Words to Live By

February 12, 2015
Kristopher Schmetzer

Women have turned gratitude into something truly special. For them, gratitude is not just an emotion. It’s more like . . . an Olympic sport, perhaps. Or yoga. They “actively practice” gratitude.

Oprah introduced it into the global chatter, and Estrogen Nation turned it into a cacophony of thankfulness. On social media, girl gratitude becomes a veritable cosmic force. Sophia tweets: #gratitude is an attitude shift that brings you all you desire, because you put into the universe thanks for all you have! Be #grateful. 

Can you imagine a man penning those sentiments?

On femme-dominant Facebook pages like Living in Gratitude and Attitude of Gratitude, women are grateful for sunny days and butterflies, but also for “movie theaters which provide me respite from the heat of the day.” What? You’re not thankful for that air-conditioning?

My girlfriend’s Facebook feed this morning shows a bold bit of typography over a purplish background. It’s really nice to wake up in the morning realising that God has given me another day to live. Like if you agree!

Would you keep scrolling? I certainly did. But guess how many Facebook fans gave it the thumbs up? Two point eight million.

We could mock this stuff all day, but as always, the trouble with making fun of women is that we often find they’ve been right all along. Another girl advantage, largely unclaimed by men.

Just so you know: gratitude has been around slightly longer than the internet. It has always and everywhere been a virtuous thing; the Roman philosopher Cicero deemed it “the greatest of virtues”. The world’s major religions foster a sense of gratitude with prayers of thanks and litanies of blessings. “Count your blessings” is truly timeless advice.

So why this renewed interest? Are we becoming a more grateful society? Despite the recent conspicuous output of thankfulness by women, it hardly feels like it. Most of us never hear a word of heartfelt praise at work, even though 81 per cent of us say we’d work harder if we did. We say we’re grateful for family and friends, but only 52 per cent of women and 44 percent of men express gratitude on a regular basis, according to a survey conducted last year for the John Templeton Foundation. All in all, the survey found, most of us think people have become less grateful over the past 20 years.

What is new is the vogue for gratitude among psychologists. About 15 years ago a group of prominent researchers declared that the field of psychology was inordinately focused on mental illness. A little attention to mental health and the things that help people flourish would be way more helpful. The new field of “positive psychology” has produced more than 1000 scientific papers, many of them based on experiments that test various ways to foster or enhance wellbeing. As it happens, encouraging people to feel grateful is one very effective way to do just that.

“Gratitude research has never been hotter,” says Dr Shane Lopez, editor of the Encyclopedia of Positive Psychology Making Hope Happen. “Brief gratitude interventions are quite effective at promoting wellbeing. Few other psychological interventions are as potent and as universally beneficial.”

These “interventions” aren’t complicated. Most involve little more effort than spending a few minutes at the end of the day jotting down a few things you’re grateful for.

For example, the psychologists DR Robert A. Emmons and Dr Michael E. McCullough devised a three-part experiment to determine the physical and psychological effects of “a grateful outlook”. For the first part, 65 students in a “gratitude” group were each asked to submit a list of five things they were thankful for (rainbows, air-conditioning), while 64 students in a “hassles” group each submitted a list of five annoyances (stupid drivers, messy roommates) and 67 students in an “events” group each turned in lists of five neutral events (learned CPR, took the car in for an oil change) from their past week.

The result: after 10 weeks, the gratitude group felt happier and more optimistic about the upcoming week. These students also had fewer physical complaints and exercised more (nearly an hour and a half more each week) than the ones in the hassles group.

Oh, and if you think gratitude promotes passivity, I’d be very grateful if you’d think again.

In the second and third experiments of the study, college students and a sample of 65 adults with neuromuscular conditions – multiple sclerosis or Guillain-Barre syndrome, for example – were surveyed daily. Those in the gratitude groups reported feeling more life satisfaction, more optimism about the week ahead and more connected to others. They also slept better than those in the control groups.

That study by Emmons and McCullough, published in 2003, was the first to use the “gratitude list” technique, which has now become a classic method employed in gratitude studies. Meanwhile, Emmons, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, has gone on to conduct a dozen more studies and has written two books on the topic, his latest entitled, Gratitude Works! A 21-Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity.

“a seemingly simple practice of counting blessings produces almost immediate results”

In a word, Emmons calls it remarkable that the effects of gratitude interventions studied are consistent, significant, and quantifiable – “that a seemingly simple practice of counting blessings produces almost immediate results.” A little gratitude leads to more than just a misty feeling of oneness with the universe. What you won’t see on Twitter is a decade’s worth of proof from scientific studies showing its power to improve three key areas of your life:

(1) Your health

(2) Your marriage

(3) Your job

As far as your health goes, a gratitude intervention among inner-city African Americans with hypertension found that it significantly lowered systolic blood pressure. A study of 401 urban dwellers in England found that those who felt most grateful about life slept better at night. Grateful people, it seems, have more positive thoughts and fewer negative ones just before sleep; the result is longer, deeper sleep and better functioning during the day. Research also links the experience of feeling grateful emotions to an increase in the body’s parasympathetic nervous system activity, which is beneficial in controlling stress.

Regarding your marriage, a nifty study led by Dr Sara Algoe, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, found that – you sitting down for this? – gratitude is like a booster shot for romantic relationships. She recruited 67 Californian couples and asked each partner to independently respond “yes” or “no” to two statements each night for 14 nights. First statement: “I did something thoughtful for my partner.” Second: “My partner did something thoughtful for me.” Algoe discovered that the good deeds we do for our soulmates go completely unnoticed about half the time.Oh, your wife is oblivious to the fact that you filled the tank when you borrowed her car? Get over it, man!

Still, Algoe notes, “Women are better attuned to the thoughtfulness of the gesture.” So keep trying, even if you score only half the time. If you feel thankful, say it. “Something might happen in your own head,” says Algoe. “But without expressing it, you lose an opportunity to solidify the relationship at that moment.”

As for your job, Dr Adam Grant, an organisational psychologist and management professor at the Wharton School, has run several experiments that tested the power of “thank you” in the workplace. In one, 69 students were asked to provide comments on someone’s job application letter. Afterward, 35 of them got an enthusiastic “Thank you so much!” e-mail from the “applicant”, while 34 got a flat “received your feedback” reply. Then they were all asked by the spurious applicant to provide additional comments, this time on a second letter, even though the experiment was supposedly over.

Significantly, 23 of the 35 students who’d been thanked provided more help; only 11 out of 34 who hadn’t been thanked gave more feedback. (Who exactly were those 11 suckers?)

“The absence of gratitude can send as powerful a message as the presence of it,” says Grant. “Somebody not thanking me is a strong signal that this is someone I can’t trust.” Little wonder men don’t do as well in the team-oriented workplaces of the 21st century. They’re awkward about expressing gratitude, they’re less likely to say thanks, and they receive less help in return. “The effectiveness of teams,” notes Grant, “depends on the amount of helping among peers.”

If you think it’s tough for men to utter those two words, consider the difficulty of this next experiment. Dr Martin Seligman, director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, came up with the idea of writing a gratitude letter. He recruited 411 people who’d visited the website of his 2002 bestseller, Authentic Happiness, and asked them to perform one of five tasks purported to foster wellbeing. The gratitude task was this: write a letter expressing thanks to someone who has been especially kind to you but who never received proper thanks (see “The Happiness Project”, below), deliver that letter in person, then watch the person read it. This wasn’t an easy assignment, but the payoff proved to be huge. Of all the positive interventions, this task provided the biggest boost to happiness and the biggest decrease in depressive symptoms. Indeed, the 80 respondents who were assigned the task were still feeling the afterglow at one-week and one-month follow-ups.

That’s what’s striking about these results, says Dr Philip C. Watkins, a professor of psychology at Eastern Washington University. “In positive psychology, the benefits actually increase after treatment, whereas with most treatments, like cognitive therapy, the benefits fall off.”Watkins found the same increasing effect in his recent study in which college students were asked to recall three things that went well in the prior 48 hours, and then to write about how those events made them feel grateful. They showed an immediate uplift after the test and their mood continued to soar over the following five weeks.

It’s even possible to feel grateful about a bad thing. Watkins and his colleagues had study participants dredge up a memory that made them feel angry, sad or frustrated. Some were asked to write about a positive consequence of the event that they could be grateful for. Their instructions included prompts: How has this event benefited you as a person? Were there personal strengths that grew out of your experience? How has this event helped you appreciate the truly important people and things in your life?

Psychologists call this “positive reframing”. I call it a neat trick. You really can stop bad memories from creeping up on you. But if you focus on the positive reappraisal, the memory became less intrusive and causes less emotional distress. In other words, you feel some closure.

Even in this experiment, however, there was a clear difference between men and women, Watkins told me. “Men enjoyed the three-grateful-events exercise the least, and women enjoyed it the most. However, the men showed greater gains from it. We have more to gain, probably because we’re naturally less grateful.”

“Women are more willing to accept the fact that they are dependent on others”

Why does gratitude make men so uncomfortable? Why do we suffer from “gratitude deficit disorder,” as Emmons terms it? Theories abound: gratitude implies that we need help, and we don’t like looking weak; gratitude implies dependence, and we don’t like being dependent; gratitude is an emotion, and we don’t like emotions. These theories border on male-bashing, so I’ll stop there. The standard reply from gratitude researchers: men tend to confuse gratitude with indebtedness.

“Men tend to operate according to the rules of exchange relationships,” says Watkins. “Women operate in communal relationships. Women are more willing to accept the fact that they are dependent on others.” Women, it seems, can easily tell the difference between a straight-up gift, without any expectation of reciprocity, and a tit-for-tat exchange. Men, on the other hand, are all confused and conflicted in these situations. “We’re more likely to feel like, ‘How am I going to repay this person?’ We feel more of an obligation to balance the books,” says Watkins.

That’s especially true if the benefit comes from another man. That really freaks us out. Psychologist Dr Todd Kashdan and his colleagues recruited 77 older adults of both sexes ranging in age from 59-85, and asked them to write about their most meaningful gratitude experience of the prior week. The researchers assumed that grateful feelings would come more easily and be less troublesome to older men. No chance: the women reported more pleasantness and less of a sense of burden than the men. And the older men who recalled receiving a gift from another man reported the most unpleasant feelings of all.

In another study, 288 students were asked to think about what it would be like to express gratitude to someone who’d done something for them. The students were supplied with adjectives: would it be common or novel? Simple or complex? Boring or exciting?Compared with men, women imagined the hypothetical grateful moment to be less novel, less complex, less conflicting, and more interesting and exciting. “Men treat their relationships like financial transactions,” says Kashdan. “Your relationships are not going to be optimised if you’re always worried about the ledger.”

So does Kashdan have any advice for us? Thanks for asking! “When you do receive a gift, don’t reflexively feel as if you have to give something in return,” he says, with feeling. Example: you’re out for beers with a friend, and he grabs the tab. What happens next? You know: “A fight to the death,” says Kashdan. “I see it all the time. Let’s split it! You’ve now just ruined the experience, you’ve ruined the moment. Instead, you just need to say, ‘This is why I like having you as a friend. I hope I can be as good a friend to you as you are to me.’ It’s annoying when someone won’t accept a gift. And they’re missing out on this great social glue that binds people together.”

Tonight’s homework: go out, and let him buy. How hard could that be?

No, gratitude does not come easily to men. Even experts struggle. Consider Dr Emmons, the University of California professor who has, for the last 15 years, made gratitude his specialty. Indeed, he’s now considered the world’s leading expert on gratitude. Does that mean he’s at ease with gratitude personally? Ask his wife. She once told him, aiming straight for the jugular, “You’re the most ungrateful person I know.” Ouch! (“I think it was because she was mad at me at the time,” he explains, sotto voce. “And probably because I don’t express enough gratitude in our relationship.”)

If the world’s foremost expert on gratitude is an ingrate, is there hope for the rest of us? Maybe we should just sit this one out?

“If we sit it out,” Emmons says, “then we miss out on all the benefits. Younger men are seen as more attractive by women if they freely express gratitude, husbands are better liked by their wives, workplace gratitude is associated with productivity, grateful men take better care of their health. Sit it out? Not a chance!”

Okay, professor. Thanks for the advice.

 

Original Source: Two words to live by: thank you – https://au.lifestyle.yahoo.com/mens-health/a/26182335/two-words-to-live-by-thank-you/