Can Gratitude Make a Difference?

The best time to appreciate something is when you suddenly lose it. Having been ill the past week with a flu type virus I’m suddenly aware how much I’ve taken my health for granted. Suddenly being incapacitated and in pain, lacking motivation to do anything much except feel sorry for myself, it hasn’t been a great week!

The question of gratitude has arisen a few times recently. I was reading Debbie Bills’ lovely blog The Happy Maker, where in her recent post she listed 25 things she was grateful for. Not all were what you’d expect:-

I am grateful for my vacuum cleaner.
Have you ever tried to sweep carpet before?  No, I have never had to try that one, but I have had to vacuum on my hands and knees before, because the upright part didn’t work.

What lists by others can do for you, is shake up your own thinking. Recognise that you have so much to appreciate. Particularly when  going through a rough time (like being ill!) you can forget about what you have to be grateful for.

Gratitude Works!

I have just finished reading a tremendous book, 59 Seconds by psychologist Professor Richard Wiseman. He has written several other “popular” psychology books, one of which The Luck Factor I discussed at length last summer. Among other things, it demonstrated that “lucky” people think and behave in ways that increases their chances of creating, noticing and exploiting chance opportunities.

In 59 Seconds, Wiseman sifts through available research to try and separate fact from fiction in the various areas of self help:- happiness, motivation, stress, relationships, etc. Partly trying to expose myths, he is also trying to present ideas that work and suggests ways to incorporate them into daily life.

In the Happiness chapter he does discuss the problem of how our senses gradually get used to constant stimuli, to the point that they vanish from our awareness. For example, our awareness of a pleasant smell  (freshly baked bread) will fade, unless we leave the room and re-enter.

Like the fresh bread smell, our gratitude for what makes ourselves happy will fade:-

Everyone has something to be happy about…. However, as time passes, they get used to what they have and, just like the smell of fresh bread, those wonderful assets vanish from the mind.

As he does throughout the book, Richard Wiseman finds a piece of research that looks at whether deliberately reminding ourselves of what we have has any effect on our happiness. The research, by psychologists Emmons and McCullough was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2003:- “Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well Being in Daily Life.”

Write Things Down

The essence of the experiment was that 3 different groups wrote down different things each day – one writing down 5 things they were grateful for. At the end of the experiment (its the nature of the book that only sketchy details of the experiment are described, as so many experiments are covered), compared to the other groups:-

“…those expressing gratitude ended up happier, much more optimistic about the future, physically healthier and even exercised significantly more.”

What is also interesting, and related to this experiment, is the act of writing as opposed to talking or “imagining”.  The subjects didn’t just remind themselves by talking to others, or recalling in their head, they wrote things down. Richard Wiseman again:-

From a psychological perspective, talking and writing are very different. Talking can be somewhat unstructured, disorganised, even chaotic. In contrast, writing encourages the creation of a story line and structure that help people make sense of what has happened and work towards a solution.

Unfortunately, people tend to view writing as hard work. Even if they are going to be the only person to see what is written, many,  in my experience can be very reluctant to write things down.  But in several other experiments that are discussed in 59 Seconds, writing things down is an important part of the successful equation.

I will return to other aspects of Richard Wiseman’s findings from 59 Seconds and what helps with self confidence and other aspects of self help in future posts. But with the focus on gratitude, I must end with one of my favourite quotes:-

“I cried because I had no shoes, till I met a man who had no feet.”

Photo by sporkist on Flickr

Rich Hill February 25, 2010 at 12:09 pm

This goes right along with driving negative thoughts out of your mind.
Remaining steadfast and resolute in your goals will always make one more confident.
Thanks, good stuff to think about here.
.-= Rich Hill´s last blog ..Become a Warrior Join their Forum =-.

David February 25, 2010 at 4:02 pm

Thanks for the comment. In a way using gratitude like this is a form of positive thinking and will, in effect, leave less room for negative thoughts to fester.

Corinne Edwards February 25, 2010 at 1:37 pm

I have always found this to be true –

“Unfortunately, people tend to view writing as hard work. Even if they are going to be the only person to see what is written, many, in my experience can be very reluctant to write things down. But in several other experiments that are discussed in 59 Seconds, writing things down is an important part of the successful equation.”

In a wonderful book, “Artist’s Way,” Julia Cameron suggests we sit down and write (not on the computer) for twenty minutes every day about whatever – grocery list – complaints. Rambling thoughts. Punctuation not important. She calls them morning pages.

Funny thing happens – after about a page and a half, you hit pay dirt. The real problem – and it is amazing what solutions come pouring out.
(by the way, she suggests not reading them back for a month)

Hope you are feeling better.

BTW I am grateful I have a cleaning service every so often. I hate to vacuum.
.-= Corinne Edwards´s last blog ..HOW TO NAIL THE “BIG” INTERVIEW =-.

David February 25, 2010 at 4:00 pm

In my experience a lot of writing as therapy over here has focussed on being able to write creatively. I’ll look up Julia Cameron’s book as this is an area of great interest to me.
We can expand the gratitude thing in whatever way that suits – having a house that needs cleaning, being able to afford a cleaner, having the physical strength and dexterity to use a vacuum cleaner.
thanks for your comment

Debbie February 25, 2010 at 8:43 pm

Hi David,

I like the vacum cleaner. Actually it did bring back memories, but now I can smile out of appreciation for days gone bye.

Thanks for the link and you comparing things with the smell of fresh baked bread is great. I guess sometimes what is comes down to is not forgetting where we came from, so we appreciate and are grateful for where we are now.
Thanks David,
.-= Debbie´s last blog ..What i can Teach You about change and finding happiness! =-.

David February 25, 2010 at 9:29 pm

Its easy to dismiss this exercise as trivial and inconsequential; I do a variation on it most week days. But its useful to be able to quote some real evidence that it does work, as so many self help ideas floating around have no proof they work. Thanks again for your original post – without it I wouldn’t have written this! Thanks for commenting

Debbie February 26, 2010 at 1:59 am

Thanks David,

Isn’t it great how when people come together through person to person or just writting things for others to read how new ideas can be added to the old ideas and make them better.

I do write things down. I’m just really bad at writting a list for the gorcery store. If I do I’ll end up forgetting it anyway.

Glad I helped and thank you for expanding on gratitude.

.-= Debbie´s last blog ..What i can Teach You about change and finding happiness! =-.

Liz February 26, 2010 at 9:13 pm

I still remember, years ago, being just overwhelmed by a $1,000 car repair bill and being told that the AC ALSO was out and would cost … another $1,000. So annoyed. Then I got to my kids’ grade school and discovered a parent had died. Sure put my woes into perspective. The book This Hungry Spirit also has much to say about happiness, self-esteem, even leadership. The factors that contribute to happiness also contribute to success — and inspire you to make positive contributions to the world. What makes you happy also makes you successful, and makes you want to do good in the world.
.-= Liz´s last blog ..lizreads: Anyone going to be watching the health care summit? WOnder if I can watch online, but still get work done… =-.

David March 1, 2010 at 8:31 am

Thanks for your comment and reflection. I think your statement that factors that contribute to happiness also contribute to success has much going for it; as concepts they do overlap in many ways. I always see happiness as a side effect of doing something you enjoy, rather than something you can strive for in itself,

Debbie February 27, 2010 at 1:18 am

Liz that is really wonderful how you could put thing in the right perspective. Things can be replaced or fixed, but people can’t
be replace and sometimes not fixed.
.-= Debbie´s last blog ..What i can Teach You about change and finding happiness! =-.

Amy LeForge March 1, 2010 at 3:07 am

Gratitude is such an important-and underused-skill. I’m glad to see people talking about it. If there was one thing I could change about my kids, it’d be their gratefulness. I suppose though, that some of that comes with maturity, wisdom, and perspective.
.-= Amy LeForge´s last blog ..FFYF: Weekend Break Edition =-.

David March 1, 2010 at 8:26 am

Unfortunately gratitude doesn’t necessarily come with maturity, etc. From the sound of things your kids are brought up in an environment where gratitude is an important value, so hopefully it will gradually filter through. Sadly, when adults don’t have such values, its hardly surprising when it never occurs to their children. Thanks for commenting.

Alan Hickman March 4, 2010 at 6:20 pm

I am grateful to Ben Franklin who said, “There is no better memory than a sharp pencil.” I love taking notes, especially on tele-classes. It allows me to be present to the wisdom that is BEE-ing surfaced by each individual.

Gratitude is a really profound tool. I believe that BEE-ing grateful activates the human nervous system to attract to us more of that which we are grateful for. I am not a Bible scholar, however, I am intrigued by the expression on gratitude expressed in Philippians 4 – 6 where it says “…by prayer and petition (definite requests), with thanksgiving, continue to make your wants known to God.”

To me that sounds like BEE-ing grateful for that which I am requesting as if I already have it. I understand it, however, I do find, that the challenge for me is in BEE-ing grateful for something I don’t think I have yet.

Thanks for a great post
Alan Hickman
.-= Alan Hickman´s last blog ..Are You RUNNING A Business? =-.

David March 4, 2010 at 11:49 pm

Thanks for your reflection and compliments. I don’t really agree with your last point – to me gratitude is about appreciation for what you have. Being grateful for what you don’t have, in the expectation you will get it, is Law of Attraction type nonsense, in my opinion.

{ 2 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: