The Edge: Peak Performance Psychology

Essentials of optimal performance

An Attitude of Gratitude

How to cultivate thanks-giving throughout the year

Shakespeare is credited, 400 years ago, with having invented half of the words that we use in English. Still, new words are being created all the time, even celebrated: The Oxford Dictionary recently anointed “omnishambles” as the (British) word of the year. (In our abbreviation-prone world, this becomes the WotY).

What about other words, like “stress” for example? We think of “stress”—a kind of shorthand for tension, worry, or emotional discomfort—as just part of our vocabulary. Its application to humans was actually invented only 60 years ago. Hans Selye, an endocrinologist, translated a concept from physics to the psyche and the soma.

Stress is a complex subject. As we use the term in everyday language, stress involves change and our reactions to change. Stress can be positive (what Selye called “eustress”) or negative (our more commonly recognized “distress”).

Rather than focusing on stress, though, I’d like to spend some time discussing what we can do about it. And here Selye comes in again. He said that the best antidote to stress—the best way to counteract it—is “an attitude of gratitude.” Being able to appreciate what is important to us is a truly valuable way of stepping back from the stresses we are experiencing and re-framing our thoughts and attention, our feelings and behavior.

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The field of “positive psychology” addresses our sense of well-being, what is most important to us and how we manifest those beliefs and values. Drs. Martin Seligman and the late Christopher Peterson (a wonderful thinker and teacher who died much too young just a month ago) developed a list of central values or as they describe them, “signature strengths” that each of us has and can cultivate. The Values in Action questionnaire [VIA Survey of Character Strengths] gives you an opportunity (at no cost) to discover which values are most important to you. You can enhance strengths that you already have and build on strengths that you would like to experience more often.

One of the most important signature strengths, the positive psychologists have found, is “gratitude.” Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky describes eight ways in which gratitude boosts happiness:

–Grateful thinking promotes the appreciation of positive life experiences

–Expressing gratitude bolsters self-worth and self-esteem

–Gratitude helps people cope with stress and trauma (the one we’re focused on today)

–Expressing gratitude encourages moral behavior

–Gratitude helps build social bonds

–Expressing gratitude helps us not make negative comparisons with others

–Practicing gratitude is incompatible with negative emotion; it diminishes emotions like anger, bitterness, or greed

–Practicing gratitude helps us remain aware of the present moment and not take things for granted

All well and good. You may be convinced that gratitude is a good thing—but what do you do with it? Positive psychologists have researched various ways in which you can express gratitude and have it be effective for you. Here are some examples:

• Keep a “gratitude journal” in which you regularly and systematically write down things that you noticed today for which you are grateful. Some people prefer writing down three things every day. Others find that making a weekly appointment with yourself to recognize gratitude is most effective. You can experiment for yourself. You are likely to find that you will be that much more attuned, throughout the day, to your own positive attitudes, beliefs, and feelings.

• Gratitude can be large and all-encompassing. It can be small and momentary. Some people prefer to designate a time when you will actively think about what you feel grateful for.

• Another possibility (and these are not mutually exclusive) is to express gratitude directly to someone else. This direct appreciation may be in the form of a letter. It may be a deliberate comment that you say to the person. Or it may be a combination: a letter that you write and then read directly to the person.

Where to start? How about your Thanksgiving meal? It’s a perfect moment, an unobligated opportunity to think back over the past year, to think forward to the next—and to appreciate the ways in which your life feels enriched and strong. We develop New Year's resolutions—why not a Thanksgiving Resolution—an attitude of gratitude?

The picture at the top of this blog? It’s a symbol of gratitude.

As always, I welcome your thoughts and comments. You can reach me through my website, www.theperformingedge.com.

Kate F. Hays, Ph.D., is a psychologist and author whose practice in Toronto, The Performing Edge, focuses on sport and performance psychology.

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