Gratitude – it’s a candle in dark times!

According to research we all have a set point when it comes to happiness. The trick is ensuring that we stay above it more often than below it. Another fact that science has confirmed is that people’s happiness levels are remarkably stable over the long-term. Whether we win millions in the lottery or experience a horrendous event in our lives, after about three to six months we return to our usual level of happiness – our set point. We are all unique individuals with our own genetic imprint, personality and life experiences and we all have our own set points for happiness. Being happier more often in life would mean that we are above our set point more often.

But we have to be realistic about this life. There will always be unhappiness laced throughout it. This life is a wonderful journey but full of imperfection. We do not have full control over our destiny or the destinies of those whom we love. We may be able to influence outcomes but cannot guarantee them. However, when it comes to happiness do we have any real influence? Has science uncovered any gems of wisdom that would ensure that we would be above our set point a little more often?

Recent research in psychology points to the practice of gratitude as a way to increasing our happiness levels. Being thankful may be one key to raising our happiness ‘set-point’. Recent scientific studies have given credence to this theory. Dr. Robert A. Emmons carried out research with three experimental groups over a 10 week period (Emmons & McCullough, 2003). Group ‘A’ were asked to write down five things for which they were grateful for and that had happened during the previous week. They continued this for the period of 10 weeks of the study. This was called the gratitude condition. Group ‘B’ were asked to write down five daily hassles from the previous week. This was the hassles condition. Again they continued to do this for ten weeks. The third group Group ‘C’ were the control group and simply listed five events that had occurred in the pervious week, but not told to focus on positive or negative aspects.

During the experiment the participants kept daily journals to chronicle their moods, physical health and general attitudes. These were analysed by the researchers and all participants were comprehensively interviewed during and after the study. The participants from the first group (the gratitude condition) were found to be 25% happier. They were more optimistic about the future, more positive about their life circumstances and were found to have done almost 1.5 hours more exercise a week than those in the hassles or events groups. As a consequence there has been a steady growth in the study of the psychological and general health benefits of practicing gratitude.

Critics have suggested that there may be some reasons why practicing gratitude may not be so good. For example, gratitude may remind us of how indebted we are to other people. This may over highlight our dependency on them and consequently reduce our sense of personal control. Maybe by being over grateful we may lose ambition in life and settle for too little!

Yet, despite such criticisms the growing evidence suggests practising gratitude has significant positive effects on peoples’ lives. Leading psychologist Martin Selgiman has shown that counting blessings can improve mood in people who are experiencing depression. In recent years gratitude journals have been added to the toolbox of psychologists and psychotherapists. Helping patients to focus on what is right about their lives lifts mood!

It is often easier to make a list of all the things that we have lost in life – even easier to make a list of all the things we would love to have in our lives! But maybe we should be basking more in the glory of all the things we already possess. Gratitude not only enhances happy feelings but sustains them. If we allow ourselves to experience appreciation more in our hearts, we would be more likely to find the candle during the darker times.

(c) Shane Martin

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