Be thankful. Express your gratitude. Keep a gratitude journal. Gratitude has become to mental habits, what eating veggies is to dietary habits. You've heard a lot about it, you know how important it is, and either you already do it, or you feel bad that you don't.
The commonly recommended practice is to take a few minutes before bed and jot down a few items from the day that you're grateful for. This practice is thought to make you happier, healthier and less stressed. Oprah recommends it, as do many other experts and gurus.
Sounds great, but recent studies have raised questions about gratitude. Does it work at all? Does it work for everyone? Could it make you feel worse? For answers, we can look to three separate studies on over 400 participants. The studies investigated how gratitude or other positive statements affect your well-being.
At the beginning of the studies, the researchers used questionnaires to see if participants had low, average or high levels of self-esteem. This data was used to determine if people with different levels of self-esteem responded differently to gratitude practices. Then, they used other questionnaires to measure the mood of the participants. Researchers found out if the participants were happy, sad, positive or negative and by how much. They remeasured these things in the following days and months after participants practiced gratitude.
All three studies yielded the same results. People with high levels of self-esteem felt the same or a little better after practicing gratitude. Those who had average self-esteem felt a little worse. Those with low self-esteem felt a lot worse. In fact, the researchers stated that "positive self-statements may be not only ineffective, but actually detrimental." (1)
In short, people who need help won't get it from forcing themselves to feel grateful.
Imagine that finding things to be happy about can make you feel unhappy. It seems if you try to force yourself to feel happier, you'll just end up being clearer on why you were unhappy to begin with. Thankfully, there may still be a solution. Being ungrateful may be just the ticket.
What is ungratefulness? This is a term I coined to refer to negative affirmations. Rather than being thankful for something good that happened, ungratefulness is being glad that something bad that happened wasn't worse than it was. It seems that this practice can induce genuine feelings of thankfulness that can lead to lasting happiness.
How can you add more ungratefulness to your life today? Take just a moment to think of a recent event that was upsetting. Then, imagine a detailed scenario in which this event could have been even worse.
As a great case study, I happened to be writing this article while stuck in the airport, waiting on a flight that was delayed for over four hours. At first, I found myself getting upset over the fact that my morning would not be spent with my family. Thankfully, I remembered the practice of ungratefulness. Before writing this article, I imagined being in a much worse situation. I thought about a delayed flight plus a lost passport while in an airport with no signs written in English. Wow, that would have really sucked! In a matter of moments, the current situation seemed like no big deal and the rest of the day went really well.
Remember, the clearer you can make the awful scenario, the better you will feel that it is not true. Along with using it to rescue yourself from a bad mood, try being ungrateful as a daily habit. You will know you are succeeding when you find yourself struggling to find things to be ungrateful for.
1. Wood JV1, Perunovic WQ, Lee JW. Positive self-statements: power for some, peril for others. Psychol Sci. 2009 Jul;20(7):860-6. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02370.x. Epub 2009 May 21.