Appreciating the Power of Gratitude for Greater Happiness (Part 1)

big-heart-of-art-1000-visual-mashups_lDid you know that practicing gratitude regularly is one of the most powerful ways to boost your well-being, especially your happiness?  Contrary to what you might think, happiness fuels success, not the other way around.

A few weeks ago, I facilitated a lunch with Scala Network.    I have been enjoying getting to know Christina Greenberg, Scala’s founder and President.  She and I had fun “cooking up” this session focused on gratitude.   I really enjoyed preparing for it, doing lots of extra reading and reflecting about gratitude.  I was truly grateful for the opportunity – it was a lovely time! This post and the next will contain some of the ideas we covered that afternoon, including excellent resources to give you many ideas about how to make gratitude work for you.   This is going to be a two part blog post because I seem to have a lot I want to share with you on this topic, including an incredibly insightful quote about gratitude and love, in honour of Valentine’s Day.

Rest assured, cultivating gratitude is something you can readily integrate into your already busy day.  It is an example of a small step that can have a huge ripple effect…my favourite kind of ROI! Yours too?

So what is gratitude, anyway, and why is it important? 

Robert Emmons, a world expert on gratitude, explains:

First, it’s an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good thing [sic] in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received. This doesn’t mean that life is perfect; it doesn’t ignore complaints, burdens, and hassles. But when we look at life as a whole, gratitude encourages us to identify some amount of goodness in our life.

The second part of gratitude is figuring out where that goodness comes from. We recognize the sources of this goodness as being outside of ourselves. It didn’t stem from anything we necessarily did ourselves in which we might take pride. We can appreciate positive traits in ourselves, but I think true gratitude involves a humble dependence on others: We acknowledge that other people—or even higher powers, if you’re of a spiritual mindset—gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.

From: http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_gratitude_is_good

There is now a “science of gratitude”, a part of the science of positive psychology.   These areas of science are showing us that many of us have our success/happiness formula reversed.   We don’t find happiness by being “successful”.  We become successful in a way that is deeply meaningful to us as individuals through being happy first.  And gratitude is one of the tools we can use to become happier.  (See more on happiness here.)

So let’s start to look at the different aspects of gratitude. Gratitude is simultaneously a positive emotion, a neutralizer of negative emotions, a character strength and a source of energy.   It is clearly more than just saying “thank you”, but that is a great place to start.   We will just look at one aspect in this post so we have room for the Valentines quote.  In the next post, we will look at other aspects of gratitude and also many more ways to cultivate gratitude.

Gratitude as a positive emotion

Gratitude is a positive emotion that we can actively cultivate to generate more happiness for ourselves (and others).  It’s really important to train our brains to scan for positive events, since society trains us overly well to notice the negative.   Research tells us that for every negative emotion we feel, we need to have at least three positive emotions if we want to flourish For more on this, see Barbara Fredrickson’s book Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the 3-to-1 Ratio That Will Change Your Life , which I have blogged about before a number of times, including here and here.  Gratitude carries the urge to give back, but not a feeling of indebtedness.  Barbara Fredrickson calls indebtedness gratitude’s “evil twin”. A simple way to avoid feeling indebtedness is to look at paying the good turn you received forward to someone else.  It does not have to be a tit for tat scenario.   (p.41 Positivity)

Now, to build on this idea of gratitude as a positive emotion, and in honour of Valentine’s Day, I offer you the quote below, also from Barbara Fredrickson, in her newest book Love 2.0. She makes a beautiful connection between gratitude and love.   And, while the quote focuses on romantic partnerships, I believe her quote can be applied to many relationships we have in life. So even if you are single right now, please do read on.  I think it’s relevant for all of us.

In collaboration with my colleague Sara Algoe, for instance, I’ve explored how kindness and appreciation flow back and forth in couples, creating tender moments of positivity resonance that also serve to nourish intimacy and relationship growth.  In particular, we’ve examined how people habitually express appreciation to their partners.  We learned from this work that some people tend to say “thanks” better than others.   Genuine feelings of appreciation or gratitude, after all, well up when you recognize that someone else went out of his or her way to do something nice for you.  Another way to say this is that the script for gratitude involves both a benefit, or kind deed, and a benefactor, the kind person behind the kind deed.  Whereas many people express their appreciation to others by shining a spotlight on the benefit they received – the gift, favor, or the kind deed itself – we discovered that, by contrast, the best “thank-yous” simply use the benefit as a springboard toward shining a spotlight on the good qualities of the other person, their benefactor.  Done well, then, expressing appreciation for your partner’s kindness to you can become a kind gesture in return, one that coveys that you see and appreciate in your partner’s actions his or her good and inspiring qualities. 

How did we know that this is the best way to convey appreciation? Because compared to expressions that merely focus on benefits, those that also focus on benefactors make the partner who hears that “thanks” feel understood, cared for, and validated.   And this good feeling – the feeling that their partner really ‘gets’ them and cherishes them – allows people to walk around each day feeling better about themselves and better about their relationship.  And in six months’ time, it forecasts becoming even more solid and satisfied with their relationship.  

Saying thanks well then isn’t just a matter of being polite, it’s a matter of being loving, and becoming a stronger version of what together you call “us”. 

Barbara Fredrickson, p. 76 Love 2.0

I invite you to take a moment just to absorb all that.

In coaching we use the term “acknowledgement” for what Barbara Fredrickson is describing here. I usually explain an acknowledgement as highlighting how a person had to BE in order to DO what they did. Did they have to be brave, generous, patient, determined, or something else?  As a coach I strive to acknowledge my clients every chance I can get and, I encourage them to acknowledge themselves, which is even more potent.  This builds trust between us, and also self-trust for them.  They feel seen, which is such a powerful thing to experience.

As a wife, and mother, and in my other roles, I try to use acknowledgments often too, and this post is a good reminder to me to use them even more.  So powerful!  (BTW, when I first heard of the “acknowledgment” in a parenting workshop, I had such trouble absorbing the idea.  It can be a game-changer for some of us!)

So, given all this, I hope you have newfound appreciation for gratitude and a concrete approach you can take forward this week into many of your relationships.  Start by saying thanks and go deeper and really “see” the person who has given you a benefit of some kind.  Then behold their reaction and your good feelings….

I look forward to sharing more on gratitude with you and also would love any comments you have at this point!

Happy Valentine’s Day!

 

Photo credit: qthomasbower / Foter / CC BY

 

 

3 Responses to Appreciating the Power of Gratitude for Greater Happiness (Part 1)
  1. Lisa Ryan
    March 6, 2014 | 11:28 pm

    I started my daily gratitude practice in 2009 and I can honestly say it has been the most profound and life-changing experience I have had. Gratitude works!

  2. Anna
    March 26, 2014 | 8:13 pm

    Milisa,
    This is so interesting. Great insights. I am so enjoying this blog – food for the heart, soul, mind.
    Anna v.S

    • Milisa Burns
      April 29, 2014 | 11:14 am

      Anna, I am so happy to have this feedback from you! (I just found your comment now or I would have replied much sooner!) Thank you for your comment! warmly, Milisa

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