Quick – think of the last major hassle you’ve had to deal with, or resolve. Perhaps your car unexpectedly broke down on the way to work one day. Perhaps it was an unforeseen delay on a project at work. While such hassles and inconveniences rarely have long-term, severe consequences on our well-being, overtime, they do build up and negatively affect our levels of contentment and satisfaction with life. Indeed, you may have found it easier to quickly recall recent hassles in your life relative to uplifts – the positive and pleasant incidents in your life. Try recalling an uplifting incident or event that has recently occurred in your life. If you are like most people, you would have taken just a bit more time recalling uplifts relative to hassles. It is a fairly well-established finding that we have what psychologists refer to as the ‘negativity bias,’ wherein unpleasant incidents, and negative qualities of objects are paid more attention to than pleasant or positive qualities. It does, however, make sense to be cautious towards the unpleasant, the dangerous, and the negative. Objects and incidents of that nature may be harbouring threats and dangers that we would do well to be vigilant towards .
This predisposition towards the unpleasant, however, can work against our day-to- day happiness, and, overtime, diminish our sense of well-being. Recently, researchers working in the area of positive psychology have considered how we can overcome our hassle-fixation (and the negative, unpleasant emotions that result from this) by cultivating the experience of positive, pleasant emotions instead. One such emotion that has received some attention is gratitude. Gratitude is a positive emotion that results from the realization that we have benefitted from another. In psychological terms, we feel gratitude when we have been the recipient of an altruistic gift from another. Someone has done something beneficial and appreciated by us, and we realize that this gift was given to us at some considerable expense. Gratitude has, over the past two decades, been the subject of much psychological research. In a study by psychologists Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough, participants were asked to keep weekly records of their moods. Emmons and McCullough placed the participants into two groups – one group recounted their hassles, one group recounted their blessings, and wrote about incidents that triggered either hassles or things they were grateful for over the course of 10 weeks. By the end of the 10 weeks – you guessed it – participants in the gratitude condition reported higher levels of well-being. Grateful participants also reported lower levels of physical illness, rated their lives more positively and spent more time exercising than the group that recounted their hassles. Emmons and McCullough conducted a similar gratitude study involving patients with neuromuscular disease and found similar effects over
just three weeks. Compared with patients in the control group, patients who recounted their blessings reported
higher levels of positive emotions, lower levels of negative emotions, judged their lives more favourably, and felt
more connected with others. .
Why does gratitude have this effect on well-being? It may be because gratitude prompts us to recall, and then savour the positive aspects of one’s life – something which we may not necessarily do regularly. We may feel fleeting emotions of gratitude and thankfulness when someone does something beneficial for us, but we don’t regularly or consistently – by ourselves, recall all that is going well in our lives. Cultivating gratitude, as the study above shows, is a simple, yet effective way of countering the negativity bias, and in the service of enhancing our well-being. Why not try cultivating gratitude by keeping a gratitude journal over the next couple of weeks? Here is a general guide to get you started for your journal: There are many things in our lives, both large and small, that we might be grateful about. Think back over the past week and write down on the lines below up to five things in your life that you are grateful or thankful for.