The Science of Gratitude

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“He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.” – Epictetus

 

There is of course no single shortcut or simple way to decrease the stress and sadness we all experience in our lives.  But incorporating a gratitude exercise into our daily routine is one quick and easy way we can get started.  Science even supports this which I will get to in a moment.

Psychologists have a wonderful skill of taking a common sense concept and putting it into terms that sound fancy.  One of those is “hedonic adaptation.”

Huh?

Think of it this way.  We can all remember getting new toys for Christmas when we were kids.  The excitement!  The elation!  It’s just what I wanted!  Everything is awesome!

Meanwhile that toy was probably in the trashcan or the donation bin a year later.

This is the essence of hedonic adaptation.  When we get something that is good, we are initially very happy about it and fully experience the joy of that thing.  You just got married?  You are ecstatic and full of gratitude for the spouse you dreamed of.  How many people experience that exact feeling 20 years in?  You just traded in your little TV for a big fancy flat screen in the latest HD technology.  For the first little while, you watch that TV and marvel at how great this is and how much better it is than what you had before.

Then you get used to it.  You adapt to it.  You take it for granted.  “Of course I have that.  Big deal.”  It’s the new normal.  You no longer are grateful for it.  It’s what you expect to have.  Then you focus on what the limitations are, how it could be better, what someone else has that is even greater.  And you’re no longer so full of excitement.  Maybe you feel deprived, sad you don’t have more, worried about how you can ever really reach the goal line of having what you want.  The problem is that the bar for what you want keeps getting moved further down the track, like the poor greyhounds who race for the bone but never get to it.  It’s natural for us to focus on what’s wrong or incomplete and try to fix it.  That’s what has kept us improving as humans for the history of our species.  But the potential cost is that we can never be fully happy if there is something else left for us to do.

How do we stop this pattern?  We can try to adapt less to the good things that are a part of our lives.  We can try to not take them for granted, but instead maintain that sense of joy and wonder that they are here with us.  Then when we are aware of the very real difficulties and problems that we face, we can balance that out with a full awareness of what is right and good in our lives.  Otherwise, we have an incomplete picture.

Science tells us that engaging in intentional gratitude can increase happiness and reduce depression.

What better way to prove this than to look at graphs from a scientific journal?  (I’ll give you the reference at the end of this post if you’re a scientific type.)

happinessgraphdepressiongraph

The graph on the top shows scores on a happiness scale from before the gratitude exercise all the way until six months after having done the exercise.  The graph on the bottom shows scores on a scale of depression from before the exercise until six months after having done the exercise.  The black bars are the folks who did the exercise and the white bars are the folks who didn’t.  As you can see, by engaging in the gratitude exercise, happiness goes up and depression goes down.  That’s pretty awesome!  And all of this takes only 5-10 minutes a day.

So what’s the exercise?  It’s simple.

At the end of the day, before you go to bed, write down three things that went well that day or that you were aware of being grateful for.  Then write down what caused them to go well or what caused you to be grateful for them.

That’s it.

These things do not have to be life-changing or unusual.  Perhaps you were grateful that the sun was out and you were able to take a walk and enjoy the beautiful blue sky or the feel of a cool breeze on your face.  Maybe your kids did their homework without being asked.  Maybe you are aware that you did not have a headache today after having been sick for a while.  Maybe somebody thanked you for helping them.  Maybe you realized that you had good food to eat in your refrigerator while many others in the world go without.  Perhaps you realize the job that you didn’t want to get up for this morning is a blessing that many others want to have.  It could be anything from simple things you take for granted to a peak experience that happens very rarely.  It doesn’t matter.  What matters is that you direct your attention to it, write about it, think about what caused it to be a part of your life, and realize that it is as much a part of your experience as the things you are dissatisfied with.

Do this every day for a week and see what happens.  You’ll probably decide to keep doing it because it is very likely to improve your mood and create more happiness.  Don’t argue with science!

Visit my website at www.trentevans.com if you are interested in learning more about my practice or in setting up an appointment to evaluate whether therapy with me is right for you.

Seligman, M. E., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410-421.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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