Focusing on the good doesn’t come easy, we are a deficit oriented society. We are interested in bad news, we love to solve problems, we readily empathize with life’s difficulties. Anything negative calls our attention. The bad is like velcro – it just sticks to us, the good like teflon – it just rolls right off of us. There are many reasons for this phenomenon.
First there is something called the negativity bias. According to Paul Rozin and Edward Royzman we give greater weight to the negative than we do to the positive. We have better recall for the negative and the negative impacts us more than does the positive. Your boss tells you how well you did on the report you just presented, he was impressed with the content and found it very helpful. He asks, however, for the next time, that you summarize the findings better. What stays with you? The two compliments or the correction about the findings? For most people it is the correction. We give greater weight to the negative or what we perceive as negative than we do to the positive, the negative just calls to us and sticks.
Why is this the case? According to Evolutionary Psychology this is the case because focusing on the negative served a purpose. Primitive man would have not survived if he didn’t focus on the negative. The positive offers no survival information, the negative does. You ignore the positive, nothing happens. You ignore the negative, potentially you don’t live another day. Hence our focus on the negative.
Having said all of the above, we know that our attention is like a spotlight, we can choose to place it anywhere we want. It’s not easy, but it can be done. We can actively drag our attention to wherever we want to put it. We can do this in many ways. We can practice mindfulness. We can practice gratitude. We can change our questions. Or we can simply make a conscious effort to hunt the good stuff. Whichever method you choose attending to the good in our lives offers a slew of benefits.
Last week I wrote about character strengths and how they make us resilient. This week I’ve been thinking about the character strength of gratitude. I always love seeing gratitude in action, it warms my heart.
So what is gratitude? Gratitude is the action of noticing and acknowledging the good in one’s life. Gratitude is the act of affirming the good things in your life that come from outside yourself. Gratitude is the ability to notice and relish little pleasures. It’s the recognition that you have been the recipient of a benefit, of something good. Gratitude is not only the action of giving thanks, there’s so much more to gratitude than saying thank you.
There are two types of gratitude – dispositional gratitude and state gratitude. For dispositionally grateful people gratitude comes naturally, it is a stable characteristic of their personality. An attitude of gratitude comes naturally to a dispositionally grateful person, it’s the way they interface with the world. Dispositionally grateful people find ways to be grateful for the ordinary experiences of daily living. For other people, gratitude is experienced as a state. Something happens and they feel grateful. In this case gratitude isn’t a stable characteristic of their personality, it’s induced by an event. Either way, research is very clear, being grateful increases happiness and well-being. And the beauty of gratitude is that it is a learnable skill.
Practicing gratitude has many benefits. One benefit is that it allows us to be in the present. When we are grateful we are aware of the good that is happening to us in the moment. Also gratitude blocks negative emotions, actually it pulls our attention away from the negative. It’s very difficult to express gratitude and experience a negative emotion at the same time. Gratitude tends to cancel out negative emotions. Also, gratitude is a social emotion, it strengthens our relationships. When we feel gratitude we are acknowledging the other people in our lives. Gratitude makes us aware of other people and their kindness. Also gratitude makes us more likable, gratitude makes us nicer to the people around us.
According to Dr. Robert Emmons, one of the world’s leading researchers in gratitude, practicing gratitude during difficult times is essential. It might be harder to practice gratitude during hardship, however, the benefits make the effort well worth your while. Remember, gratitude increases happiness and well-being. According to research practicing gratitude helps us cope with stress more effectively and regulate negative emotions.
So, what are you grateful for? I’ll go first. I’m grateful for many things during this difficult time. First and foremost, I’m grateful for my family and friends, I’m grateful for my health, I’m grateful for Instacart, I’m grateful for so many things both big and small. What about you?