The Gratitude Challenge (or the recipe for happiness)

In this day and age we have forgotten about the ancient concept of gratitude. Nowadays we are programmed to want more. It is all around us and social media are making things worse, showing us constantly things that we are supposed to want.

We want more money, more holidays, more freedom, more clothes, a new car, the latest product from Apple, a new partner, you name it. What we’ve already got is never enough. And as a result we feel frustration, and unhappiness.

But what if we could retrain ourselves so that we could learn to appreciate more what we have instead of wanting new things all the time?

The concept of Gratitude or how to learn to be happy with what you got to actually be happier

Gratitude is the latest personal development trend. This is all the rage. Most coaches are talking about it. But what is it?

It is all about learning to be grateful for what you have. The idea is to force yourself to focus on what is good in your life right now; to truly appreciate what you have at this present; and you will naturally and gradually have a more positive outlook on life. It also helps to keep you grounded about what is really important in life.

The science behind it

It may be a trend but it does make sense and it is backed by science. Dr. Robert A. Emmons and Dr. Michael E. McCullough carried out a research with three experimental groups over 10 weeks (Emmons & McCullough, 2003).

The original experiment

1. The first group was asked to write down five things they were grateful for that had happened in the last week for each of the 10 weeks of the study. This was called the gratitude condition.
2. The second group was asked to write down five daily hassles from the previous week. This was the hassles condition.
3. The third group was asked to list five events that had occurred in the last week, but not told to focus on positive or negative aspects. This was the events or control condition.
The types of things people listed in the grateful condition included:
• Sunset through the clouds.
• The chance to be alive.
• The generosity of friends.
And in the hassles condition:
• Taxes.
• Hard to find parking.
• Burned my macaroni and cheese.

Before the experiment began participants had kept daily journals to chronicle their moods, physical health and general attitudes. These were then used to provide a comparison for after the experimental intervention.

People who were in the gratitude condition felt fully 25% happier – they were more optimistic about the future, they felt better about their lives and they even did almost 1.5 hours more exercise a week than those in the hassles or events condition.

All this from reflecting on the pleasure of having seen the sunset through the clouds? Dr. Emmons also expresses surprise at the findings of the study, partly because there are some reasons practicing gratitude might not be so good.
For example, focusing on gratitude reminds us what we owe to others. This may in turn remind us of our dependence on others and reduce a sense of personal control. Thinking in terms of gratitude may also focus us on the debts we owe to others and, studies have shown, people don’t enjoy feeling indebted to others.
Yet, despite these reasons why gratitude might not increase happiness, it seems that it does. But does the benefit from the gratitude condition simply result from thinking about how we are better off than others?

The second study

In a second study, very similar to the first described above, Emmons and McCullough changed one of the control conditions. Instead of asking people to write down any events from the week, people were asked to list ways in which they were better off than others. The idea was that in this condition people are making positive comparisons but are not necessarily thinking gratefully (although it can’t be ruled out!).

Again, though, the results showed that those in the gratitude condition were significantly happier than those making positive comparisons between themselves and others. Unsurprisingly those practicing being grateful were also happier than those focusing on daily hassles.

A good criticism of the first two studies was that they were carried out on undergraduate students. It’s all very well increasing the happiness of young, healthy college students, but what about people with serious, chronic health problems?

The last experiment

In a third study Emmons and McCullough recruited adults who had neuromuscular disorders, often as a delayed result of surviving infection by the polio virus. While not life-threatening the condition can be seriously debilitating, causing joint and muscle pain as well as muscle atrophy. People with this condition have a good reason to be dissatisfied with the hand life has dealt them.

In this study a gratitude condition was compared to a control condition in which participants wrote about their daily experience. After the 21 day study, participants in the gratitude condition were found to be more satisfied with their lives overall, more optimistic about the upcoming week and crucially, were sleeping better. Good sleep is important as it has been found to be a great indicator of overall well-being. As we have previously discussed in Getting good nights’ sleep can help fight depression people who sleep well are generally healthier and happier than those whose sleep is poor.

A couple of Gratitude moments while in Bali…

I recently attended the Master Leadership Program of Ed J C Smith which takes place once a year in Bali.

This course is extremely complete and content-heavy so every attendee will have a different perspective on what really struck them but for me they were 2 pure moments of gratitude.

The first one was a true feeling for gratitude for being able to access food as and when I want but I won’t go into details as I wouldn’t want to give away some of the surprises that Ed organises during the course.

The other one is gratitude for being born in France and for living in the UK. This feeling has not left me since I got back 2 weeks ago.

Spending time in a developing country like Indonesia reminded me of how lucky I am to have been born in the West. We have access to food pretty much 24/7, we have access to the best medical system and education is available for all. If a volcano was about to erupt, we would all leave the evacuation zone and would be provided emergency shelter. We wouldn’t stay in the evacuation zone by fear of losing our livelihood because even if we did we would be able to call on our insurances.

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I was deeply humbled when I was chatting with the staff of the hotel. First of all they all spoke English. Granted there were various levels of English. That said I don’t know about you but the only word I know in Balinese is thank you so I was grateful that their English was good enough to allow us to communicate.

But more importantly I was struck by how happy they all were about working at the hotel. Most of the people I spoke to told me that they had been working there for 20 years (i.e. since the hotel opened) and that their job was a very good job. They were earning what they needed to support for their family and that made them happy, even if it meant starting work at 5:30am and getting up at 4:30am.
And let’s bear in mind that hotel work is not necessary the easiest job of all, even in the first world. One of my sisters and her partner both work in the hotel industry and I know from their experience that hotel work means very long hours, average pay compare to the skills and amount of work produced and more often than not having to deal with difficult customers.

The reason I felt humbled by these discussions is because it made me realised how ungrateful I had been about the various jobs that I have hold in my life. There were never good enough. After 6 to 18 months in a role I would start complaining about the money, the career opportunities, my line manager, the fact that I had learnt everything I had to learn and was getting bored and so on. This led me to change jobs every 18 months, until I found a work place that offered me constant challenges and opportunities to grow both from a skillset point of view and from a financial point of view.

I have to say I have been particularly happy in my current position, the one I took up earlier this year where I feel I have (for now) the right balance between all these things that I have always believed were important to me: money, challenge, a line manager I get on well with, opportunities and work-life balance. And I am even more grateful because (so far) I have not had any of the issues I had in previous roles (namely, stress and long hours). And for that I am truly grateful.

So when I got back to work to find miserable weather and miserable colleagues (because it is that time of the year…), it did not get to me because I am not starting work at 5:30 am and I have not been in the same job for the last 20 years (and thank god for that!).

Practicing Gratitude

So how do you do it? Well it is super simple. The most recommended exercise is holding a gratitude journal. You should spend a few minutes each day to write down 3 things that you are grateful for on that specific day.

They can be small things like a small favour someone did for you that day, or they can be big things like the fact that you were born in a first world country. And I don’t know about you but I am personally rather grateful to have running water in my flat.

But there are other techniques. Here are Dr. Robert Emmons’ top 10 tips for actually becoming more grateful, and consequently happier, starting of course with the gratitude journal:
1. Keep a gratitude journal
Sit down, daily, and write about the things for which you are grateful. Start with whatever springs to mind and work from there. Try not to write the same thing every day but explore your gratefulness.
2. Remember the bad
The way things are now may seem better in the light of bad memories. Don’t forget the bad things that have happened, the contrast may encourage gratefulness.
3. Ask yourself three questions
Choose someone you know, then first consider what you have received from them, second what you have given to them and thirdly what trouble you have caused them. This may lead to discovering you owe others more than you thought.
4. Pray
Regardless of your religion and even if, like me, you don’t have one, a ritualised form of giving thanks may help increase gratitude.
5. Use your senses
80% of people say they are thankful for their health. If so, then get back in touch with the simple human fact of being able to sense what is out there. Use your vision, touch, taste and smell to experience the world, and be thankful you can.
6. Use visual reminders
Two big obstacles to being grateful are simply forgetting and failing to be mindful. So leave a note of some kind reminding you to be grateful. It could be a post-it, an object in your home or another person to nudge you occasionally.
7. Swear an oath to be more grateful
Promise on whatever you hold holy that you’ll be more grateful. Sounds crazy? There’s a study to show it works…
8. Think grateful thoughts
We’ve talked about the importance of minding our inner voice before. What about turning it around and saying positive things to yourself like “My life is a gift” all day long? Too much? OK, what about: “Every day is a surprise”.
9. Acting grateful is being grateful
Say thank you, become more grateful. It’s that simple.
10. Be grateful to your enemies?
It’ll take a big creative leap to be thankful to the people who you most despise. But big creative leaps are just the kind of things likely to set off a change in yourself. Give it a try.

Gratitude Challenge

So I have decided to try this out and start a gratitude challenge. I write down 3 things I am grateful for every day and see if this changes my mindset. The challenge starts today. I will let you know how it worked out for me at the end of the 30 days. Who’s with me?

Further resources:

Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 377-389 [Full text PDF].
“Thanks!:How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier” by Robert Emmon

Click here to read the results I got

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