The lost art of joy – Thanks

“Gratitude is one of those rare things you get more of by giving it away” ~ John Kralik

What’s the first thing you do when you get a Christmas present? Do you try and guess what’s inside by tapping it, feeling it, weighing it in your hands or shaking it? Or do you excitedly rip it open without stopping to think?

Usually at some point, either before or after the ceremonial mutilation of wrapping paper, there would be a ‘thank you’ to the person who gave it to you. Saying thank you is second nature to most of us. It’s a social norm, a sign of good manners.

We may say thank you fairly often, but are we practicing gratitude?

As I was randomly trawling the internet one day, I read this: “Have I always been thankful for everything in my life? Of course. But I never practiced gratitude until then.” I hadn’t thought about it quite like that before. The article was about John Kralik, whose story has inspired many in the business world. He was a lawyer in LA who was struggling. It wasn’t that Kralik was impolite and never said thank you, but he decided to make a deliberate effort to practice gratitude, so he made a resolution to send one handwritten thank you card to a different person every day for a year. As all good stories go, this simple act helped to turn around his business and his relationships.

Kralik’s story demonstrates that expressing our thanks is one part of the greater whole of gratitude.

Gratitude is a broad behavioural skill which has a number of different aspects, including:
(1) understanding individual differences in the experience of gratitude
(2) appreciation of others
(3) a focus on what you have
(4) feelings of awe when encountering beauty
(5) behaviours to express gratitude
(6) appreciation rising from understanding that life is short
(7) a focus on the positive in the present moment, and
(8) positive social comparisons

The research suggests that people who are naturally grateful tend to be less angry and hostile, less depressed, less emotionally vulnerable, and experienced positive emotions more frequently. Gratitude also correlates with traits like positive social functioning, emotional warmth, gregariousness, activity seeking, trust, altruism, and tender-mindedness. Grateful people also had higher openness to their feeling, ideas, and values, and greater competence, dutifulness, and achievement striving.

Like mindfulness, these effects may be simply an association of gratitude with other personality traits. In other words, people who are naturally optimistic or conscientious are also more likely to be thankful, rather than the thankfulness causing someone to be more optimistic or conscientious. There are a few studies that show that gratitude interventions improve self-worth, body image, and anxiety, although the evidence is that while gratitude was better than doing nothing, it was equal to, not superior to, currently accepted psychological interventions.

What gratitude does do is open you up to joy by intentionally drawing your focus on to the enriching elements in your life. And, if you express your gratitude to others through things like Thank You cards, then other people will reciprocate! Gratitude is joy gone viral.
It’s easy to start practicing gratitude. You can do what Kralik did and write a thank you note. Of you can do a gratitude journal, which is the best studied gratitude intervention. A gratitude journal simply involves writing something down every day that you’re thankful for. It doesn’t have to be long. A single sentence or phrase is good enough.

It doesn’t even have to be written, if that’s not your thing. I had a friend who was determined to do a gratitude journal, but she also had a love of and a knack for photography. So, she decided to take a photo a day of something that she was grateful for, and then post it on Facebook. She had her moments when she doubted herself, when she struggled to find a subject of her gratitude, or struggled to find something unique (especially after day 300), but the end result was amazing. She grew in her gratitude and her photographic skill, and I often found myself blessed by her beautiful images and insights.

So, grow in gratitude and express it in your own unique way, maybe even spreading the joy of gratitude to those around you.

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Seven Elements of Good Mental Health: 5. Be grateful – The Prospering Soul

Life shouldn’t just be about avoiding poor health, but also enjoying good health. Our psychological health is no different.

Before we take a look at poor mental health, let’s look at some of the ways that people can enjoy good mental health and wellbeing. This next series of posts will discuss seven elements that are Biblically and scientifically recognised as important to people living richer and more fulfilling lives.

These aren’t the only ways that a person can find fulfilment, nor are they sure-fire ways of preventing all mental health problems either. They’re not seven steps to enlightenment or happiness either.   But applying these principles can improve psychosocial wellbeing, and encourage good mental health.

5. Be grateful

As I was trolling through Facebook the other day, I came across this post by Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin: “Thanked an airport security worker, he said I was the first to say #ThankYou in three years. Shocked! Saying thank you should be second nature …”

Richard Branson Thank You

Perhaps the security worker was exaggerating for the billionaire, or perhaps everybody hates airport security at the airport where he works. At any rate, three years is a long time to go without someone saying thanks.

As Sir Richard said, “Saying thank you should be second nature …”. Saying thanks is a small part of the much larger psychology of gratitude, which is “part of a wider life orientation towards noticing and appreciating the positive in the world” [1]. In fact, there are several components to the overall orientation of gratitude, including “(1) individual differences in the experience of grateful affect, (2) appreciation of other people, (3) a focus on what the person has, (4) feelings of awe when encountering beauty, (4) behaviors to express gratitude, (5) focusing on the positive in the present moment, (6) appreciation rising from understanding life is short, (7) a focus on the positive in the present moment, and (8) positive social comparisons.” [1]

The research suggests that people who are naturally grateful tend to be less angry and hostile, less depressed, less emotionally vulnerable, and experienced positive emotions more frequently. Gratitude also correlated with traits like positive social functioning, emotional warmth, gregariousness, activity seeking, trust, altruism, and tender-mindedness. Grateful people also had higher openness to their feeling, ideas, and values, and greater competence, dutifulness, and achievement striving.

However, these effects may be simply an association of gratitude with other personality traits. In other words, people who are naturally optimistic or conscientious are also more likely to be thankful, rather than the thankfulness causing someone to be more optimistic or conscientious. There are a few studies that show gratitude interventions improving self-worth, body image, and anxiety, although the evidence is that while gratitude was better than doing nothing, it was equal to, not superior to, currently accepted psychological interventions.

Even though gratitude may not be better than standard psychological treatments, it’s better than being ungrateful.  It’s also something that the Bible exhorts us to do (“In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus, concerning you.” – 1 Thess 5:18).  And let’s face it, it’s pretty easy to do.

The best studied gratitude intervention is a gratitude diary – writing something down every day that you are thankful for [1]. It doesn’t have to be long. A single sentence or phrase is good enough. Not that it has to be written if that’s not your thing. I had a friend who was determined to do a gratitude journal, but she also has a love and a knack for photography. So, she decided to take a photo a day of something that she was grateful for, and post it on Facebook. She had her moments where she doubted herself, struggled to find a subject of her gratitude, or struggled to find something unique, especially after day 300, but the end result was amazing. She grew in her gratitude and her photographic skill, and I often found myself blessed by her beautiful images and insights.

So, be thankful and express it in your own unique way.

References

[1]        Wood AM, Froh JJ, Geraghty AW. Gratitude and well-being: a review and theoretical integration. Clinical psychology review 2010 Nov;30(7):890-905.

Dr Caroline Leaf, Testimonials, and Levels of Evidence

ScreenshotDrLeafTestimonial

It’s nice to be appreciated.

Gratitude is a wonderful thing. The Bible encourages it (1 Thessalonians 5:18), and psychology has detailed why. Gratitude increases happiness and life satisfaction, while tending to decrease depressive symptoms [1]. And it’s not just good for the giver, but also the receiver. I always appreciate it when my patients thank me for helping them. Genuine gratitude makes you feel good inside.

Dr Caroline Leaf, Communication Pathologist and self-titled Cognitive Neuroscientist, must be positively glowing right now. She has been getting a lot of positive feedback from her fan base of late, and she has decided to share it with the world via her social media feeds.

I’m sincerely happy for those people who feel they have been helped by Dr Leaf’s work. I remember my darkest days, feeling far from God and unable to find my way out of the emotional black hole of depression. It’s always so good to hear that others are finding their way out too.

While I’m happy for those who are sharing their stories to Dr Leaf, I can’t say I feel the same for Dr Leaf herself. It’s excellent that people are sharing their stories with her privately but publishing them is another matter. At best, it’s ethically delicate.

The testimonies are likely to be from people recovering from a psychological or emotional challenge, which carries an ongoing level of vulnerability. Even if Dr Leaf has their consent to publish their stories, sharing their problems with the world can still cause or contribute to psychological damage. Without knowing their whole story, Dr Leaf has no way of judging whom she may or may not harm.

It’s also a bit disingenuous. By publishing a series of testimonials, Dr Leaf is essentially self-promoting. It’s one thing for a supporter to spontaneously offer her praise in a Facebook or blog comment. But Dr Leaf specifically asked for her followers to send in their testimonies so she could publish them.

Screen Shot 2014-08-03 at 12.12.25 amScreen Shot 2014-08-03 at 3.05.21 am

Soliciting testimonials to republish is an old advertising trick. According to the Market Science Institute, “Testimonial solicitations – in which firms solicit consumers’ personal endorsements of a product or service – represent a popular marketing practice. Testimonials are thought to offer several benefits to firms, among them that participating consumers may strengthen their positive attitudes toward a brand, through the act of writing testimonials.” [2]

Testimonials are very good as a marketing tool. Who can argue with a person who says that Dr Leaf helped turn their life around? Saying anything negative just makes you sound like a cynical old boot.

And that’s the real problem, because while publishing a whole bunch of positive stories is good for marketing, it makes it very hard for those who had a genuinely bad experience to say anything. No one wants to listen to those people whom Dr Leaf has confused or mislead – it makes for terrible PR. Those people feel devalued, and sometimes worse, because it seems like everyone else had a good result from Dr Leaf’s teaching, except them.

Testimonials also make for very poor scientific evidence. Indeed, testimonials are considered the lowest form of scientific evidence [3]. It’s all very well and good for a bunch of people to share their positive experiences, but as life changing as the experience may have been, they are not evidence of the effectiveness of Dr Leaf’s teaching. Without specific, well-designed research, no one can say if the testimonials Dr Leaf is publishing are the norm. Recent research demonstrates that self-help literature for depression may not have any benefit over a placebo treatment [4]. So it may be that any improvement attributed to Dr Leaf’s teaching was actually the placebo effect. Dr Leaf can list testimonials until she’s blue in the face, but that doesn’t prove that her work is scientific or therapeutic.

I’m sure would say that she’s asking for testimonies so that she can share the joy of others with her followers, or seek to give glory to God, or something like that. And perhaps she is. I’m not sure how she reconciles that with Jesus words, “Be careful not to practise your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 6:1) But that’s for her own personal consideration.

Whatever her intentions, the soliciting and publishing of personal testimonials from potentially vulnerable people is ethically delicate. I think she’d be better to step away from publishing these testimonials.

And for her readers and followers, the testimonials need to be seen for what they are: just individual stories. Sure, we should rejoice with those who are rejoicing (Romans 12:15), and so good for those who feel Dr Leaf has helped them. But they do not constitute evidence for the therapeutic efficacy or scientific integrity of the work of Dr Leaf.

References

  1. Toepfer, S., et al., Letters of Gratitude: Further Evidence for Author Benefits. Journal of Happiness Studies, 2012. 13(1): 187-201 doi: 10.1007/s10902-011-9257-7
  2. Marketing Science Institute. Consumer Testimonials as Self-Generated Advertisements: Evaluative Reconstruction Following Product Usage. [cited 2014, Aug 3]; Available from: http://www.msi.org/reports/consumer-testimonials-as-self-generated-advertisements-evaluative-reconstru/.
  3. Fowler, G., Evidence-based practice: Tools and techniques. Systems, settings, people: Workforce development challenges for the alcohol and other drugs field, 2001: 93-107
  4. Moldovan, R., et al., Cognitive bibliotherapy for mild depressive symptomatology: randomized clinical trial of efficacy and mechanisms of change. Clinical psychology & psychotherapy, 2013. 20(6): 482-93