There are many ways to develop a positive attitude, but one easy way to begin is with the habit of giving thanks. Here’s an excerpt on what I call “the gratitude antidote” from my book, 10 Essentials of Happy, Healthy People: Becoming and staying highly healthy.
One recent Thanksgiving Day Barb and I sat around the table after a glorious dinner with a small group of family and friends. One of our friends, who was like a daughter to us, asked if we could practice a tradition her family had enjoyed for generations.
“We just go around in a circle,” Ellen explained, “telling each other what we’re thankful for. Each time you speak, you can only share one thing. We just keep going around for as long as it takes.”
I smiled. This probably won’t take very long. Boy, was I mistaken.
Ellen began. “Today I am grateful for a new ‘family’ with which I can share this special holiday.”
The next person in the circle continued. “Today I am grateful for a job that I love.”
“Today I am grateful for pumpkin pie and ice cream,” said the next person.
“Today I am grateful for a warm home and a loving husband.”
To my amazement, this simple exercise continued over forty-five minutes, bringing much joy and laughter. As we cleared the table, you could hear individuals whistling or humming to themselves. Attitudes were positive—indeed, jolly.
We could have complained or gossiped or discussed our ills and problems; we could have concentrated on the difficult times our country has experienced—all of which would have most certainly depressed us. But Ellen chose to demonstrate the age-old principle that an attitude of gratitude almost always generates positive feelings and a sense of well-being.
Writer G. K. Chesterton had the right idea when he said we need to get in the habit of “taking things with gratitude and not taking things for granted.”
Gratitude puts everything in a fresh perspective; it enables us to see the many blessings all around us. And the more ways we find to give thanks, the more things we find to be grateful for. Giving thanks takes practice, however. We get better at it over time.
One good way to develop an attitude of gratitude is to begin a gratitude list or a gratitude journal—a practice endorsed by Oprah Winfrey and popularized by Sarah Ban Breathnach’s best-seller Simple Abundance.
In fact, this concept is so well accepted that a 1998 Gallup poll showed that more than 90 percent of Americans believe that expressing gratitude makes them happy.
I gave one of my patients who had a particularly bad attitude (and the chronic depression that often goes with it) the assignment of keeping a daily gratitude journal for two weeks.
On her next visit, she said, “I can’t believe how much better it makes me feel and function. I still have bad moods and disappointments— but they seem to be getting better by the day. On days when I keep a list of all the little things that give me a lift, it’s amazing how the good feelings just grow. On days when I forget—well, my bad attitude gets the best of me!”
Behavioral psychologists have taken note of the ageless principle that an attitude of gratitude will increase feelings of optimism and well-being.
Psychology professors Michael McCullough, Ph.D., and Bob Emmons, Ph.D., have performed several studies on the perspectives and dimensions of gratitude. Specifically, they’ve examined whether the positive attitudes that come from giving thanks can ease the emotional burdens and stress of women with breast cancer and people with neuromuscular disorders. It should be no sur- prise that the early results are positive—so much so that McCullough hosted the first-ever conference on gratitude’s positive health effects.
In one of the studies, researchers asked one group of volunteers to keep a daily log of their five most irritating hassles of the day. (I call this group the “grumblers.”)
A second group spent time each day listing five ways in which they thought they were better off than their peers. (I call this group the “gloaters.”)
A third group wrote daily about five things for which they were grateful that day. (The “grateful” group.)
All three groups also kept a daily record of their moods and physical health. At the end of three weeks, the people who kept gratitude lists reported having greater energy, fewer health complaints, and more overall feelings of well-being than those who complained or gloated each day, according to results published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology.
Professors McCullough and Emmons have continued to publish their findings about the impact of gratitude on helping people achieve high degrees of health.
In four studies they’ve examined the relationship between one’s health and one’s level of gratitude. In another study they’ve shown that self- ratings and observer ratings of the grateful disposition are associated with positive effect and well-being (an improved emotional wheel), improved social behaviors and traits (an improved relational wheel), and improvements in measures of religiousness/spirituality (an improved spiritual wheel).
They were able to replicate these findings in a large, nonstudent sample. A third study revealed similar results and provided evidence that as gratitude increases, the negative emotions of envy and a materialistic attitude decrease. They demonstrated that this is true whether one is an extrovert or an intro- vert or whether one is naturally positive or negative.
Researchers believe that an active cultivation of gratitude results in positive attitudes and well-being because of the principles of cognitive therapy (a form of psychotherapy that helps people replace negative explanations of events with more positive ones). When you find yourself brooding over an unpleas- ant experience, for instance, you can consciously choose to find a reason to be grateful. By doing so, you perform your own spontaneous cognitive therapy.
In two studies undertaken by psychology professors Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D. and Robert W. Levenson, Ph.D., the researchers caused anxiety or fear in a group of subjects by first showing them disturbing film clips and then showed clips intended to cause contentment, amusement, or other positive emotions.
The films that triggered positive feelings helped participants recover from negative emotions faster than did those viewing disturbing films.
Here’s the conclusion: Positive emotions may actually neutralize harmful ones.
“It may be easier,” said Dr. Fredrickson, “for people to cultivate mirth, gratitude, and other positive states than to struggle to banish negative feelings like sadness and anger.”
Due to the publicity generated by Oprah and others in the media, the public isn’t waiting for scientists to explain why gratitude works. People are simply beginning en masse to keep gratitude lists. Why? A simple five-minute daily gratitude ritual makes believers out of many. It’s like taking an emotional aspirin on emotionally painful days. I’ve seen a growing understanding among professionals and laypeople that it’s not life events that make a person happy or unhappy; it’s how a person copes with those events that makes the difference.
Or, as my granddad used to say, “Walt, if you’re not content with what you have, you’ll never be content with what you want!”
Keeping a gratitude journal is something most people have to work at over time. Researchers observe that it’s not a natural tendency for most people, but that with time it can become automatic.
Yet, isn’t that true for all of the essentials of highly healthy people? They are not automatic. They take effort. You need to determine whether your health—and that of your loved ones—is worth the effort.
The more you cultivate a positive coping style, the more likely you are to demonstrate feelings of well-being and happiness, no matter what your lot in life.