Last week I went round to an old friend’s house: I’ve known Ian for nearly 30 years. (I was the best man at his wedding!) His wife, Catriona, (after retraining, and several years planning) has stepped out from her job and started a business as a life coach. A few weeks ago I volunteered to pilot a ‘coaching’ challenge she’s developing to enable participants to gain insight into themselves and where they are going in life.
I was emailed one question a day, and last week was the evaluation session. There were lots of ideas, plans and actions that an action-based, problem-solving, technical scientist like me could get into, but one theme came out that flummoxed me: that was ‘thankfulness’. Unlike solid, ‘left brained’ categories like ‘What hurdles do you need to overcome’, thankfulness was a wispy feeling, so I struggled to understand how I could control or ‘use’ an emotion, but Catriona was able to use the ‘analytical’ parts of my brain as leverage to help me comprehend with about the emotional parts. Thankfulness is a key theme of her blog.
The whole concept of thankfulness got stuck in my mind: I’m Scots, lived in Scotland all my life, an economically depressed nation, with a predisposition on ‘dourness’. In Glasgow thankfulness is like the sun: there’s not a lot of it around, and it’s mostly cloudy, raining… Windy….. Cold…..
[And I’m sure somebody could point to people in the world who are worse off than me, but in reality that just makes me less thankfully because now there’s other people who are even more miserable than me and the world’s even crapper! And if ‘The Somebody’ points out how ‘happy’ the aforementioned ‘worse off community or individual’ is, it just goes to show how bad my life is because I’m so miserable! And it all get’s a bit like Adams’ excellent android parody, Marvin]
So what the point of this blog post? Well the science behind gratitude is interesting and, for me, personally challenging. I’m intrigued by the idea that while the research on gratitude (as thankfulness is called) comes from ‘scientific’ process, the conclusions it reaches touch on those emotional, ‘right-brained’ attributes that ‘science’ so often seems to question. Gratitude is catching on: my Linkedin account flagged up a Google study recently (Note 1) and the scientific aspects are highlighted by Action for Happiness group.
While digging around in the literature the most useful paper I came across was a review published in 2010. (Note 2) . It’s been cited over 200 times, and I suspect that the research it highlights has been updated, but it is publicly available, is not too technical and should be pretty easy to comprehend (unlike some of the other papers I read for this post!). You can download the paper here, which I’d recommend if your interested in whole subject. (Note 3)
I’m personally challenged by the idea that gratitude is strongly related to wellbeing, and that making decisions to show gratitude can have an effect on the overall mental state of someone. The effect of gratitude on health, stress levels, resilience to negative external circumstances, depression, sleep quality and forgiveness (another left-brained trait that was studied) are all being studied, and to varying degrees are showing positive effect.
The review highlights some unresolved issues, such as how does a psychological study effectively have a control or placebo group, and the un-researched issue of whether gratitude has negative effects, pointing out that if it’s so great why hasn’t everyone learned to do it….
I’m struck that aspects of gratitude suggest the ways of interacting which we may see now as ”old fashioned’ or ‘too formal’ could have an important role to play in society. One of the ‘gratitude techniques’ discussed in the article was the idea of writing a letter! I’m old enough to remember my parents nagging me to write letters (email was science-fiction at that point) to my grandparents thanking them for presents: 40 years later science shows they were right all-along and that this was for my benefit, not just my Gran’s!
The last paragraph of the review contains the quote below, which I would have expected to have found it in a ‘self-help’ book, or perhaps a religious text, but not a scientific paper:
Science is…”showing that gratitude is related to a wide variety of forms of well-being. This…stands in contrast to work showing that huge increases in income — an indication of how spending power — are needed for even modest gains in well-being. Perhaps instead of spending lives trying to amass ever more possessions, people would be better advised to appreciate more what they actually have.” A.Wood et al (2010)
And that about sum’s it up….
Note 1: Google is studying thankfulness as expressed by their workforce. These were reported in two articles: one from the Harvard Business Review and another from Linkedin (Sorry, these are both behind subscription walls so you might have some issues getting access.)
Note 2: A review is a sort of overview article summarising the research that has been done up ’til that point.
Note 3: The main (or corresponding) author, Alex Wood, has a nice website, so you can check out his work and other research projects.
Note 4: Psychological research is not my area of expertise. I’ve dug out and read some recent reviews and papers, but I’m relying on the ‘peer review’ publication process to report conclusions that are accurate and valid. Science is often a process of publication and debate before the expert community settles on an ‘opinion’. I only have access to one part of that process, but in my literature search I could not see an ‘active debate’ which would suggest the conclusions I’ve highlighted here are completely misguided.
Note 5: Other papers I found that were helpful, but related to specific studies were: Forgiveness, Gratitude, and Well-Being: The Mediating Role of Affect and Beliefs, Forgiveness, Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being Among Filipino Adolescents and Gratitude and suicidal ideation and suicide attempts among Chinese adolescents: direct, mediated, and moderated effects.
*The left brain/right brain theory is now generally considered a myth, but I use the words to convey the ideas behind certain thought-processes.