Mmm…Thanksgiving.

The one day a year devoted to being thankful and counting our blessings. To getting away from frenzied work and school schedules for a few days…only to encounter traffic jams, airport security, and inevitable delays. To enjoying a festive meal of turkey, tofurkey, or turducken…and complaining about our expanding waistlines. To spending time with close family…until they start telling the same old stories, giving us unsolicited advice, and getting on our nerves.

Good old Thanksgiving.

Thankful though we ought to be, our sour side tends to win out more often than not. It seems easier and more natural to complain and dwell on our problems, daily frustrations, and annoyances. Psychologists call this a “negativity bias”.

So what’s the answer?

Find a way to put a postive spin on things? Turn lemons into lemonade? Is Willie Nelson really onto something? Will counting our blessings make our troubles melt away and pave the way to inner peace and the realization of all our heart’s desires?

The gratitude effect

In one of the first set of studies to experimentally test the effects of counting our blessings, researchers from the University of California, Davis, and University of Miami asked a group of students to sit down once a week and write down five things in their life that they were grateful for (e.g. “wonderful parents” or “the Rolling Stones”).

A second group was asked to write down up to five hassles that they recently experienced (e.g. “stupid people driving”), while a third group simply wrote down five events of any kind from the last week (e.g. “cleaned out my shoe closet”).

Over the course of ten weeks, it became clear that counting one’s blessings made a difference. Students who listed their blessings each week felt more positively about their lives in general, and were more optimistic about the week ahead. They also reported fewer health issues (like headaches, aches and pains, illnesses, etc.) and exercised almost 1.5 hours more per week than the students who wrote down the week’s frustrations.

Subsequent studies found gratitude to result in more and better quality sleep, as well as more positive moods (and a reduction in negative mood).

It seems that the act of counting one’s blessings may be something of a catalyst. An activity that leads to psychological, emotional, and behavioral changes that have a cascading effect over time. We become more likely to help others, build and strengthen connections with others, and foster a sense of well-being within ourselves that makes us more resilient when we encounter stress and adversity.

Dealing with critics and rejection

And while I may be pushing it a bit, a recent study out of the University of Kentucky makes me think that gratitude could also make us more resistant to criticism.

In this study, participants were asked to write a short essay for which they received either praise (e.g. “Excellent essay!”) or insults (e.g. “This is one of the worst essays I’ve ever read!”).

Later, participants competed with the person who evaluated their paper on a computer game. The winner of each round could subject the loser to a blast of noise.

As you can imagine, the participants who had received insulting feedback were much more aggressive in their retaliation towards their grader.

That is, except for a subset of those students who had been asked to write about the five things in their lives for which they were most grateful. Despite receiving scathing critiques, these participants didn’t feel the need to get back at their critics even when given a chance.

Gratitude, the important things in life, and peak performance

This study and the ability of some who are able to let criticism roll off their back reminds me of a story I once heard about Olympic diver Greg Louganis, and what gave him the strength, courage, and confidence to go all-out on his dives even when he was nervous and scared.

What was this key source of strength?

The knowledge that no matter what happened on his dives, his mother would still love him (NY Times).

And how for trombonist Doug Rosenthal, the realization that his happiness need not be dependent on employment in a specific orchestra freed him up to win two jobs in one week (read Doug’s story and success strategies).

Take action

Want to give gratitude a shot? Try this collection of exercises – two of which are taken from the work of one of the pioneers in this field – Martin Seligman. See what changes occur as you begin cultivating a more gratitude-centered mindset. To be fair, you’ll want to engage in these practices for more than a day. Try for a week (or 3 or 4), and then reflect on how much things have changed.

1. Three good things

Every night for one week, take a moment to write down three things that went well that day, making sure to also note their causes (the people, situations, etc. that brought about the fortuitious aspects of your day).

Enlist a friend or two (or dozen) to join you in this activity. You might even do this with your significant other, and see if your conversations can go from complaining about the day’s frustrations to recounting the highlights and most promising moments of each others’ days.

For parents of younger children, simply making it a habit to ask your child at bedtime what their most favorite thing about the day was, and what they’re most looking forward to tomorrow can be a helpful way to cultivate a more gratitude-oriented focus.

2. Naikan

Naikan is an exercise in self-reflection that puts us more in touch with understanding who we are and how we are connected with everyone around us. It consists of regular reflection on three questions:

  1. What have I received from [insert person here]?
  2. What have I given to [insert person here]?
  3. What troubles and difficulties have I caused to [insert person here]?

If you’re interested, here is some information on how to begin this practice, and some examples of what this might look like in practice.

3. Gratitude visit

Take a week to write a 300-word letter to someone who has been especially kind to you, or has made a big difference in your life or career, but whom you’ve never properly thanked for their help. Deliver the letter in person, and if you’re feeling up to it, read it to them out loud.

Summary

There will always be something to complain about. Likewise, there will always be something to be grateful for (because no situation is ever so bad that it couldn’t be worse, right?).

Question is, which wolf will we decide to feed?

photo credit: Flying Pig Party Productions via photopin cc