Tuesday, May 5, 2015

5: Embrace the Power of Gratitude

Studies have traced a range of impressive benefits to the simple act of writing down the things for which we’re grateful—benefits including better sleep, fewer symptoms of illness, and more happiness among adults and kids alike. Yet, far too often we fail to express gratitude, and we fail to be thankful for the life we possess.

Your Assignments

Your next two assignments involve gratitude. In the first assignment, you express your own gratitude. In the second assignment, you show gratitude toward another. Each of the assignments is repeated once each week, for the next nine weeks.

First Assignment – Journal Entries on Gratitude.

One evening a week, for the next nine weeks, write in your journal. Each week, you should seek to answer these questions as you write your journal entry: “What am I most thankful for – this week?” and “Why?” Set an alarm on your smart phone, at the same time and day of each week for the next nine weeks, to remind you to complete these journal entries. (Choose a different day, for writing these journal entries, as opposed to other journal entries.)

Here are some tips for reaping the greatest psychological rewards from your gratitude journal:

  • Don’t just go through the motions. Research by psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky and others suggests that journaling is more effective if you first make the conscious decision to become happier and more grateful. Motivation to become happier plays a role in the efficacy of journaling.
  • Go for depth over breadth. Elaborating in detail about a particular thing for which you’re grateful carries more benefits than a superficial list of many things.
  • Get personal. Focusing on people to whom you are grateful has more of an impact than focusing on things for which you are grateful.
  • Try subtraction, not just addition. One effective way of stimulating gratitude is to reflect on what your life would be like without certain blessings, rather than just tallying up all those good things.
  • Savor surprises. Try to record events that were unexpected or surprising, as these tend to elicit stronger levels of gratitude.
  • Don’t overdo it. Writing occasionally (once or twice per week) is more beneficial than daily journaling. In fact, one study by Lyubomirsky and her colleagues found that people who wrote in their gratitude journals once a week for six weeks reported boosts in happiness afterward; people who wrote three times per week didn’t. “We adapt to positive events quickly, especially if we constantly focus on them,” said another researcher. “It seems counterintuitive, but it is how the mind works.”
If you become stuck, always revert back to square one. Be thankful for each breath you take.

Various studies have shown that simply doing a five-minute gratitude journal, once or twice a week, can increase a person’s happiness by 10%. Doesn’t sound like much, until you realize that it takes a doubling of income to achieve the same effect (and often that effect is not as long-lasting).

Writing a “gratitude journal” reduces feelings of envy, makes our memories happier, lets us experience good feelings, and helps us bounce back from stress. The simple journaling of gratitude builds self-esteem and makes a person less self-centered and more optimistic from day-to-day. Studies have shown that a gratitude journal deepens relationships with others, and also makes a person even friendlier (and, as a result, possessing of more friends).

Second Assignment – Thank You Notes. 

Hand-written thank you notes are seldom sent and received today. That is what makes them so special.

For this assignment, write and mail (or hand-deliver) a handwritten thank-you note, once a week, for the next nine weeks.

How should you write a thank-you note? Keep it short – usually three to four sentences is enough. Use plain thank-you cards and envelopes – nothing too fancy.

The following is excerpted from “Say Thank You” by Katherine Vessenes, JD, CFP®, RFC (Sept. 1, 2004), available at http://www.financial-planning.com/news/say-thank-you-526505-1.html?pg=2.   For more articles by Katherine Vessenes, visit www.vestmentadvisors.com.
  • “68% of customers leave for the most important reason – perceived indifference. In short, they just didn't feel valued or appreciated…every card should have a minimum of 3 lines, a salutation, and close. You can go up to 5 lines. More than that is a letter. A good format might be:
    • Expressing gratitude for the person's thoughtfulness or kindness;
    • Personalizing the kindness; and
    • Referring to a future interaction.”
  • Upon Completion of a Service: “It has been a pleasure serving you! We appreciate your business and the confidence you have placed in us. We look forward to serving you again. Thank you.”
  • A General Thank You: “Clients like you are a pleasure! Thank you for providing us with the opportunity to serve you. We appreciate your business and the confidence you have placed in us. Please contact me whenever I may be of further assistance.”
  • After a Referral: “I so appreciate the confidence you have in me and your many referrals. I met with the Martins this morning, and I know they are going to be fun clients. Thanks again for all your support. Katherine”
  • After a Telephone Contact: “Thank you for taking the time to talk with me today. Your prompt response to my voice mail really helps me do my job better. I appreciated your thoughts and suggestions for making our next event even better. We look forward to seeing you at our golf outing in June. Warmest regards, K”
  • After an Initial Meeting: “It was a pleasure to finally meet you in person today and get to know you better. I was struck by what a good job you had done raising your family and staying focused on what is most important in your life-the relationship with your children and grandchildren. I am looking forward to our next meeting. Katherine”
Remind yourself to write a thank-you note each week, by setting an alarm for a specific day and time each week, for the next nine weeks. (Choose a different day for these journal entries, than others you will do.)


Additional reading: 

David Brooks, "The Structure of Gratitude," The New York Times (July 28, 2015)

"I’m sometimes grumpier when I stay at a nice hotel. I have certain expectations about the service that’s going to be provided. I get impatient if I have to crawl around looking for a power outlet, if the shower controls are unfathomable, if the place considers itself too fancy to put a coffee machine in each room. I’m sometimes happier at a budget motel, where my expectations are lower, and where a functioning iron is a bonus and the waffle maker in the breakfast area is a treat.

This little phenomenon shows how powerfully expectations structure our moods and emotions, none more so than the beautiful emotion of gratitude.

Gratitude happens when some kindness exceeds expectations, when it is undeserved. Gratitude is a sort of laughter of the heart that comes about after some surprising kindness.

Most people feel grateful some of the time — after someone saves you from a mistake or brings you food during an illness. But some people seem grateful dispositionally. They seem thankful practically all of the time.

These people may have big ambitions, but they have preserved small anticipations. As most people get on in life and earn more status, they often get used to more respect and nicer treatment. But people with dispositional gratitude take nothing for granted. They take a beginner’s thrill at a word of praise, at another’s good performance or at each sunny day. These people are present-minded and frustrated because the perfect society has not yet been achieved. But if you go through life believing that our reason is not that great, our individual skills are not that impressive, and our goodness is severely mottled, then you’re sort of amazed life has managed to be as sweet as it is. You’re grateful for all the institutions our ancestors gave us, like the Constitution and our customs, which shape us to be better than we’d otherwise be. Appreciation becomes the first political virtue and the need to perfect the gifts of others is the first political task.

We live in a capitalist meritocracy that encourages individualism and utilitarianism, ambition and pride. But this society would fall apart if not for another economy, one in which gifts surpass expectations, in which insufficiency is acknowledged and dependence celebrated.

Gratitude is the ability to see and appreciate this other almost magical economy. G. K. Chesterton wrote that “thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”

People with grateful dispositions see their efforts grandly but not themselves. Life doesn’t surpass their dreams but it nicely surpasses their expectations.

This kind of dispositional gratitude is worth dissecting because it induces a mentality that stands in counterbalance to the mainstream threads of our culture.

We live in a capitalist meritocracy. This meritocracy encourages people to be self-sufficient — masters of their own fate. But people with dispositional gratitude are hyperaware of their continual dependence on others. They treasure the way they have been fashioned by parents, friends and ancestors who were in some ways their superiors. They’re glad the ideal of individual autonomy is an illusion because if they were relying on themselves they’d be much worse off.

The basic logic of the capitalist meritocracy is that you get what you pay for, that you earn what you deserve. But people with dispositional gratitude are continually struck by the fact that they are given far more than they pay for — and are much richer than they deserve. Their families, schools and summer camps put far more into them than they give back. There’s a lot of surplus goodness in daily life that can’t be explained by the logic of equal exchange.

Capitalism encourages us to see human beings as self-interested, utility- maximizing creatures. But people with grateful dispositions are attuned to the gift economy where people are motivated by sympathy as well as self-interest. In the gift economy intention matters. We’re grateful to people who tried to do us favors even when those favors didn’t work out. In the gift economy imaginative empathy matters. We’re grateful because some people showed they care about us more than we thought they did. We’re grateful when others took an imaginative leap and put themselves in our mind, even with no benefit to themselves.

Gratitude is the ability to see and appreciate this other almost magical economy. G. K. Chesterton wrote that “thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”

People with grateful dispositions see their efforts grandly but not themselves. Life doesn’t surpass their dreams but it nicely surpasses their expectations." - DAVID BROOKS

Dr. Ron A. Rhoades is an Asst. Professor of Finance at Western Kentucky University's Gordon Ford College of Business, where he chairs the (B.S. Finance) Financial Planning Program. An innovative, passionate teacher, he is the author of Choose to Succeed in College and in Life: Continously Improve, Persevere, and Enjoy the Journey (2014)from which many of these blog posts are derived.

Dr. Rhoades also serves as a consultant to the Garrett Planning Network, a nationwide network of independent, Fee-Only financial planners making competent, objective financial advice accessible to all people. He is the author of several books, dozens of articles, and he is a frequent speaker at financial planning and investments conferences. He is the recipient of many awards for his advocacy on behalf of the fiduciary standard. Dr. Rhoades is also a member of The Florida Bar, and he practices estate planning and transfer taxation for select current clients.

Dr. Rhoades and his wife, Cathy, reside in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

To contact Dr. Rhoades, please e-mail: WKUBear@gmail.com.

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