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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 Seligman@psych.upenn.edu)

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 »

Planning, strengths, and the magic ratio

Wednesday, October 8th, 2008

The presidential candidates agree to the rules of the debate including time limits. A green light turns yellow and then red to let both men know that their time is up for answering that particular question. The candidates do what any reasonable person would expect: they run over the time limit a little bit, then a little more. (Of course.) It’s in their own interest to do so – especially given that they wouldn’t want to be upstaged by the other guy. But the organizers are caught completely off-guard by this predictable situation. It’s as though no one thought about this possibility, and there is no backup plan. The only thing the moderator can come up with is to chide the candidates repeatedly that they had agreed to the rules. Every time he does so he takes time and focus away from the discussion and the issues, which starts to seem a bit absurd after awhile. At one point one of the candidates makes a suggestion for him to raise his hand to get their attention.

Then, as if to highlight the lack of good planning, when the debate ends and the candidates naturally move toward each other to shake hands, the moderator stops them and asks them to move out of the way because he can’t see the teleprompter on the wall behind them.

This actually happened last night at the second presidential debate. It wasn’t a Saturday Night Live sketch.*

How could the organizers have failed to plan for likely outcomes? I really don’t know, but it has the appearance of not thinking things through, which is the point I want to make.

Thought experiment

Albert Einstein used “thought experiments” to think through the ramifications and logical consequences of certain initial conditions. It was a truly outstanding example of rational thought.

Why not try to do something similar in planning? Some things just work better with a good plan. And sometimes it’s worth taking time to think through some of the “what ifs?” It depends on how important something is, of course. But sometimes people spend a lot of time on things that actually matter less (and bring them less happiness and meaning) than other things. Try this: It can be a useful exercise to consider how you’d want to be remembered when you’re gone.

If you already know what needs to be done, lay out the process. Mentally walking through each step can be revealing, even without applying genius-level intellect to problems and solutions.

What if we’re talking about something bigger, and laying out the steps is premature? Don’t underestimate the power of a dream or vision, and its ability to inspire.

The magic ratio

The Appreciative Inquiry approach points out the value of identifying the “positive core” rather than utilizing only criticism, or being dragged down by hopelessness, irony, or negativity. Also, researchers have looked at the optimum ratio of positive to negative in interactions. Beginning with the landmark investigations of psychologist John Gottman, using what he called “the magic ratio” (5:1), Gottman and colleagues were able use analysis of positive to negative interactions in 15-minute conversations to predict divorce 10 years later with 94% accuracy. Psychologist Donald O. Clifton encourages highlighting what coworkers or employees do well instead of what needs improvement, and discovering the benefits of supporting their valuable contributions. But research discovered that when the ratio gets too high, about 13:1, effectiveness declines. That situation was out of touch and unrealistic. So reduce negative feedback, but don’t eliminate it.

A very useful contribution positive psychology might make to certain kinds of business or personal planning is looking at your personal strengths. This could be strengths in relation to your job, or in relation to your role in the personal task you’re planning for. It could be the strengths of those involved in some joint business or personal task. It could even be the strengths of your business or project team as a whole. Playing from your strengths rather than focusing primarily on weaknesses has been shown to work better.

Founder of modern “positive psychology” Martin Seligman says that using our strengths “makes work more fun, transforms a job or a career into a calling, and increases flow.

*If it had been SNL, the absurdity would have been taken much further: the moderator might have been asked to wave both arms over his head, jump up and down, and “do something more to get our attention”; “just throw a few crumpled up pieces of paper,” an eraser (chalk flies on impact from side of head), “try your shoe,” “use this taser” (then: “don’t tase me, bro!”), “here’s a harpoon gun” (“God knows I had worse in Nam”).