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Gratitude may be “the ultimate positive emotion”

Friday, June 26th, 2009

This post is going to be a little more personal. Recently the number of comments on this site has been increasing, and I’ve been responding as appropriate. It’s gratifying to know that there have been more and more people discovering the site, and finding it useful and interesting. But I haven’t actually written a post since a car accident put me on the couch for almost a month. It was a bit of a shock, and it gave me more time to really think. I didn’t come to any firm conclusions, but I felt the need for more exploring. (See my article “Three strategies for being happier at work or school.”) I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Paradoxically, sometimes an unfortunate event can spark the kind of reflection that leads to gratitude, because you realize all the other things that are good about your life. I’ve written more about gratitude on this blog than any other subject so far, but that’s not because of personal taste. Researchers are learning that gratitude is of top importance in their study of the psychology of happiness.

So at the recent First World Congress on Positive Psychology, one of the participants wrote on twitter (him, me):

“Keep hearing the same thing throughout sessions and empirical studies: gratitude may be the ultimate positive emotion.”

(Also see my articles on gratitude: “Eight ways gratitude boosts happiness,” “Gratitude leads to psychological and physical well-being,” and “Gratitude Visit.”)

The subject of gratitude came up for me again recently when I was giving some advice to a PhD student going off to a conference. I know her quite well, so some of my advice was tailored specifically to her, and is not what I’d say to everyone. The more relevant part was:

Although it doesn’t happen often, there is always a possibility, as you obviously know, for someone to ask a question after your presentation which is aggressively challenging to the point of being obnoxious. I know you well enough to know that you would handle such a question very well. But also, if it ever does happen, don’t let it bother you. Many of the others will see such people as unnecessarily adversarial and will tend to want to defend you emotionally in proportion to the aggressiveness, even if they don’t speak up. The person might be upset about something else or may have even had a difficult childhood. It’s possible to be compassionate under such circumstances, and even grateful for one’s own situation. (And I’ll have to remember my own advice next time I talk to a rude customer service agent!)

This got me thinking. You never know what short or long term causes might contribute to someone being obnoxious. They could be in a bad mood for a variety of reasons, but normally it would be because something happened to them that was worse than their expectations, so it’s possible to have sympathy or compassion if you consider what their situation might be. There may be a cause as remote as a defensive style they developed in childhood in response to a perceived threat, perhaps an ongoing one. Even genetic predispositions might be a factor.

Sometimes it can help to know about one of these factors. Steven Covey tells a story about being annoyed that some kids were being unruly on a train and the father wasn’t saying anything. He finally said something to the father, and the father apologized and said they are probably not quite themselves because their mother just died. Covey felt embarrassed and his annoyance immediately evaporated.

Discovering something like this, or even something much more minor, can help one to actually be grateful after such encounters, grateful for one’s own background, experience, or circumstances. Now if we could only have the presence of mind to consider this kind of thing before making assumptions and getting upset!

Gratitude Visit

Sunday, November 30th, 2008

In 2004, Martin Seligman told a group of us on a conference call that a specific exercise in which a person expresses gratitude was the single most effective intervention in the budding field of positive psychology, according to the limited research available on these new techniques.

At the University of Pennsylvania, Seligman teaches a course on positive psychology, and has his students plan and carry out a “Gratitude Visit” as an assignment. In his best-selling book Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting FulfillmentAuthentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment, Seligman says that in his course evaluations he gets comments like “October 25th was one of the best days of my life.” He recommends all readers to do the exercise, and gives the following instructions:

Select one important person from your past who has made a major positive difference in your life and to whom you have never fully expressed your thanks. (Do not confound this selection with new-found romantic love, or with the possibility of a future gain.) Write a testimonial just long enough to cover one laminated page. Take your time composing this; my students and I found ourselves taking several weeks, composing on buses and as we feel asleep at night. Invite that person to your home, or travel to that person’s home. It is important you do this face to face, not just in writing or on the phone. Do not tell the person the purpose of the visit in advance; a simple “I just want to see you” will suffice. Wine and cheese do not matter [he mentioned in the book that this was part of “Gratitude Night” where students brought guests to a joint event], but bring a laminated version of your testimonial with you as a gift. When all settles down, read your testimonial aloud slowly, with expression, and with eye contact. Then let the other person react unhurriedly. Reminisce together about the concrete events that make this person so important to you. (If you are so moved, please do send me a copy at

There are a lot of ways in which giving works better than receiving for making you happier. The Gratitude Visit is a great way to enrich both giver and receiver. Try it! If you would like to send me a copy, I’d be happy to read it.

Seligman, M.E.P. (2002). Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting FulfillmentAuthentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press. p. 72-75.

Seligman, M.E.P., Steen, T., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410-421.

Eight ways gratitude boosts happiness

Sunday, November 23rd, 2008

Popular how-to book on happiness by leading researcherDoes cultivating gratitude increase happiness? Not very many studies have tackled this question directly, but the evidence so far from psychology research is pretty clear: Yes.

In her book The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want, Sonja Lyubomirsky discusses eight ways gratitude boosts happiness.

1. Gratitude promotes savoring positive life experiences.

2. Gratitude may increase a sense of confidence and self-worth, by encouraging you to consider what you value about your current life.

3. Gratitude helps you cope with difficulties.

4. Gratitude encourages kindness and other moral behavior.

5. Gratitude helps strengthen relationships.

6. Gratitude inhibits envy.

7. Gratitude helps undermine negative emotions.

8. Gratitude keeps us from taking the good things for granted.

Here’s what she had to say in more detail, interspersed with my comments:

First, grateful thinking promotes the savoring of positive life experiences. By relishing and taking pleasure in some of the gifts of your life, you will be able to extract the maximum possible satisfaction and enjoyment from your current circumstances. When my first child was only a few months old, an older woman approached me while I was struggling with the stroller. “Your baby is so beautiful,: she said. “appreciate this age; it goes by so fast!” At the time I was feeling overwhelmed an sleep-deprived and, to be honest, didn’t much appreciate her glib intrusion, Click to continue »