Reflect on your present blessings, on which every man has many, not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some.
Charles Dickens (M. Dickens, 1897, p. 45)
With all the stresses and pressures associated with completing a university degree, I chose to enrol in Happiness: Investigating its causes and conditions because I wanted to pick up a class that would not only teach me skills that will assist me in obtaining a career, but skills that will contribute to my overall happiness and wellbeing. In Sonja Lyubomirsky’s book, The How of Happiness (2007), she describes happiness-increasing activities that aim to transform the way people think about their lives. The first Happiness Activity that Lyubomirsky recommends is expressing gratitude (p.88). After completing the ‘Person-Activity Fit’ Diagnostic questionnaire in Chapter 2 (adapted from Sheldon), I discovered that expressing gratitude is one of the happiness activities that ‘fit’ me best. To practice recognising and expressing gratitude, for the past five weeks, I have kept a Gratitude Journal in which I have recorded the things for which I am grateful.
Lyubomirsky (2007) describes gratitude as not only saying ‘thank-you’, it is wonder, appreciation, and ‘counting blessings’. It is savouring, not taking things for granted; it is coping, and it is present-orientated (Lyubomirsky, 2007). Emmons and Shelton (2001, p.460) have defined gratitude as ‘a sense of wonder, thankfulness, and appreciation for life’. Gratitude can be felt or expressed towards other people, as well as towards impersonal and nonhuman sources (Emmons & Shelton, 2001). Although researchers, writers and authors have offered their own take on the definition of gratitude, it is a concept that defies a simple classification as it has been ‘conceptualised as an emotion, an attitude, a moral virtue, a habit, a personality trait, or a coping response’ (Emmons & McCullough, 2003, p.377; Froh, Sefick, Emmons, 2008).
A number of life experiences can stir feelings of gratitude, however it typically stems from a person’s positive outcome, that was not necessarily earned or deserved, and was the result of the actions of another person (Emmons & McCullough, 2003; Emmons & McCullough, 2004).
Considering gratitude is a commonly occurring affect studied by philosophers, theologians, and popular writers, it is a wonder that psychologists, especially those specializing in the study of emotion, have largely disregarded the concept and its benefits up until recent years (Emmons & Shelton, 2001; Emmons & McCullough, 2004). It wasn’t until the positive psychology movement (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000; cited in Emmons & McCullough, 2004) that attention was directed toward human strengths and virtues, such as gratitude (Emmons & McCullough, 2004). Since the movement, the plethora of positive effects associated with expressing gratitude have been recognized as a powerful psychological tool. Gratitude is powerful antidote for negative emotions, neutralising envy, hostility, worry and irritation (Lyubomirsky 2007; Emmons and McCullough, 2003; Emmons & McCullough, 2004). Research suggests that people who are consistently grateful have been found to be relatively happier, more energetic, more hopeful, more peaceful, and experience more frequent positive emotions and positive relationships (Lyubomirsky 2007; Emmons and McCullough, 2003; Emmons & Shelton, 2001). Knowing how to recognize, recall and express gratefulness in life circumstances is important to the way people positively interpret everyday experiences, from the miraculous to mundane (Emmons & McCullough, 2003; Emmons & Shelton 2001; Lyubomirsky 2007). Gratitude has been proven to have important implications for enduring physical and mental wellbeing (Lambert, Fincham, & Stillman, 2012; Kaczmarek et al., 2015)
In her book, Lyubomirsky (2007) suggests keeping a Gratitude Journal as a way of practicing gratitude and positive thinking. She recommends choosing a time of the day where you have time to sit peacefully and reflect on three to five things for which you are grateful. Lyubomirsky’s lab results from her gratitude intervention suggests that, on average, people who completed the Gratitude Journal activity once a week were most likely to experience a boost in happiness (Lyubomirsky, 2007). There is further evidence suggesting that people who keep gratitude journals on a weekly basis are more likely to be physically and mentally healthier, feel better about their lives, and be more optimistic (Emmons & McCullough, 2003).
This year I deliberately bought a daily planner with a space to record my thoughts and musings, with the hope that it would encourage and enable me to be more reflective. I decided that I would use this planner as a place to record my appreciations. Each week I would hand-write my appreciations and at the end of each week I would sit down and reflect on the things I had written during that week. I would then write a blog post on the overall weekly experience in my online ‘diary’. In accordance with the research (Emmons & McCullough 2003; Lyubomirsky 2007), initially I only wrote my gratitude’s once a week, however I found that I was neglecting the little things for which I was grateful. As the weeks progressed I found myself sitting down and hand-writing my gratitudes more often, usually three times a week.
In my experience, I agree with the majority of academic evidence that I have read. I feel that I am overall happier, more peaceful, more reflective, and my personal relationships have benefitted from this exercise (Lyubomirsky 2007; Emmons and McCullough, 2003; Emmons & Shelton, 2001). Research also suggests that expressing gratitude can benefit your overall health (Emmons & McCullough, 2003), however I cannot comment on how my health has improved because I have not been documenting it in relation to this exercise. I may note, however, that usually when I am faced with extended periods of stress, as I have been, I am more susceptible to headaches, and the flu, neither of which I have experienced in the past two weeks.
After undertaking this activity for five weeks, I know that I am happier because of the way I have been reacting to everyday situations and stresses. I have been able to establish positive habits that have allowed me cope with the pressures and stresses of university life. For example, in the past two weeks, I have had to submit seven assignments. Instead of feeling overwhelmed and disheartened, I was able to look at each day as having something to offer. If the day didn’t go my way, then I was able to at least be grateful that the next day would be a new one. This increase in happiness is also reflected in my increased ‘Subjective Happiness Scale’ score (Lyubomirsky 2007, p. 33). Before starting this task, on March 2, 2016 my happiness score was 5 and upon completing this task my score is now 5.25.
I am grateful that I had the opportunity to undertake this course, and appreciate the new skills it has taught me that I will be able to utilise for the rest of my life. Even if I do not continue writing down my gratitude’s on weekly basis, I have found myself simply reflecting during the day on the things for which I am grateful.
Finally, I will conclude with a beautiful quote on gratitude and appreciation from Benedictine monk, Brother David Steindl-Rast (in Schwartzberg, 2011), that emphasises the need to be grateful for the things we receive, no matter how insignificant they may seem, “Open your heart to the incredible gifts that civilization gives to us. You flip a switch and there is electric light. You turn a faucet, and there is warm water and cold water and drinkable water. It’s a gift that millions and millions in the world will never experience.
Froh, J. J., Sefick, W. J., Emmons, R. A., 2008, ‘Counting blessings in early adolescents: An experimental study of gratitude and subjective well-being’, Journal of School Psychology, vol. 46, issue 2, pp. 213-233.
Emmons, R. A., McCullough, M. E. 2003, ‘Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 84, no. 2, pp. 377-389.
Emmons, R. A. & McCullough, M. E. 2004, The Psychology of Gratitude, Oxford University Press, USA.
Emmons, R. A. & Shelton, C. M. 2001, ‘Gratitude and the Science of Positive Psychology’, edited by C. R. Snyder & Shane J. Lopez, Handbook of Positive Psychology, Oxford University Press, USA, pp. 459-471.
Kaczmarek, L. D., Kashdan, T.B, Drazkowski, D., Enko, J., Kosakowski, M., Szaefer, A., Bujacz, A. 2015, ‘Why do people prefer gratitude journaling over gratitude letters? The influence of indivudal differences in motivation and personality on web-based interventions’, Personality and Individual Differences, vol. 75, pp. 1-6.
Lambert, N. M., Fincham, F. D., Stillman, T. F., 2012, ‘Gratitude and depressive symptoms: The role of positive reframing and positive emotion’, Cognition and Emotion, vol. 26, issue 4, pp.615-633.
Lyubomirsky, S 2007, The How of Happiness, Sphere, Great Britain.
Schwartzberg, L 2011, Gratitude | Louie Schwartzberg | TEDxSF, YouTube Video, 11 June, TEDx Talks YouTube channel, viewed 15 April, 2016, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gXDMoiEkyuQ>.