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Thanksgiving

Yesterday AU posted an interview with me about gratitude. When I did the interview I did not realize it would be posted as an interview, and so my answers weren’t framed in a way that fit the medium.  Today I am going to tackle the questions again.  If you’d like to see the original, here it is:  http://www.american.edu/media/news/20131125_AU-Psychology-Professor-Examines-Gratitude.cfm

1) What’s the latest research on gratitude?

First, in the last decade there have been more and more studies suggesting that doing gratitude exercises is useful for well-being.  In one, for instance, writing every day about three good things from that day led to more happiness six months later than did various other exercises.  In another expressing (over three weeks) gratitude toward a college friend strengthened the friendship.  The effects are not perfectly consistent. Sometimes the exercises don’t work.  The control groups are not always the best (showing that people are happier thinking of gratitude-inducing events than hassles is not that impressive!)  Sometimes it’s not clear if the reason the exercises are having their effects is due to gratitude.   Sometimes gratitude exercises can become so routine that we hardly notice them and they lose their efficacy, so it’s not clear what the best dosage of gratitude exercise is. Still, on the whole, growing research suggests that practicing gratitude is good for you.

One of the new pieces of work coming form my lab (inspired by my clinical psychology doctoral student Kate Stewart) is whether gratitude exercises help people find meaning and if that’s how they build well-being.  So many people just tune out from their days, which then become meaningless, dull, fraught, listless, empty.  I love the early quote from the movie American Beauty: “I feel like I’ve been in a coma for the past twenty years. And I’m just now waking up.” [SPOILER ALERT] And that movie ends with “Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst… And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life… You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure. But don’t worry… you will someday.”  Does the practice of gratitude help us take days that slide by and change them to ones imbued with meaning?  We just presented some of this work in Nashville at the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies.

Another interest in my lab is whether when people say they are grateful they mean different things, sometimes focused on being grateful to people and sometimes on being grateful for things.  If so, what are the functions of these two different sorts of gratitude.  I’ve a single study draft paper written to which I want to add results from a second study I ran some time ago.  Hopefully that will be written sometime in early spring and I can sometime next year talk about it more.

There’s a lot more going on in gratitude these days.  Within the next couple months the book Handbook of Positive Emotions, edited by friends Leslie Kirby, Lani Shiota, and Michele Tugade will be out.  In it you will find my chapter (with friend and former student Courtney Forbes) on gratitude and you can read more. It will be expensive. Check your local university library!

2) Do people feel more gratitude during Thanksgiving?

I don’t know the answer as I don’t know any research on the topic.  A good way to think about the answer, though, is to think of what leads to gratitude. We feel grateful when we experience something good that is not of our own making.  To the extent, then, that Thanksgiving leads people to focus on the good in their lives that they have not caused they should feel more grateful. To the extent that they focus on other matters (fights with family, loneliness, the struggles on Thanksgiving Day of their fantasy football teams) they likely will not feel so grateful. Thanksgiving Day pulls our attention in so many different directions and the direction affects whether we are grateful!

3) Are Americans generally ungrateful? Despite tough economic times, this is a comparatively wealthy nation.  Yet people seem frustrated. 

I don’t know how to measure the general gratitude of the nation.  You’d need a good random sample.  You’d need some sort of standard by which to gauge how much gratitude is “ungrateful.”  But it’s clear that we are wealthy, despite the tough times, and it is clear that many people are frustrated.   Some are frustrated because of real poverty, even in this wealthy nation.  Others are frustrated because of the “hedonic treadmill,” that is, the rising expectations as to what is needed to be happy.  As people grow wealthier they adapt to that new wealth. That which gave pleasure before doesn’t do so much any more.  In graduate school I had little money and the days when I would splurge on pizza from the little place down the street were days of luxury.  Now it (too often) takes more expensive food to get my attention.  And so food doesn’t really make me happier than it did.  Jean Twenge has presented some great data suggesting that narcissism, that is, making ourselves the center, has, for decades, been on the rise in the US.  I wonder whether some of the dissatisfaction Americans experience is a consequence of that.  There’s some lovely work coming out on the joys of giving (see, for instance, work by Elizabeth Dunn from British Columbia).  If we are the center isn’t the world supposed to work by giving to us rather than having us give to others?  I wonder whether gratitude can counteract narcissism.  We experience gratitude when we realize that we did not cause the good things we experience, which points toward something important that is beyond us.  And perhaps it points us toward response to that undeserved goodness, giving back, giving forward.  If we’re not focused on our own needs, what does that do to frustration?  These are questions I want to answer in the long run and form much of the basis for my interest in gratitude.

4) Is gratitude just a temporary emotion for most people?

Temporary covers a lot of ground!  Someday the sun will cool off–it’s temporary!  But the question seems to get at whether we can increase the gratitude we experience.  There’s not a lot of work here.  I’d love to see experiments conducted over several years to follow the consequences of different gratitude exercises.

But I think gratitude can be expanded.  Think back to what leads to gratitude–attention to good things that we have not caused.  There’s a great deal of work that indicates that attention can be trained.  (Hey, it wasn’t chance that led you to the point where you can attend to this long enough to read it!)  And so attention can likely be trained to the good (even as we acknowledge so many things in our lives that are anything but good) and to things we didn’t cause (even as there are also goods that we bring into the world).  And if we attend in that way we will be more grateful.  Perhaps then we will find ourselves more filled than we had imagined, and more connected to that wide world that is outside of ourselves.

So that’s a more systematic answer to the four questions that showed up in the AU interview.  If you would like to know more about gratitude ship me an email at ahrens@american.edu.  Or take some time to reflect on the good you’ve experienced. Think about the gifts of today. Think about the gifts of now.  And enjoy Thanksgiving not just for the delicious food and the good company and the football but the sense of gratitude that arises from it all.  Safe travels.

Happy Thanksgiving!

 

 

Mindfulness and Silence of the Lambs

This link takes you to a brief American U. story about my (now former!) doctoral student Lisa Carlin.  Trying to figure out what mindfulness has to do with Silence of the Lambs?  You’ll need to read!

http://www.american.edu/cas/psychology/news/detail.cfm?newsID=2A0FE339-BA1D-DAD1-9B018C134A10B53B

The Hounds of Silence

What happens if you sit still for awhile and rest?  Does it get a bit unpleasant, or is it a comfortable place?  When you sit do you need to immediately find something to do?  Or can you just be there comfortably?

For so many it is an uncomfortable thing to be still and silent, as they are hounded by their thoughts.  A recent study (by Marchetti, Koster, and De Raedt, in October’s Clinical Psychological Science) examined reactions to rest.  Undergraduates were asked to sit for 25 minutes, close their eyes, and avoid structured thinking like counting or singing.  Periodically they were asked to hit a number on a computer keypad to indicate how intense their external experiences (like smelling, hearing…) and internal experiences (like remembering, thinking) were.  Beforehand they were asked about their mood and about the degree to which they were ruminating, that is, dwelling on negative aspects of their life.  Afterwards they were again asked about their mood and rumination, along with their tendency to be mindful during their lives.

Those who reported more internal experiences (thinking about their pasts, for instance) generally ended up with more negative mood afterwards, controlling for their initial mood.  And this negative mood seemed to be due to their rumination, getting caught up in the struggle with their thoughts.  What is silence like?  Running into thoughts that you don’t want to think and struggling to change those thoughts or run away?  Then getting disconcerted with those thoughts and your inability to control them?  If so, it’s easy to see why resting would put people in a worse mood!

But there were exceptions.  The mood of those who were high in mindfulness, that is, those who tend to bring their attention to their experience without judgment) was not affected by their internal experience during rest.   Being mindful allowed students to be silent, run into their internal thoughts, and not have that put them in a bad mood, likely because they didn’t get caught up in a struggle with those thoughts.

What are the benefits of peaceful rest?  How much peaceful rest do we experience?  Might mindfulness help us rest more peacefully? 

In this study mindfulness was measured after the rest rather than before, and that’s less than ideal methodologically.  Perhaps answers to the mindfulness measure were affected by the experiences during rest, with those who were affected by their internal experiences reporting less mindfulness in general.  It’s also a single correlational study.  It’s far too early to jump to any conclusions about the relationship of mindfulness to rest.  But it’s still a promising result, and I’d love to see followup studies. In my own life I love being able to be comfortably silent, an ability I believe I have developed through mindfulness practice (though I probably owe a bunch to sitting on a lake with my father when I was young, watching the fish not bite our bait!).  In that light I look forward to more studies of rest.

Positive emotions and happiness?

Gratitude, joy, contentment, pride, schadenfreude, hope, relief….is happiness just a general word we use for all these specific emotions?  And what are these positive emotions  there for, anyway?

I’m blogging my psychology of happiness course.  I have four topics to blog about from before our midterm.  Tonight I start to catch up with the post midterm topics.

What is an emotion, anyway?  A short while ago I had a piece of pumpkin pie sitting in front of me and I felt joy.  I wanted it, I wanted then to eat it.  If you unpack that you’ll see an appraisal (“This pie will meet my need to satisfy my hunger!  And I’m pretty darned confident that I can eat it!”)  There’s an action tendency (“I want to pick up my fork and start shoveling this quickly into my mouth!).  And there’s a feeling (joy).  That describes the essence of the appraisal theory view of what emotion is.  We are constantly, in some way, assessing/thinking about/processing our situations, and those assessments give rise both to feelings and to the tendency toward some action.  As humans we can choose not to engage in that action. (I really could have chosen not to go that pie with the fork.  I didn’t.  But I could have!)  Emotions then serve to help us interact with our worlds.  Without much effort we can take in that which is important to us and prepare to act on it while having the flexibility to act in some way other than that which we feel most strongly compelled to do.

There are many of those positive emotions.  I mentioned some of them at the beginning of this post.  As our appraisals change, we change our feelings and action tendencies.  If I “focus” on the fact that I worked long and hard to get a doctorate so I could, in fact, gain employment and thereby pay for the pie I feel pride and want to boast about my goodness.  If I then “focus” on (or “appraise”) the folks who built River Road so I could drive on it to get to the Whole Foods from which I bought the pie I feel grateful and want to go to their houses to tell them how wonderful they are.  When I focused on the fact that my hunger was about to be relieved I felt, well, relief.  When I focused on the fact that Whole Foods was closing very shortly so I really needed to step up my game to make it on time I felt challenge and I committed myself to working hard to get there on time. When I focus on the fact that I wanted blueberry pie but they didn’t have any small ones, I feel sad and I just want to sit here.  I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

Maybe, then, when we say we’re happy we mean we are proud or grateful or tranquil or challenged or….some other specific positive emotion. We’re just not looking at it very clearly to discern which flavor of happiness we are experiencing.  Does this matter?  Maybe we needn’t be aware of which sort of happiness we are feeling.  We can find our way to thanking, boasting, relaxing, working hard, etc. even without understanding the emotion system.  But if we look more closely perhaps we can understand better how we are relating to our world, for instance, whether we are focused on our own self as the cause of good things, or on the contributions of others.  Or if we’re focused on what we need to do, or how uncertain it is that good things will happen.  Or that they have happened and we need not work any more.

Perhaps that way of understanding our emotions can help us understand more our hearts’ desires and feed the emotions we wish.  And perhaps we can understand better the actions we find ourselves seemingly compelled to do, that dance of our desires and our worlds. And dance a different jig.

In the next couple blog posts I’ll dive into two particular emotions to more clearly examine this appraisal idea.  First will be gratitude, then an emotion the social psychologist Jon Haidt labelled “elevation.”

Will I ever learn?

“I never made a mistake in my life; at least, never one that I couldn’t explain away afterwards.”
Rudyard Kipling, Under The Deodars

People find themselves making the same mistakes and so being unhappy in the same ways they have been before.  Why don’t we learn?

Well in part because we convince ourselves we’ve made no mistakes!  I was taught once that dissonance theory arose in part because its founder, Leon Festinger, bought a Nash Rambler, a car that was a lemon.  Though he spent his time swearing it was a great car (so not realizing the mistake) his students could tell it was a blunder.  I don’t know what cars he bought afterwards, but this doesn’t bode well!

But we’re most likely to do that sort of self-justification when our decisions are irrevocable. Once the car is bought, we have reason to convince ourselves it’s great.  Before that we have every reason to search for its flaws so that we make the right choice.

For instance, in one study students were given their choice of one of two posters to take home.  Half were told the decision could not be changed.  Half were told that if they changed their minds they could bring the poster back.  The ones with the irrevocable decision came to like their posters more.  

One key here is that people predicted that revocability would make no difference.  Our ability to persuade ourselves we have been right works because we don’t realize what we are doing.  

An interesting question arising from this is the degree to which having a chance to change our minds undermines our ability to be happy.  Thinking something is a done deal leads us to find a way to live with it and (perhaps hopefully!) to love it.  Thinking that it can be returned leads to a search for the flaws.  How, then, does the presence of no-fault divorce change people’s happiness in marriage?  How does the sense that one will change jobs lead people to not love their jobs?  Search in anything and you can find both beauty and imperfections.  Does keeping one’s options open preclude just giving oneself over to the beauty?

 

Farewell to the Myers-Briggs (I wish…)

The Myers-Briggs is insanely popular.  So are horoscopes.  Neither is that useful.  The linked piece gives a good description why not.

http://www.linkedin.com/today/post/article/20130917155206-69244073-say-goodbye-to-mbti-the-fad-that-won-t-die

Tomorrow is today’s dream?

Well a quote from Khalil Ghibran says it is!  But will it be?

We try to be happy by making choices that we think will bring us happiness, but that “us” is the future us.  We have to guess what our future self will want, filling in the future, and we fill in the future with…today.  And perhaps tomorrow is something we can’t dream up, but something very different. 

Imagine you are going to take a trivia quiz.  Afterwards which would you prefer, the answers or a chocolate bar?  If you’re like most you pick the chocolate bar.  But if you ask the same question after the quiz you want the answers!  When asked before you took the quiz, you imagined your future self would have a lot of desire for chocolate. Trivia questions?  They’re a dime a dozen!  You just don’t get that “I need to know!!!” sense that your future self will actually have.  So if you tethered yourself to the chocolate bar you’d be an unhappy camper.

(This belief that the future will be like now speaks to all those resolutions you’ve made, in all sincerity.  Staring at a paper deadline you declare that you will start your next paper much earlier.   But then future self comes along and rather than feeling the need to work on the paper you want to sleep, or to spend time with friends, or to do other work.  Hungover you resolve not to drink so much in the future, because surely your future self will carry with the feeling of NOW.  But then there you are and there are these other pulls your future self experiences and the hangover returns.  When you make the resolution you don’t understand your future self.  If you can grok that future self maybe you can figure out ways to make the resolution last!)

Ok.  Do you want a potato chip?  Imagine that chip next to a sardine.  Got it?  OK, now imagine it next to chocolate.  Does the sardine or chocolate change how you think you will feel about the chip?  It does to people presented the scenes in the lab–the chip seems like it will be better next to the sardine (which you are told you will not eat!). But when they actually eat the chip the sardine or chocolate is forgotten and the chip tastes the same.  People imagine their future self will feel like they do now–thinking of the chip in comparison, say, to the chocolate.  But the future self doesn’t experience that choice so vividly.

Thus when shopping our current self faces a choice that shapes our preference.  But the future self will not have the stereo speakers or television or furniture you didn’t pick to compare to.  So you sit and wonder why you made that choice that leaves you dissatisfied (because it doesn’t work well in your space)…and it’s because at when you bought your present self had one comparison to make (to other furniture), but in your living room it’s a different comparison.

One last example.  Imagine being lost in the woods with neither food nor water.  Which would be worse, the hunger or thirst? If you’ve just worked out you’re more likely to think thirst.  Present thirsty self dreams of a tomorrow that is like today–thirsty.

I find myself thinking of friends and their choices.  One who had a tattoo that she thought had been a terrible decision (will your 90 year old self still want that tattoo the 18 year old self did?)   I also think of people who marry, thinking the future will be like today.  It’s hard when infatuated to imagine diapers, bills, paunches, and arthritis.  (“Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64?”) 

I also think of my mother, born in the 1920′s, before the Great Depression started.   How could she have imagined the crash, the war, my dad, all four of us Ahrens brothers, her grandkids, jet planes, the internet, and the microwave?  Heck, when she was born the Cardinals had won no World Series so her present self would not have had the experience of those 11 wins that have come since!

In principle our future self will be happier if we can imagine our futures as they will actually be rather than dreaming that they will be like today.  We can do that somewhat well.  (I’ve run a load of laundry while writing this, anticipating my future self’s need for clean towels.  I bet I got that right.) 

But how often do we need to just let go of the idea that we can imagine the future, accepting it as comes rather than trying to shape it to our preconceptions?

 

 

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