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What You Tell Yourself Impacts Who (and How) You Are

What we tell ourselves and how we perceive the world determines how we are.

If we have a roof above our head, food to eat, are educated enough to read this article and have access to a computer and the internet, we have received more opportunities, material goods, and education than most of the world's population. However, burdened with the problems that we inevitably face in life, we often fail to remember the blessings.The holidays, for example, can be stressful: financial concerns, family tensions, loneliness, travel, organizing... While we may look forward to some parts of the festivities, there are others that lead to so much tension that we are unable to enjoy the process. The reason for this stress may be the Negativity Bias and Habituation, our tendency to weigh the negative more heavily than the positive. However, research by Shelley Gable and Jonathan Haidt suggests that we actually have three times more positive experiences than negative! What we tell ourselves and how we perceive the world therefore literally impacts both who we are and how we are.

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The Impact of Gratitude

The health benefits of feeling grateful for your blessings.

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The Negativity Bias or Why We Focus on What's Wrong

Research by Roy Baumeister suggests our perspective is biased toward the negative and that, for our minds, bad is stronger than good. We are more likely to pay attention to and remember negative situations, criticism or losses than to remember positive events, praise or gains. It sometimes can take just hearing one word from someone for our whole day, which may have started out perfectly fine, to be spoiled. Baumeister and others believe that this tendency to give more weight to the negative may have helped our species survive by highlighting potential dangers to avoid. However, in our current time and age, our negativity bias is often no longer appropriate and may lead to increased stress and a skewed vision of reality. 

Habituation or Why We Forget What's Right

According to research on the hedonic treadmill, we receive an increased boost of happiness when wonderful new events happen (like entering a new relationship, buying a new car or receiving a promotion) but that, over time, these events lose their ability to bring us renewed joy because we get accustomed to them. As a consequence, we often fail to appreciate that which we have.  We tend to be grateful for what we have only once it is gone: It often takes getting sick to gain a greater appreciation for our health, losing heat in our homes (like after a natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy) to fully realize how blessed we are to have radiators, or to move to a new town and feel lonely to value the family and friends that we may have taken for granted previously. 

How can we change these tendencies? With just a little awareness and the cultivation of gratitude.

A Powerful Way of Seeing Ourselves & Our Lives: Gratitude

Recall a moment when you were feeling grateful. You may have received help from someone, been overwhelmed by the love in your life, or simply been touched by the beauty and warmth of a beautiful summer's day. When we feel grateful, the Negativity Bias automatically releases its grip. Rather than focusing on all the things that are going wrong in our lives, we remember the many blessings that surround us. Similarly, gratitude counters Habituation: when we feel grateful for someone (e.g. our mother or spouse for the care they have provided), we experience renewed love and joy at their presence in our lives.  Research has even shown that gratitude is linked to decreased envy and materialism which makes sense: once we begin to appreciate what we have in our lives, we are less insecure about what we don't have and may have less need to grasp for more.

Work by Michael McCullough and Emmons in numerous studies (such as this one) have shown that in children and adults, gratitude has been shown to:

• increase social connection - which studies show is essential for health and well-being (see this post on connecting to thrive)

• increase altruism - which is a strong predictor of happiness (see this post on compassion and happiness)

• improve optimism and positive emotions which have also been linked to increased well-being, greater creativity, better relationships, and longevity

• decreased envy and materialism 

• improved health and well-being for people suffering from physical ailments (neuromuscular disorder, in one study)

When the Negativity Bias occurs, closing our eyes and counting our blessings can help give us a reality check. If we are alive, chances are a great many things are working in our favor. Similarly, remembering to reflect on our lucky stars may help counter Habituation so we can keep celebrating all of the ways in which we are blessed. 

Sure, there will always be difficult situations in our lives and plenty to grump about. However, we can either let these situations control the state of our mind and spoil our day or take charge of our own well-being by remembering to smile at all that's right. The situations may not change, but we will.

A Few Ways to Cultivate Gratitude

Though Thanksgiving day only comes around once a year, cultivating gratitude can be of tremendous benefit. The following two exercises do not take much time but can lead to tremendous results, according to a number of research studies (such as this one)

• Count Your Blessings: Whether you do so by writing lists, writing in a journal, or reflecting on your way home from work, bring to mind all of the people, things, achievements and environments that you are grateful for.  Notice all of the things that happen, each day, to support you: from the bus driver to the janitor at your workplace, the cash register attendant to your best friend, each person, in some way, is helping you.

Say Thanks: We often forget to tell the people closest to us how much we appreciate their support, help and affection. Take a few minutes out of each day to express your gratitude: write a letter to an old teacher or mentor, send your mom flowers, or write your colleague a recommendation on LinkedIn.

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To stay updated on the science of happiness, health and social connection, see www.emmaseppala.com. Watch Emma's TEDx talk for a summary of her work.

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 © 2012 Emma Seppala, Ph.D. Feeling it

Emma Seppala, Ph.D, is Associate Director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University. 

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