Is the glass half empty or half full? In these turbulent times, when the news is nearly always bad, it can seem as though to be optimistic is to be unrealistic. Better to look on the distinctly dark side and be prepared for all eventualities, right? Stockpile for Brexit and patch the holes in Grandma’s Anderson shelter.
But that’s no way to live, is it? Always looking out for the next disaster, while missing the magic going on right under your nose? Fortunately, Friday 21 September is World Gratitude Day. If you’re not already an optimist, World Gratitude Day is here to remind you that life’s not really that bad. This coming Friday, you’re encouraged to take a little time to express your thanks for all the good things. Really, there’s so much to be thankful for.
It’s nothing new. The phrase “count your blessings” has been around for aeons. Giving thanks is a staple sentiment of songs and sermons and national holidays all over the globe. World Gratitude Day as we know it was first celebrated in 1965 by US author Edna Fuerth Lemle and friends in Hawaii. In 1977, World Gratitude Day was recognised by the United Nations. It has since become an official public holiday in Japan.
More than half a century after Lemle and co gave thanks for the fact they could give thanks on a Hawaiian beach, gratitude is hipper than ever. Putting the term into Amazon’s search box brings up more than 30,000 hits, from Oliver Sacks’ moving final meditation on life and death to readymade gratitude journals all the colours of the rainbow unicorn. Everybody is saying thanks for something.
But does it work? Does being thankful really make us feel better? Dr Martin Seligman, who earned himself the title Father of Positive Psychology for his research into the subject, definitely thinks so. His studies have shown that not only does gratitude increase our general sense of wellbeing, it also has a significant positive effect on reducing the symptoms of anxiety and depression. Seligman found a huge increase in his subjects’ happiness scores when he asked them to write and deliver a letter of gratitude to someone they hadn’t properly thanked for a past kindness.
Seligman also designed a protocol called “Three Good Things”. The premise is as simple as the name suggests. Before going to bed, you write (in your £18.99 unicorn gratitude journal, if you must) about three things that have gone well during the day. Crucially, you must then reflect on why you think they went as well as they did. Explaining the experiment in an interview for happier.com, Seligman said: “It works by changing your focus from the things that go wrong in life to things that you might take for granted that go well and focusing your attention on things that go well breaks up depression and increases happiness.”
Indeed, when Seligman asked a random group of subjects to do the Three Good Things exercise for just one week, he found that the subsequent positive effect on happiness levels and the commensurate decrease in depressive symptoms lasted for up to six months. By that measure, if you took it seriously enough, even a once a year event like World Gratitude Day could change your outlook for the better for the best part of a month. With those kind of results, what possible downside could there be to gratitude and optimism? Er, where to start? Plugging “downside to gratitude” into Google came up with half a million hits.
Just for starters, psychotherapist Jane Travis explains that the habit of counting blessings can actually end up causing some people to feel inadequate. Thinking that because they don’t have it “that bad” compared with others, they have no right to their own uncomfortable feelings only adds guilt to the mix. That guilt might lead someone vulnerable to discount their problems and not seek proper help but instead allow those problems to get out of control. Travis explains: “If you have an ingrowing toenail, someone else has lost a leg. If you lost a leg, there’s someone that’s lost both etc. But does knowing that make the pain of the ingrowing toenail any less? No, it doesn’t.”
If you’re looking for any more excuses not to spend 21 September making like Pollyanna, there’s also growing evidence that being flat-out pessimistic isn’t all bad. On TheConversation.com, Fuschia Sirois, reader in health psychology at the University of Sheffield, explains: “Pessimism isn’t just about negative thinking. Personality science has revealed it also includes a focus on outcomes – that is what you expect will happen in the future. While optimists expect positive outcomes will happen more often than not, pessimists expect negative outcomes are more likely. There is a particular type of pessimist, the ‘defensive pessimist’, who takes this negative thinking to a whole new level and actually harnesses it as a means for reaching their goals.”
That’s right. Used correctly, negative thinking can have a positive outcome. Framing expectations in a pessimistic way can help manage anxiety. For example, when the defensive pessimist goes to a job interview, their expectation that they will be found wanting may actually mean they go in better prepared than the happy-go-lucky optimist.
As a child, I unknowingly practised some defensive pessimism of my own. I grew up on the outskirts of Gloucester, just down the road from Cheltenham and GCHQ. During a period of intense international sabre rattling, the news was full of the threat of nuclear war. It was especially hard to ignore when the UK’s spy hub was right on the doorstep. However, I was hugely comforted by the fact, explained in detail by one of my less optimistic teachers, that should a war kick off in earnest, a direct hit on GCHQ would render any preparations for surviving armageddon in Longlevens fairly futile. I wouldn’t have to worry about whether our beloved family dog was allowed in the shelter (which we didn’t have). We could die together, instantly, in the middle of a game of “fetch”. Blessings don’t always look like rainbow unicorns...
Even now, whenever I catch myself worrying about Trump and Kim Jong-un and their frightening, fragile friendship, I go straight to Zoopla and look for houses in GL50. For now, however, I’m going to be grateful for this day, which also happens to be the UN’s International Day of Peace. I’m going to grateful for the fact that there are still politicians who think peace is an outcome worth working towards. Closer to home, there are plenty of little things to be thankful for too. As I write, the sun is shining. There’s a squirrel on the garden fence. My beloved has just made me a cup of tea. It’s the sort of day that brings to mind Kurt Vonnegut, quoting his Uncle Alex, in A Man Without a Country.
“And I urge you please to notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”
Christine Manby has written numerous novels including ‘The Worst Case Scenario Cookery Club’