A student popped into my classroom last week looking for advice. As a teacher, this tends to happen quite often. However, this had nothing to do with my communication course; rather, she was feeling down and looking for ways to improve her personal happiness.
When she popped in I felt dejected. My lessons that day were good but not great. My sleep schedule was in limbo, and I was in a rut creatively. How could I help this young girl with her happiness when I wasn't feeling it myself?
We talked a bit, and I told her to come back the next day- which happened to be a Friday- and I would have an answer for her.
As I drove home I thought of a few simple solutions: talking to a trusted friend, exercising, getting enough rest. Basically, just a quick fix to get back on track. But she seemed to need something more substantial. And for that matter, so did I.
As I racked my brain some more I thought of something I tried last year, but didn't have the discipline to complete: The basic, and extremely underrated, gratitude journal.
As I tossed the idea into Google, I was amazed at the amount of research supporting the power of cultivating gratitude in our own life.
So not only did I pass this information along to this young lady, but I also committed to keeping a journal myself. On top of that, I decided to try this social experiment with each of my students to see whether or not their happiness increased after three weeks of expressing gratitude in their own life. After all, happier people make for better communicators.
So if you're interested in joining this experiment, or just curious about how expressing gratitude in your own life can make you happier, then check out a short summary of ideas compiled by Professor Robert Emmons- the world's leading expert on the science of gratitude.
In a partnership with the University of California Berkeley's Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, Professor Emmons, who teaches Psychology at the University of California, Davis, gave a twenty-five minute lecture, which was cut into four sections, detailing the power of cultivating gratitude. (Bear with him, his monotone voice and lack of visuals makes for a long winded lecture, but his content is on-point.)
He defines gratitude as having two components. From his article (which I will use for the majority of this post) "Why Gratitude is Good": "First, it’s an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good thing in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received. This doesn’t mean that life is perfect; it doesn’t ignore complaints, burdens, and hassles. But when we look at life as a whole, gratitude encourages us to identify some amount of goodness in our life."
The second section of his quote sticks out. Recognizing that life isn't perfect is something that we all know and acknowledge, but I know from personal experience, and from talking with others, that it can at times make us forget about identifying what is right with the world. (Which relates perfectly to my previous "Happy? Friday" article.)
"The second part is figuring out where that goodness comes from. We recognize the sources of this goodness as being outside of ourselves. It didn’t stem from anything we necessarily did ourselves in which we might take pride. We can appreciate positive traits in ourselves, but I think true gratitude involves a humble dependence on others: We acknowledge that other people—or even higher powers, if you’re of a spiritual mindset—gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives."
The recognition of 'humble dependency' stuck out to me because Emmons calls gratitude a 'social emotion' throughout his lecture. This recognition that true gratitude can only be accomplished through acknowledging the roles that others play in our lives is crucial. This helps us not only strengthen our existing relationships, but it also helps us create a stronger social network.
His lone joke throughout his speech, which raised a valid point, dealt with the hardships of expressing gratitude on a daily basis. "My wife says, 'How is it you're supposed to be this huge expert on gratitude? You're like the least grateful person I know.' She has a point because, again, it's easy to lapse into the negativity mindset. It just seems to be so much easier and natural."
This is where the gratitude journal comes into play. Emmons states that listing five things per week (or one per day) detailing what you are grateful for will put you into a more happy state of mind. He relates this to another popular form of thinking- mindfulness- because by writing something down daily you become more conscious of thinking about the good in life, which in turn can help eliminate the negative aspects (envy, greed, jealousy, etc.) that so easily pop up.
Furthermore, the University of California Berkeley conducted additional research that identifies two added variables that are important if the gratitude journal hopes to succeed. "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,' says Emmons." Another important aspect in making sure the gratitude journal works is trying to think of life without those daily blessings: "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."
As the next school day rolled around, I presented the young lady with the idea of using the gratitude journal as a way to increase her happiness. She was up for the task, and as she walked out of my room I sat in my chair, smiling from the irony of the situation. In asking me to help her, this young lady ended up helping me find my own happiness, and for that I am grateful.