Can You Cope Better?

Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005

There's a simple way.

WebMD Feature

July 3, 2000 -- This evening, in homes all over America, men, women, and children will be scribbling lists beginning with the words "Today I am grateful for ...":

"Today I am grateful for an easy commute to work."
"Today I am grateful for Lite French Silk ice cream."
"Today I am grateful I didn't light up a cigarette."

Gratitude lists and journals have been endorsed by Oprah Winfrey and popularized by Sara Ban Breathnach's bestseller Simple Abundance. Indeed, the concept is so trendy that in a 1998 Gallup poll more than 90% of Americans said that expressing gratitude makes them happy.

As list-keeper Lisa Krause says, "I still have bad moods and disappointments. But if I keep a list of little things that give me a lift, it's amazing how the good feelings just grow."

But only now are behavioral psychologists starting to ask if there is really something to this "I'm grateful for ..." business.

Michael McCullough, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, together with University of California, Davis, psychology professor Bob Emmons, PhD, have launched a series of gratitude studies. They're looking at, among other things, whether giving thanks can ease the emotional burdens of people with breast cancer and neuromuscular disorders.

And though their research is just beginning, the early results look good -- so good that McCullough will host the first-ever conference on gratitude's positive health effects at Southern Methodist University, Texas, in October 2000.

Feelings of Well-Being

Recently, the researchers asked one group of volunteers to keep a daily log of five hassles or complaints. A second group listed five ways in which they thought they were better off than their peers, while the third group wrote about five things they were grateful for. The volunteers also kept a record of their moods and physical health each day.

At the end of three weeks, the people who kept gratitude lists reported having greater energy, fewer health complaints, and more overall feelings of well-being than those who complained or gloated each day, according to results published in the Spring 2000 issue of the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology.

Lisa Krause, 32, participated in the study and says that it was easy to come up with five reasons to be thankful on good days. Not so on the day Krause got a "D" on a health psychology paper. "On bummer days I had to put more effort into it and make a conscious effort to think, 'What's good today?' " she says.

"I think you have to practice this and work at it," says Emmons. "It's not a natural tendency for most people. But with time it can become automatic."

Practice Makes Perfect

That was the case for Krause. The longer she kept a gratitude list, the more she began to notice shining moments in her daily life. "I learned you can look at something any way you want to and it can make all the difference," she says.

The boomlet in gratitude research is one manifestation of psychology's growing interest in positive emotions. While in the past researchers tended to focus on negative states such as depression, anxiety, and anger, mental health experts have recently turned their attention to positive traits.

The shift results from a growing understanding that it's not life events that make people happy or unhappy -- it's how a person copes with those events that makes the difference.

Learning to Cope Well

Some researchers believe if people can be taught to cultivate a positive coping style (including attitudes of gratitude, optimism, and forgiveness), they'll have a better shot at happiness, whatever their lot in life. However, there are some people with diagnoses of depression that require more treatment than this approach offers. If you have depression, do not discontinue medications or other treatment without the advice of your doctor.

"People want to be happy, but they believe it's objective life circumstances that will make them happy -- a new car, a raise, a new lover," says Emmons. "Actually it's the framing of events and experiences -- not the events themselves -- that make us happy. It comes down to attitude."

McCullough believes one reason gratitude journals make people feel better is that they work on the principles of cognitive therapy, a form of therapy that helps people to replace negative explanations of events with more positive ones.

When Krause broods on a bad grade, for instance, then takes a minute to find a reason to be grateful -- she's just performed "spontaneous cognitive therapy," McCullough says

Can Positive Thoughts Overcome Anxiety?

Another explanation, from University of Michigan psychology professor Barbara Fredrickson, is that positive emotions like gratitude may actually neutralize harmful emotions such as anger and anxiety. Her research on the "undoing" effect of positive emotions recently earned her the largest monetary prize ever awarded in psychology -- the John Marks Templeton Positive Psychology Prize first-place award of $100,000.

In an experiment published in the March 1998 journal Cognition and Emotion, Fredrickson induced states of anxiety or fear by showing people disturbing film clips or assigning them a speech. She then showed film clips intended to elicit amusement and contentment, among other emotions. The films that triggered positive feelings helped participants recover from negative emotions faster than neutral or sad films.

Her conclusion: It may be easier for people to cultivate mirth, gratitude, and other positive states than to struggle to banish negative feelings like sadness and anger.

In any case, the public isn't waiting for scientists to explain why gratitude works. A simple five-minute daily gratitude ritual makes believers out of many people.

Lisa Krause, for example, uses gratitude as a sort of emotional aspirin on downer days. And when a friend calls to complain about a bad date, Krause turns the talk from grousing to gratitude: "Now tell me something good."

Ann Japenga is a freelance writer who covers emotional wellness and health issues for WebMD and Health magazine.

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