Saturday, September 1, 2007

Forget misery: gratitude is best, even for your health

This is the text of my That's Men for You column in The Irish Times on Tuesday, 28th August, 2007:

Are you a miserable sod? Do people always let you down? Are you fed up with a world which takes more than it gives?

If so, you will not be surprised to learn that I have bad news for you.

You sound to me like someone who does not know the meaning of the word gratitude. The bad news lies in research which shows that people who cultivate gratitude feel better and more alive and get on better than their begrudging cousins. Typical, isn’t it?

But what’s all this rubbish, you ask, about gratitude and research? Well, the research into gratitude has been spurred by the positive psychology movement founded by Dr Martin Seligman. This movement focuses on what can help people to feel good rather than why people feel bad.

In one of the latest pieces of research, reported to the annual conference of the American Psychological Association, sixteen people who had received transplants were given daily tasks to do.

One group was asked to note such matters as medication, how they felt about their day, how they were getting on with other people and so on. The other group was asked to do something extra: this was to note five things they were grateful for and why they were grateful for them.

After twenty one days of this, both the mental health and the general health of the gratitude group, as they were called, had improved. But the mental and general health of those who did not do the gratitude exercise had actually fallen. That group also had experienced a decline in vitality. By contrast, the gratitude group experienced no such decline.

The explanation offered by the researchers was that cultivating a sense of gratitude protected the mental health of the people in the gratitude group. This in turn improved their general sense of well-being and protected their sense of vitality.

Earlier research by Dr Seligman found that people who cultivate gratitude, perhaps through keeping a daily gratitude journal, are less likely to become depressed than those who do not. In people who are already depressed cultivating gratitude reduces the intensity of the depression.

In general, he has found that people who cultivate gratitude feel happier than those who do not and tend to get on better in life.

All this could be dismissed as psychobabble and mumbo-jumbo but for Seligman’s insistence on backing up his claims with research.

Research aside, look around you at your place of work. Have you ever noticed that there are people who cultivate a sort of begrudging misery which nothing can penetrate? Wouldn’t it be fair to say that these people have absolutely no sense of gratitude whatsoever?

Now look at the people who have a sense of gratitude. Have you ever noticed that they don’t just feel better than the ungrateful ones – they tend to do better as well? If there is a promotion or transfer they want they are far more likely to apply for it and to give the application their best shot.

Meanwhile, your miserable, ungrateful git stews and stays exactly where he or she already is.

Buddhist psychology has another take on the value of gratitude. Buddhism aims to dethrone the self, on the basis that the self is a fake. It’s a set of behaviours we cobble together as a defence against trouble and pain and then go on to guard for the rest of our lives. Gratitude reminds us that everything we have involves other people both dead and living. This awareness helps to dissolve the obsession with the self. It also helps us to avoid becoming what George Bernard Shaw called “a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”

Gratitude also takes some of the focus off ourselves and puts it onto those who have helped us. Putting the focus outside ourselves is also protective against depression.

So cultivating gratitude, through a gratitude journal or in other ways, pays dividends. And it will stop you being a miserable git for the rest of your life.

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