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Cultivating a Sense of Gratitude

Gratitude is the emotion we experience when we notice and appreciate gifts that have been given to us in our lives. These gifts are frequently thoughtful things others do for us, but they can really be anything that makes us stop and say, “I am so grateful for this!” You can appreciate the gifts of nature, be grateful for feeling good today, or just for being alive!

But gratitude is often overlooked in the fast-paced world of today. It’s easy to get lost in the hassles of our everyday lives and never pause to look at the big picture and realize there’s a lot to be grateful for. And although gratitude is an emotion, it can, through time, grow into a positive personal ethic. If we feel gratitude as an emotion, we feel it only briefly and not necessarily often. But if we integrate it into our value system, it becomes part of us and we feel it more often and more deeply.

However, that requires persistence and hard work, but we’re here to help! Today, you’ll learn about all the positive outcomes of gratitude, as well as how you can practice it to become a happier and healthier person.

Psychological benefits

Gratitude can be beneficial for our mental health in many different ways. First and foremost, it’s a good stepping stone for combatting – and preventing – depression and anxiety. [4] People who suffer from mild depression have said that when they feel as though they’re sinking, being grateful helps them feel they can survive and swim instead.

But besides that, gratitude can simply make us feel happier, more enthusiastic, and more optimistic about our present and our future as well. [3] People who tend to focus on all the gifts they’ve been given also tend to experience negative emotions like envy, sadness, or bitterness, less than those who focus on their problems. [3] This isn’t to say all our problems should be completely overlooked and expected to solve themselves; rather, we should start by being grateful for what we still have, before proceeding to work on the issues we’re facing.

Finally, gratitude is a very adaptive feeling when it comes to facing stressful situations. People who often feel grateful say they feel calmer and less stressed when it comes to difficult situations, compared to those who don’t practice gratefulness that often.

Interpersonal benefits

As we mentioned before, gratitude is often related to other people in our lives. Although we may feel grateful for life itself, we tend to appreciate the people we have in our lives and everything they are giving us wholeheartedly – all their help, love, and care. When we feel grateful about that, we start feeling loved and cared for, which further leads to us trusting other people and wanting to preserve our existing relationships, or even build new ones. [2]

Some say that gratefulness is the core of altruism. [2] If we feel other people have been kind to us and if we appreciate it, we’re more likely to help them out when needed, even if it can sometimes come at the short-term expense of ourselves. Through gratitude, we learn to let go of our fears of being hurt or used, and we start feeling good if we help others, just as we feel good when they help us.

Physical benefits

You may have now realized that gratitude can have mental benefits, but can you believe it also helps you be physically healthier? And it’s not just self-reports, either.  If you start feeling grateful often, people close to you are bound to start noticing both mental and physical differences in you. There are cyclical physical benefits to the immune system: gratefulness helps lower stress, which lowers blood pressure, too; having more balance in your body means your immune system will be stronger and thus you’ll be getting sick less often; being sick less often decreases your psychological anxiety, which lets you sleep better. Finally, all of this helps you look better and have more energy, which is very helpful if you’re having trouble convincing yourself to exercise. Of course, exercising helps the body, too. And it all starts with gratitude! [4] [3]

We can be very focused on what we don’t have – so much so that we forget about the things we do have. But after hearing of all the benefits gratefulness can give us, the question remains – how do we cultivate a sense of gratitude? How do we internalize it, instead of it being an emotion we tend to feel only once a year during Thanksgiving?

One thing you can do is keep a journal. [4] Writing in it every day might be a bit too much – you could get so used to writing gifts down that you start feeling indifferent towards them. Instead, write in it once or twice a week, or as often as you feel like – everybody is different when it comes to that.

What you should do is create a list of things you’re grateful for – family, friends, a wonderful day, that great new song you heard – anything that makes you happy. Simply think of all the things you have that are not really a default in life, as well as things you didn’t even have until recently.

Another useful thing you can do is help your community. You can volunteer or donate to the less fortunate.  Getting a sense of other people’s misfortunes and feeling you are helping someone makes you feel more grateful for the things you have in your own life. [4]

Finally, a simple meditation practice can help open your mind and make more room for gratitude. [4] Each person has their own preferences, and gratitude works best if they choose the practice that fits them best. So choose yours and ask yourself – What am I grateful for?

by Jelena Jegdić

 

References:

  1. Bartlett, M., & DeSteno, D. (2004). Gratitude and Prosocial Behavior. Psychological Science 17(4):319-25.
  2. Emmons, R., & Stern, R. (2013). Gratitude as a Psychotherapeutic Intervention. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 69(8):846-55
  3. Emmons, R., & McCullough, M. (2003). Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, No. 2, 377–389
  4. Sheldon, K. & Lyubomirsky, S. (2006). How to Increase and Sustain Positive Emotion: The Effects of Expressing Gratitude and Visualizing Best Possible Selves. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1(2): 73–82
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The Growth Mindset – The Power Of Yet

One of the more talked-about topics in psychology and especially in educational psychology is Carol Dweck’s idea of the “growth mindset”, a concept she discusses in her book Mindset: The new psychology of success. Growth mindset isn’t something that Dweck invented and is now teaching us all how to attain. It is a distinctive trait she observed in people who are happier and more successful, which led her to seek ways to help develop and nurture it in people who do not share this predisposition.

So what actually is growth mindset?

While working as a young researcher, Dweck noticed that some children face challenges in a much more “positive” way than others. They would say things like “Oh, I love a challenge” or “I expected this to be informative”, instead of having tragic and catastrophic thoughts when faced with difficulties. Dweck coined the term “fixed mindset” for children who shrink before obstacles, and “growth mindset” for those who seek challenges and become even more engaged when faced with obstacles. Of course, these two mindsets apply to us all, and it is important to note that whereas we can’t have a growth mindset in every area of our lives, we sure can try to develop it.

To show what growth mindset really is, let’s try to contrast it further with the fixed mindset. People with a fixed mindset think that their characteristics are carved in stone and can never be changed. They firmly believe that intelligence, creativity, and personality are things we are born with and can hardly be something we develop. People with a growth mindset believe we can cultivate these characteristics through effort and that the process of cultivating them is more important than the actual outcome. A fixed mindset, on the other hand, wants results right away and doesn’t care as much about the process as it does about the outcome. Of course, Dweck doesn’t deny that people differ from the get-go, but she claims that we can all “change and grow through application and experience” (Dweck, 2006).

Another thing that differentiates these two mindsets is how they perceive and react to failure. People with a fixed mindset are more likely to believe they can fail and that by doing so their abilities will be questioned. Just the act of hitting obstacles would prove to them that they aren’t capable of overcoming them. People with a growth mindset, on the other hand, don’t really see failure as on option – obstacles are just perceived as opportunities to improve and learn, and by being faced with them and, generally something new, we get smarter.

Dweck illustrates this difference further with an interesting remark about language and how we use it to rate success. She mentions how saying “not yet” to students instead of saying they failed a class is a much better way to show them that even if they have difficulties overcoming something now, the time will come when they will succeed if they continue tackling the obstacle from different angles. The use of “yet” shows that there is a learning curve, and points to the process, not the outcome. This also tells children that they aren’t being taught to learn simply for grades, but for their future and it encourages them to dream big and think about what they want to do with their lives, instead of on focusing only on what they are currently achieving in school.

This entire idea of the power of yet and growth mindset isn’t just something Dweck came up with and wrote overnight. She (and many others) actually did research and showed time and time again that if a growth mindset is encouraged, children earn better grades and achieve better results than they did before – even better than some of their peers from much more affluent schools, which shows that growth mindset is a great path to achieving a more equal education system.
This research illustrates two important facts about growth mindset: it does work and it can be developed. It is not something we are born with.

What is a false growth mindset?

Before we dive into the exciting topic of how a growth mindset can be developed, we need to do some myth-busting. As with any other trending topic in education, it is hard nowadays to avoid the words “have to”, “need to”, and “all” when reading about growth mindset. It is often declared that we should all have to develop growth mindsets because they are just so much better, which ignores the principle behind the concept. Firstly, a growth mindset isn’t something you can just achieve overnight. It takes a lot of work and develops over time. Secondly, it isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card you can use whenever you’re faced with difficulty. Dweck points out that we are a mixture of both growth mindset and fixed mindset, and at different times and in different areas of our lives either one can predominate.

Another point she makes is that people often claim they have a growth mindset when they actually don’t or use the concept of a fixed mindset to excuse why someone is failing when the only failure is actually not providing the context in which a growth mindset can be achieved. It is also easy to think that simply by encouraging children and praising their effort, we are developing their growth mindsets. It’s a bit more complicated than that – it is not just about praising, it is about praising the right way.

So how is a growth mindset developed?

Developing a growth mindset is a complex process, but it is not unattainable and can actually serve as a great first obstacle on which to practice our mindsets.

The main point that Dweck makes is that a growth mindset is developed through praise, but not the usual after-the-fact praise which focuses on outcomes, but the praise that focuses on the process of learning. This isn’t about blanketing children in praise for any of their efforts, but about praising the strategies they used and the entire process that leads to outcomes. A simple example of this would be saying “I love how you tried all these different strategies while solving this problem until you got it” instead of saying “Great job. I knew you’d get it, you are smart!”

That example showcases another point that Dweck makes; we should praise the process, not the abilities. Praising abilities encourages the fixed mindset that these things are set in stone, which definitely doesn’t promote change or development. Rather, it makes children think that what they can do is what they can do and the same applies for what they can’t do.

Another reason why Dweck insists “it is not the outcome, it is the effort that counts” is ineffective is because it lets students believe that if they try hard enough, they will succeed no matter their strategies. In effect, it can bring them to repeat the same futile strategies over and over again. On the other hand, insisting on the process or the use of multiple strategies until the obstacle is overcome, and praising that effort, teaches them that they need to change their strategies in order solve the problem. It also shows them they can use all the resources available and ask for help when they need it.

And finally, Dweck points out that even failure should be addressed as something that enhances learning. We can ask children “What is this teaching us? What should we do next?” instead of either praising the effort or protecting them by saying things like “Don’t worry, not everyone can be good in everything. You are not the only one that failed.” In both cases, we are developing a fixed mindset and letting children know that we believe they can’t do better, while a switch in mindsets would help them achieve so much more and help them in their future lives.

If you are already thinking of implementing these ideas while raising your child, there is more encouraging news. The growth mindset isn’t something we can start developing only in early childhood, Dweck says it is never too late for change, so why not try it on yourself, too, and see how it goes.

Resources:

  1. Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.
  2. Dweck, C. S. (2012). Mindset: How you can fulfill your potential. Constable & Robinson Limited.
  3. Dweck, C. S. (2014). Developing a Growth Mindset.
  4. Dweck, C. S. (2016). What Having a “Growth Mindset” Actually Means.
  5. Gross-Loh, C. (2016). How Praise Became a Consolation Prize.
  6. Romero, C. (2015). What We Know About Growth Mindset from Scientific Research.
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COME TO THE DARK SIDE, WE HAVE EMOTIONS

By Anja Anđelković & Dunja Stojkovic

“Stay positive” and “cheer up” are among the most common phrases of our time, as if it’s now socially unacceptable and “wrong” to feel any other emotions but joy, happiness, and gratitude for what we already have. Showing up for work a bit cranky these days for whatever reason can instantly give you the reputation for being a grumpy, demotivating person, and being in a bad mood for a couple of days can have even more serious effects. The pressure isn’t only to hide certain emotions, but not to feel them at all. We have planners, posters, and even pillowcases with messages such “smile and the world will smile back at you” or “think positive!”, and as if this weren’t enough, there are people reminding us that some feelings are just not worth paying attention to or, for that matter, not feeling at all. This attitude isn’t only annoying to those of us tired of hearing such things, but it can be frustrating and dangerous. Bottling up emotions isn’t necessarily the greatest thing to do for our mental health.

ALL EMOTIONS ARE CREATED EQUAL

To find out why we even have these feelings that are now deemed inappropriate, let’s look into why we have them and how they have survived over time.

It is thought that there is only a limited number of basic, universally recognized human emotions and scholars still argue about the exact number, but the most common classification identifies six: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise [1]. If you examine these closely, you will notice that only one of them, happiness, is exclusively pleasant, while surprise can go both ways. So when we try to ignore unpleasant feelings, we’re basically trying to ignore a whole bunch of our basic emotions and we deprive ourselves of a common human experience. These emotions don’t exist just to aggravate us; they were essential to our evolutionary development and helped ensure our survival as a species. They have purpose and meaning. Emotions help us adapt to problems instinctively, and they serve as instant motivators for our behavior. For example, without the emotion of disgust, we would constantly drink spoiled milk or eat rotten food. Other than that, they color our memories and make them easier to access and serve as a driving force for our future behavior: we try to maintain pleasant emotions and avoid unpleasant ones. This doesn’t mean bottling them up and pretending they don’t exist, but rather trying not to get into too many situations that might give rise to them: we felt disgusted while tasting spoiled milk, so we try very hard to avoid feeling that emotion ever again [5]. Of course, it is impossible to avoid all unpleasant emotions as life is full of loss, problems, downfalls, and missed opportunities, so the key is to understand the reason why we’re feeling a certain way and learn how to deal with those feelings.

Other than their function in aiding our survival as species and helping us adapt to new situations, emotions play a huge role in our communication with others. As we interact with other people, emotions serve as signals for how we are feeling, what our intentions are, the relationship we have with the person we’re talking to, and so on. By being this signal, they evoke reactions from others which, in turn, serve as triggers for behavior [5].

Culture, of course, has always played a huge part in how these functions of emotions are manifested [5]. We still hear people saying how boys shouldn’t cry or how girls should never show anger. These tired old sayings are perfect examples of stereotyping but they also show us how our culture influences our emotional expression and decides which emotions are ideal to have and which aren’t. It might sound as if we are slaves to our cultural background and that isn’t far from the truth but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We couldn’t live in groups without any norms and expectations; the problem is when those expectations become extreme and harmful. For instance, it wouldn’t be possible to live in harmony in a world where everyone expressed their anger in destructive ways, going around vandalizing their neighborhoods but expecting people never to express or even feel anger at all is also harmful and has serious consequences for each one of us.

NEGATIVE CAN BE POSITIVE

When learning mathematics, children find the “two negatives make a positive” concept useful. With emotions, you don’t even need two negatives to make something useful. Just as negative numbers are also real numbers, “negative” emotions are real emotions and it is not only acceptable but natural, to feel them [2]. Therefore, we need to learn how to embrace these unpleasant emotions as a natural and vital part of human experience. In fact, the classification of emotions as positive and negative is completely unnecessary and misleading. Emotions can be useful or not, but there is no reason to divide them into those “good to have” and those we should avoid at all cost.

How exactly are unpleasant emotions natural and useful when they not only make us feel bad but also make others look at us in a different light? Firstly, if we stripped our lives of any unpleasant emotion, we would be basically canceling out a big part of our emotional spectrum. If you think: “Oh well, I don’t mind canceling something out as long as it makes me feel good”, think again. It is practically impossible to live without any distress, so when we think we’re canceling emotions out we are more likely just suppressing them, and it has been proven that when we conceal distress we feel emotionally worse in the long run and end up being less effective and productive [4]. Conversely, accepting and acknowledging the intricacy and complexity of our emotions can prove to be a path to good mental health [7].

So far we’ve established that unpleasant emotions are a natural part of human experience and had an important evolutionary function, but you may still be wondering how useful they are now. It is important to understand that unpleasant emotions coexist with pleasant ones, and both serve as signals of where we are in life and where we should be headed [7]. They are also the principal motivators for change. If we work hard enough to suppress these emotions, we’ll never do anything to rectify the very situation that is causing our dissatisfaction, because we rationalize “why to mess with a winning formula?” or we are actually too scared to change the status quo [2]. This doesn’t only apply to individuals – emotions can be incentives for much bigger changes. Just think of all the people protesting around the world because of various injustices and how they probably felt before they decided to take action.

There are also more specific ways in which unpleasant emotions can be useful. For instance, anxiety can make us problem-solve more quickly in situations where there is a risk of danger and guilt can make us more responsible and help build our moral values [4]. Of course, the key is not to get too carried away with these emotions, since that is when they can become unhealthy. The same goes for sadness: it is natural to feel sad about all sorts of things or to grieve after a loss, but it is when sadness becomes a permanent state of mind without any apparent cause, that it can become harmful.

WHAT TO DO WITH ALL THESE FEELINGS

Instead of always bottling up and trying to ignore unpleasant feelings, it would be smart to first try to acknowledge how you feel without trying to rectify things instantly and stay positive. This isn’t only a useful way to evaluate where you are emotionally, but it will prevent those unpleasant emotions from intensifying. Trying to suppress emotions forcefully can exacerbate and complicate them in the long run [6]. While working on this step, keep in mind that these feelings are natural and nothing to be ashamed of.

While being aware of unpleasant emotions is a great start and it is sometimes enough to acknowledge it and let it pass, it is also important not to fall into the trap of dwelling on these feelings and drowning in those thoughts without trying to solve the cause of the problem [3]. In order to detangle your emotions, it can be helpful to start journaling. It’s a great way to self-reflect and gain some insight into your problem from a different perspective, as things often seem different when they are put down on paper [7]. Another way to shift your perspective is by confiding in someone else, whether it be your partner or a close friend.

If you still feel down and aren’t sure how to deal with your emotions or the circumstances that are causing them, keep in mind that there is no shame in asking for professional help and that by doing so you are actually helping yourself and making a huge step in the right direction. Talking with someone we trust can help us learn how to acknowledge and express all of our emotions without feeling like the world around us is crumbling and it can be a great way to learn how to cope with all our emotions, as we’ve learned it is impossible to avoid them altogether.

References:

  1. Burton, N. (January 7, 2016). What Are Basic Emotions.
  2. Costa, D. (September 28, 2017). The Benefits of Negative Emotions: 3 Keys to Wellbeing.
  3. David, S. (September 6, 2016). Why You Should Embrace Your Darker Emotions.
  4. Gregoire, C. (November 11, 2014). The Importance of Negative Emotions.
  5. Hwang, H. & Matsumoto, D. (2017). Functions of Emotions. In R. Biswas-Diener & E. Diener (Eds), Noba textbook series: Psychology. Champaign, IL: DEF publishers. DOI:nobaproject.com
  6. Newcomer, L. (March 27, 2015). Why Positive Thinking Doesn’t Always Work.
  7. Rodriguez, T. (May 1, 2013). Negative Emotions Are Key to Well-Being.