories to check out:
Starbucks to Pay Employees to Spend Half of Work Hours Volunteering for Charities
Strangers Carry Injured Woman Down the Mountain When She Couldn’t Continue Hike
This teacher on a plane talked about her low-income students. Passengers overheard and gave her more than $500 in cash.
Language creates reality. The words we hear influence how we feel about ourselves and others. Researchers at the University of Chicago (Williams et al, 2018) examined this by investigating how listening to loving-kindness-based language affected participants’ perception of distress.
Participants listened to recordings of statements designed to cultivate positive, compassionate feelings (such as “May you be truly happy; May you love yourself completely just the way you are”). Those in the control group listened to statements about health and security (e.g., “May you live your life in safety; May you be truly well and free of illness”). Both groups then viewed images of painful stimuli and rated how much pain might be experienced.
The study examined whether the statements affected participants’ sensitivity to their own imagined pain and the pain of others. The results showed that those who listened to the loving-kindness statements perceived greater pain for others (demonstrating higher interpersonal sensitivity). Interestingly, those in the control group who listened to the security-based language rated imagined self-pain higher.
Exposing ourselves to loving-kindness statements may result in decreased sensitivity to our own pain. It may also help us better attune to the distress of others. The words we choose on the inside can really help us experience compassion and connection with those on the outside.
The research firm, Great Place to Work, and People magazine recently reviewed surveys from 4.5 million employees across 1,000 US businesses to determine companies that “care” the most, in terms of their culture, employee benefits, and philanthropic treatment of the community and the environment.
Check out the top ten companies at:
It’s very easy to take our lives for granted. Most of us proceed under the illusion that there’s an unlimited supply of days ahead. While we know, of course, that we’re not immortal, this fact receives little conscious attention. We fall into the habit of procrastinating and postponing things, assuming tomorrow will continue to lie ahead of us.
Risky. We are not fortune tellers. We truly do not know what the future holds – how many years of good health we will have or how many opportunities there will be to share time with those we care about.
Psychologists (Layous et al 2018) recently investigated the effects of having people view time as scarce, and conducted an experiment encouraging participants to live as if they had only one month left in the city they resided in. Compared to a control group, these participants showed significant gains in well-being, deriving greater happiness from their surroundings. Savoring experiences was found to enhance feelings of connection, competence and control.
The results may seem counterintuitive – promoting a scarcity mentality as a means to well-being. And yet, considering future loss is apparently an effective approach to reminding us to make the most of the present time zone we live in!
Did you hear about the NFL player, St. Louis Rams’ center Jason Brown, who walked away from football and his $37 million contract several years ago to buy a farm in North Carolina? He grows food that he donates to the local pantry to feed the hungry, and reports how fulfilling his life a service is.
Check it out:
There are certain virtues we expect to find in our medical providers: a desire to help and heal, empathy, and compassion, among others. And yet, not every physician we encounter expresses these qualities.
Researchers from Duke University School of Medicine,Fuller Theological Seminary, and the Department of Medicine at the University of Chicago investigated the process by which medical students develop the moral intuition to care (Shepherd et al 2018). They studied 563 medical students across 24 US medical schools, analyzing the role of spirituality vs religiosity in virtue development.
The results show that the medical students’ spirituality predicted an intuition to care which predicted increases in empathic compassion and generosity. Interestingly, the importance of religion to the students did not predict the development of virtues. In fact, a negative relationship was found between religiousness and empathic compassion.
The fact that spirituality promotes virtues is not surprising when we consider that it connects people to something greater than themselves. By emphasizing connection to others, spirituality naturally cultivates such qualities as generosity and compassion. From this lens, medicine, ideally practiced in the service of helping others, represents a sacred goal or calling. The researchers suggest the ethical benefits of integrating spiritual growth awareness into medical education (as well as other contexts – military?), given that spirituality may affect students’ care of others.
Dr. Jim Withers of Pittsburgh, PA practices “street medicine.” He brings free medical care to the homeless and has developed Operation Safety Net, a set of essential health and social services offered through “house calls” to those living on the streets.
This model of outreach to the unsheltered homeless has now been replicated across six continents via the Street Medicine Institute.
Check it out:
Despite the common assumption that happiness is to be found in securing money or material items, the research is pretty clear that such gratification is short-lived. After providing an initial boost, material acquisitions tend to lose their impact quickly (see Brickman & Campbell, 1971, for their seminal work on hedonic adaptation, e.g., how people get quickly used to new circumstances).
What does promote a more lasting type of happiness is when people engage in intentional activities that create “flow” – a state of mind produced by a certain investment of energy, skill, and challenge (Csikszentmihalyi,1997, 1999). And yet, because flow activities require initial effort, we tend to lean towards more passive activities, even though these experiences are less likely to add up to a happy life.
Schiffer and Roberts (2018) found in a recent study that, even though people know that “effortful” flow activities facilitate long-term happiness better than passive ones, they still engage in passive leisure more often on a weekly basis.
According to their research, the reason for this “paradox” has to do with affective forecasting, the process of predicting how an event will emotionally affect one in the future. In particular, the researchers found that people predict flow tasks to be too daunting to initiate, which causes them to not engage in such tasks.
On the other hand, people perceive passive leisure as more enjoyable, requiring less activation effort. Such affective forecasting is inaccurate, given that true enjoyment (in a longer-term context) results from activities that require psychic investment and that facilitate growth.
What’s the take away here? Don’t confuse short-term pleasure (passive leisure) with longer term enjoyment and life satisfaction. Mindless hedonism only goes so far. It may be worth it to hold off on some of the instant gratification behaviors (checking social media?) in order to engage in happiness-lasting activities, even if they require start-up energy. It’s okay to work a little for true happiness.
A rehab center outside of Seattle called reSTART offers treatment programs for those addicted to devices and the instant gratification of online gaming and virtual reality. Treatment includes, in addition to therapy, time in nature, exercise, life skills such as cooking, laundry, and cleaning, and genuine recreational and social activities.