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.
“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!