Count your blessings … but not all the time

by on August 20, 2014 · 1 Comment POSTED IN: HR Cafe
pat on the back

Because the name of this thing you’re reading is the HR Cafe Talent Development Blog, we feel some obligation to tell you most weeks about how you can train and develop employees and managers.

But this time, I felt like giving a different kind of tip — about developing yourself, specifically your personal happiness. (The method I’m going to allude to also works for employees and managers, of course, if you’re ever talking to them about happiness!)

There’s a psychology professor named Sonja Lyubomirsky who specializes in the study of happiness, and specifically in how people can choose and leverage their activities so as to maximize how happy they feel.

‘Gratitude journal’
She and some of her graduate students at the University of California/Riverside conducted an experiment in which participants were directed to keep what the researchers called a “gratitude journal.” These folks were asked to come up with five events in recent days for which they were thankful, and record them. It was a slightly more sophisticated form of “counting your blessings,” as our mothers used to admonish us to do. The participants did this for six weeks.

Perhaps somewhat unsurprisingly, the researchers found that when they tested participants for levels of happiness, they found that there was indeed an increase in happiness compared with the subjects’ level prior to the activity. (In other work, Lyubomirsky defines happiness as characterized by frequent positive emotions, infrequent negative ones, and a high level of satisfaction with one’s life.)

But there was one somewhat more surprising caveat: Those who kept the gratitude journal just once a week — on Sunday night, as it happens — were the only ones who got happier. Those who did the activity three times a week — on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays — exhibited no increase in happiness.

Why? Lyubomirsky postulated that people who did the thankfulness exercise too often got bored with the whole thing, negating any positive effects. The once-a-week blessings-counters, by contrast, apparently continued to find the exercise fresh and meaningful.

Different strokes
There are various ways you, or the people around you, can regularly express gratitude. You can do it on paper and in private, as Lyubomirsky’s subjects did, or you can do it orally and in public, or you can choose some other combination of paper/oral and private/public. Whatever you’re most comfortable with.

The key, the professor says, is to do this in some regular way, and also to bear in mind the broadest and most useful definition of gratitude: “A felt sense of wonder, thankfulness and appreciation for life.” That phrase comes from Robert Emmons, another prominent researcher about gratitude, and it very well sums up the way contented people feel.

You can cultivate this sense, Lyubomirsky says. Now that’s something right there to be happy about.

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1 Comment on This Post

  1. Scott
    August 20, 2014 - 1:15 pm

    Interesting. I wonder about the opposite. It’s only my personal observations but it seems like many people don’t get bored with being unhappy. Human condition? Just easier to recognize unhappy things in life?

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