One way to cope with stress involves focusing on a surprising word – one you might not associate with managing worry of any kind. Perhaps as unexpected as flowers blossoming amongst weeds, that surprising word is gratitude.
Years ago, Martin Seligman – the scientist who gave us insights into stress in the first place – switched research gears. He decided to investigate not what made people anxious and depressed, but what made them positive and happy. He discovered numerous things that did both – positive and happy – even called his new research direction positive psychology.
One big finding from these efforts involves “gratitude”. Seligman discovered a number of behavioral tricks using the “attitude of gratitude” that proved remarkably effective as de-stressors. I wrote about two of these findings in the book Brain Rules for Aging Well.
The first is called the practice of “Three Good Things”. As the book describes, they’re divisible into these three good things. Seligman found the effects were so positively powerful that it actually helped treat patients suffering from clinical depression. It even had a “tail” benefit, with positive stress-reducing effects still evident nearly half a year afterward.
We are describing two “gratitude” protocols Marty Seligman put together that function as known stress reducers. The first one, quoted from my book Brain Rules for Aging Well, is a three-step process sometimes called “three good things.”
Recall three positive things that happened to you today.
Write them down. They can be smaller (“my husband brought me coffee”) or larger (“my nephew got into the college he wanted”).
Beside each positive event, describe why the good thing happened. “My husband loves me” might be written beside the coffee comment. “My nephew worked his butt off at school” might be written to the college comment.
Do this every night for a week.
The second protocol is called the “gratitude visit”. It’s also divisible into three steps:
- Find someone living who has meant a great deal to you.
- Write that person a three-hundred-word letter. Describe concretely what he or she did to make you want to pen the letter, and explain how their inputs still influence your life.
- Go visit the person – these days, I should say, visit them electronically, letter in hand. Read it aloud (without interruption), then discuss.
Seligman discovered such practices regularly boosted people’s feeling of happiness and well-being, a stress-reducing uptick still measurable 30 days later.
Why do these things work? No one really knows. We have some good ideas, though. When you’re stressed, your world closes around you, and after a while, all you see is your stress. Thinking of other circumstances in positive ways, and other people in positive ways – (that’s the beating heart of gratitude, after all), stops that preoccupation cold.
No longer are you living in a life filled with just worry and pain. Positive things also exist in your experience. Gratitude is one way to remind us there are other ways of looking at life. That growing up amidst the weeds, against all odds, are beautiful blossoming flowers.