an attitude of gratitude - image of a thank you card

Cultivating an ‘attitude of gratitude’ in the era of Brexit and austerity might seem near impossible. How do we say thank you or count our blessings when the world around us seems completely chaotic?

In many respects, you would be right about the challenge of being thankful. However many authoritative and intelligent voices are saying that being thankful is one of the best ways to increase your happiness.

Happiness and an attitude of gratitude


Dr Robert A. Emmons and Dr Michael E. McCullough are two psychologists leading the field of thankfulness and gratitude research. One of their studies found that after only 10 weeks, an attitude of gratitude left participants feeling more optimistic and better about their lives.

Deciding you want to have an attitude of gratitude is a good place to start. But that in itself is unlikely to improve your outlook on life. Waking up and just saying ‘I’m thankful for a sleepless night worrying about money’ or offering a superficial ‘thank you’ to an irate and patronising customer will not shift the needle on the gratitude meter.

An attitude of gratitude depends on whether you really mean it or not.

an attitude of gratitude - image of a thank you card

How to be happier, less depressed and more satisfied with life


Research shows that people with a genuine attitude of gratitude are happier, less depressed, less stressed and more satisfied with their lives and social relationships. The Roman philosopher Cicero said: ‘Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues but the parent of all others’. A sentiment which echoed one of our previous articles discussing gratitude as one of the Character Strengths and Virtues that contribute to Happiness (see ‘How to be Happy, Part 2’).

November is an appropriate month to think about an attitude of gratitude. The 22nd of this month will be Thanksgiving Day in the USA. While we Brits don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, there are some similar festivals here in the UK.

Many churches held Harvest Thanksgiving on Sunday, September 23rd. Less well known is that Guy Fawkes Day on November 5th started as an annual Day of Thanksgiving for the failure of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605.

But what have we got to be grateful about?


It is a tempting mindset to bemoan the state of the world. With the seemingly never-ending Brexit negotiations and constant cuts to public services, surely things are as bad as they have ever been. So what have we got to be grateful for?

This is the way the story we tell ourselves goes but, according to scientist Steven Pinker, there is extensive evidence that we are healthier, wealthier, wiser, safer and happier than ever before.

Imagine what it was like to live in the early 1900s and you will recognise the progress we have made in just 100 years. We take central heating and electricity for granted and need not worry about diseases like tuberculosis and influenza killing thousands of people. On its own, this presents plenty of material for our attitude of gratitude.

An attitude of gratitude is good for relationships


According to the charity Action for Happiness, gratitude sits at the heart of relationship building. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls it our ‘hive mentality’. We are as much like bees as we are like apes with an instinct for cooperation. Gratitude plays a role in oiling the machinery of the way we relate to each other. Remember how you felt the last time someone failed to say ‘thank you’ for one of your good deeds for a good example.

When we show appreciation for others we are acknowledging how much we value them and their efforts. A simple ‘thank you’ helps to build connections and overcome barriers to working together. As French author, Marcel Proust said: ‘Let us be grateful to people who make us happy, they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.’

Is an attitude of gratitude just for the deluded?


You may say that practising an attitude of gratitude encourages delusional thinking and make us more likely to be duped by the unscrupulous. According to Steven Pinker, this sort of attitude leads to the view that we have no control over our lives and are at the whim of fate.

It is much more realistic to think that we have control over (at least some of) our actions. Therefore saying ‘thank you’ is an acknowledgement of the benefits life gives us rather than taking things for granted.

An attitude of gratitude is something that can be practised. Professor Haidt suggests we focus on those relationships which we value most. Write a letter to someone close thanking them for everything they’ve done for you. Or encourage acts of gratitude by being thoughtful to your nearest and dearest. Even if you find the thought a little bit embarrassing.

Try an attitude of gratitude. It might be a tricky thing to master but we call all gain from it.

Counselling and support services


Practising an attitude of gratitude can be an effective way of improving our outlook on life. Sometimes that is not enough and the issues we face in life need more than a change of attitude.

At The Spark, we have been providing counselling and support to individuals, couples, families and children for over 50 years. Our aim is to help clients to better understand their emotions and experiences, and to find ways to deal with them.

Find out more information about The Spark and our counselling services for individuals, couples and families. Contact us via our online form or freephone 0808 802 0050 to talk about how counselling could help you.

the pursuit of happiness - is it wealth and gold bars?

According to American pundit William Bennett, the pursuit of happiness can be thought of this way:

‘Happiness is like a cat, if you try to coax it or call it, it will avoid you; it will never come.  But if you pay no attention to it and go about your business, you’ll find it rubbing against your legs and jumping onto your lap.’

Many of us will be able to relate to this message about the challenges posed in the pursuit of happiness.  At times it can seem that the more you understand what makes you happy, the more elusive it becomes.

In pursuit of happiness


This is no more apparent than in our collective pursuit of wealth and possessions.

As a society, we have greater wealth and more material possessions than we know what to do with. Cars, gadgets, jewellery – if you can think of it, the developed world sells it and we can buy it.

So why aren’t we happier?

the pursuit of happiness - is it wealth and gold bars?

Psychologists came up with the ‘Hedonic Treadmill’ theory to explain why the pursuit of happiness via material things tends to be futile.

The more money and possessions we accumulate, the greater our expectations are of the happiness they will bring. Soon we find ourselves running faster and faster ‘on the treadmill’ only for our happiness to stay in the same place.

Money = happiness


Often the pursuit of happiness, by way of ‘things’ and ‘stuff’, is a never-ending marathon of unfulfilled expectations. That is not to say it is always that way. For example, purchasing a holiday is something that can create joy and happiness in our lives.

However, when we link our happiness with the ability to accumulate wealth, trinkets or gadgets we are likely to be disappointed.

Consider for a moment the many stories of individuals who after winning huge sums of money via lottery tickets, ended up wishing they never had. For them, the accumulation of wealth and possessions created the exact opposite of the desired effect.

It seems that the ability to manage expectations deserts us when it comes to money and material possessions.

Managing expectations in pursuit of happiness


Professor Dan Gilbert has an interesting slant on managing expectations that offers cause for optimism.  In his TED talk, The Surprising Science of Happiness, he relates a number of examples of seemingly unfortunate people who claim they are happier having suffered their misfortune than if it had never happened.

One example is from the most famous drummer you have never heard of: Pete Best.

Best was the drummer for The Beatles until 1962. He left the band, was replaced by Ringo Starr and the rest is pop-cultural shaping history.

I could have been Ringo Starr…


Far from being resentful of the situation, Best was quite content with his lot. Despite the global stardom, Best considered himself happier out of The Beatles than if he had been in.

The Beatles (not featuring Pete Best).

Gilbert’s interpretation of this surprising outcome is that we have a ‘psychological immune system’ that, if we allow it, can protect us from difficult events and help us to find a way of being happy with what we have.

Now that we have come to the end of our whistle-stop tour of psychology’s work in the field of happiness, what have learned?

Is this really going to make me happy?


In the pursuit of happiness, it is worthwhile focusing on what we have, as opposed to what we might get from wealth or possessions. Ask yourself: is this really going to make me happy or do I just think it will?

For example, many of us dream of being wealthy enough to stop working and enjoy our hobbies and passions full-time. But it can be a lonely existence when there is no one to travel with or play golf with because our friends are still tied to working 9 to 5.

Buy this to be happy


This is a big challenge for all of us as we live in a consumption-driven society. Being bombarded daily with hundreds of ‘buy this to be happy’ messages makes it tough to find the satisfaction in what we have.

In our experience, however – that’s 50 plus years of counselling – it is the relationships, friendships and shared experiences that tend to help us find the finishing line in the pursuit of happiness. Not the money or stuff that we accumulate along the way.

Counselling and support services


Catch up with part 1 and part 2 of our ‘How to Be Happy’ series.

Find out more information on The Spark and our counselling services for individual, couples, married couples and families.

Alternatively contact us directly via our enquiry form or on freephone 0808 802 0050 to talk about how counselling could benefit you.

how to be happy find your flow - child blowing bubbles

Picture the scene.  A teenager opens their exam results: an A in Art, two Cs in English and French and an F in Maths. The response from their parent is likely to focus on either the good bits or the not so good bits.

For example, their response might be:

‘An F in Maths. What went wrong?  I know you struggle with numbers but that’s why I paid for Maths tutors to help you.’

Or alternatively: ‘An A in Art. That’s fantastic! I wonder if we can help you use all that creativity and imagination to improve in your other subjects…’

How to be happy: don’t focus on your weaknesses


Being honest, which option would have been your default response?

Most of us would probably have focused on the not so good bits. Humans are problem-solvers by nature and society has conditioned us to focus on the areas that need work. Anyone that has experienced an appraisal at work will know how obsessed we have become with weaknesses.

If you were more likely to focus on the success in Art, then you are in agreement with one of the newer branches of psychology: the field of positive psychology.

Positive psychology


Positive psychology suggests that you can improve yourself, become more satisfied with your life and increase your happiness by working on your strengths rather than your weaknesses.

When Professor Martin Seligman became president of the American Psychological Association in 1998 he noted that much of the focus of psychology had been on mental ill health and diseases of the mind.  In fact, professionals in the field relied on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), a comprehensive and regularly reviewed ‘bible’ for the diagnosis of mental illnesses, personality defects and behavioural difficulties.

Seligman’s view was that too little time had been spent looking at the positive side of human nature; its potential, talents and possibilities.  With colleagues, he resolved to fill this gap and in 2004 they published the seminal book, ‘Character Strengths and Virtues.’

You can find your own Character Strengths and Virtues by completing the questionnaires at authentichappiness.org).

How to be happy: develop your character


Commonly, we tend to think of character as something that is fixed and unchanging. For example, ‘he’s a shady character,’ or ‘she is always honest and straightforward’.  Positive psychologists view character in a different way.

Their perspective is that character and character virtues are something that can be worked on and improved.  Well-being can be promoted by working on 4 or 5 key strengths at any one time according to this nascent branch of psychology.

The following video by filmmaker, Tiffany Schlain, gives a little more detail on the science of character.

“The Science of Character” – new 8 min film from Let it Ripple on Vimeo.

How do we develop our character strengths and virtues?


Character is like a muscle; the more you use it the abler you become. Therefore by focusing on and enhancing your positive character traits, it is possible to further develop them.

Here are some examples taken from our own guide, ‘Relationship Tips for New Parents’ to illustrate positive character traits and ways to build upon them:

  • Take time to introduce children to their new sibling or step-sibling. (Fairness)
  • In the early days when you are both tired, take turns to look after your new baby. Give each other a break to sleep, shower, etc. (Kindness)
  • Be patient with each other and listen to each other’s perspective. (Perspective)
  • Talk about what you need to buy and what can be borrowed from friends and family. Talk about your finances and how you can realistically manage your budget. (Prudence)
  • There can be a change in the balance of your relationship if one person is staying at home to look after the baby. Be sensitive, talk about how this feels, and find ways to share responsibilities. (Teamwork)

 

How to be happy: find your flow


Jonathan Haidt, author of ‘The Happiness Hypothesis’ gives his explanation of the link between exercising our strengths and happiness.  He suggests that using our strengths encourages us to immerse ourselves in the moment, in what we are doing right there and then. Eventually losing self-consciousness and achieving a feel-good factor that psychologists call ‘flow.’

Being in the ‘flow’ – whether that be in your work, in your hobbies or time with friends – can create feelings of happiness and joy that we struggle to find in our normal, everyday life. Ultimately by doing more of the things we are good at and enjoy doing, the more we will develop our positive character virtures and therefore experience feelings of happiness and joy more frequently.

Check out this excellent talk by leading positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on ‘flow’ and how to be happy.

 


The How to be Happy series

Catch up with part 1 of our How to be Happy series and find out how post-traumatic growth can be the key to a healthier, happier life.

gift how to be happy

This is how to be happy according to Stacey Kramer.

“Imagine if you will a gift. I’d like you to picture it in your mind. It’s not too big, about the size of a golf ball. So, envision what it looks like, all wrapped up.

gift how to be happy

Before I show you what’s inside I will tell you that it’s going to do incredible things for you. It will bring all of your family together. You will feel loved and appreciated like never before and reconnect with friends and acquaintances that you haven’t heard from for years. Your life will have new meaning.”

So begins a TED Talk delivered by Stacey in February 2010.

I want to know how to be happy


What were your thoughts when reading those words? I will confidently wager they went something like this: ‘Where can I get this gift? How much do I have to pay for it? How soon can I get it?’

how to be happy

Later on in the talk, Stacey admits, ‘It was a rare gem. A brain tumour…’ This revelation will stop you in your tracks and, no doubt, the talk is structured deliberately to achieve this. Specifically, it is designed to force you to take time to reflect on your initial impressions of this ‘gift’.

Re-reading Stacey’s seemingly glowing description of what is a horrendous diagnosis, you may doubt the words you read earlier. How can such a difficulty result in so many positive outcomes? How can something that tragic help me learn how to be happy?

What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger


Remarkably, in his book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis’ Jonathan Haidt reports that modern psychologists consider some level of adversity and suffering necessary for a psychologically healthy and fulfilling life.

We are not naïve or heartless enough to suggest that all traumatic experiences are good for you. Unfortunately, there are illnesses that the sufferer does not survive. There are tragedies that dramatically change people’s lives for the worse. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is very real and blights lives. In The Spark’s work with children, we are very aware that Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACEs like neglect and abuse can result in health, relationship and social problems in later life.

Most of us will, consciously or otherwise, seek to avoid difficulties and strive to live a problem-free life. But Jonathan Haidt, who is Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University, suggests otherwise.

In short, if you want to know how to be happy, prepare to experience the lows as well as the highs.

How to be happy and the ‘Adversity Hypothesis’


The ‘Adversity Hypothesis’ is a philosophical version of the themes we explored in our Songs For Sound Minds feature on ‘(Stronger) What Doesn’t Kill You’ by Kelly Clarkson. The principle is that it is possible to grow from your suffering.

Haidt’s book illustrates 3 specific benefits, contrasting ‘post-traumatic growth’ with post-traumatic stress disorder:

  • Meeting challenging situations uses abilities that you may not have been aware of and gives you confidence in dealing with future difficulties. If we never face challenges or setbacks, how will we get through really difficult periods like the serious illness Stacey endured?
  • Adversity helps you identify who you can rely on in hard times and builds your relationship with them. This is one of the things Stacey Kramer discovered when she had her brain tumour.
  • Surviving trauma can make us take stock and change our perspective on life. Indeed, many of our counselling clients who come through very difficult periods develop a new attitude to life. An attitude focused, for example, on savouring time with family and friends, and less on being chained to their desk at work.

Helping you learn how to be happy


In practice, we sometimes need support to unlock these benefits from emotionally challenging times. Discovering and using those abilities we never knew we had can be difficult on our own.

Similarly, the process of taking stock can come naturally to some people but for others, it might require a guide. Therapeutic counsellors can be those guides.

Counselling is fundamentally about helping individuals and couples determine how to deal with situations, emotions and past experiences. It is about how to take time to consider what has happened and how we might wish to live our lives differently in the future. In essence, it is about personal growth from times of trouble.

Sadly we will all face hard times in our lives, of that we have no choice. But we can choose to take the path of post-traumatic growth as Jonathan Haidt suggests, and counselling can help us find and walk that path.

Counselling and relationship support services


Find out more information on The Spark and our counselling services for individual, couples, married couples and families.

Alternatively contact us directly via our enquiry form or on freephone 0808 802 0050 to talk about how counselling could benefit you.