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The Virtual Gratitude Visit (VGV): Psychodrama in Action

The Virtual Gratitude Visit (VGV)

The research on gratitude keeps demonstrating how powerful a positive intervention of having gratitude in our lives can be. To acknowledge someone for being in your life is one of the most dynamic ways to increase your wellbeing and the wellbeing of others. This exercise works best if you write it down, and even better if you can deliver a letter of gratitude to the person involved. Here's how it works.

Think of a person who has been a positive person in your life, but with whom you are no longer involved.  Write out a letter of gratitude for the positive features of your relationship.

If it is possible an appropriate, meaning that it would not cause harm or embarrassment or upset to the other person, find them. Track them down and read them the letter. This is the classic version.  But what if the person isn't available. What if they have passed on? Group therapy and psychodrama may be a help.

The gratitude visit (Seligman, Steen and Peterson, 2005) is one of the best known and most quoted of the positive psychology interventions. The intervention is simple: People are asked to deliver a letter of gratitude to a person who had been particularly kind to them, but who they never properly thanked.  This has had positive effects, with greater scores on happiness and lower scores on depression, for a month following the exercise. Yet I believe this is only the tip of the iceberg of what can come from a gratitude visit, particularly if it is virtual rather than in vivo. Psychodrama (Moreno & Fox, 1987; Moreno & Jennings, 1953) is an experiential form of therapy and theory originally developed by Jacob Moreno.  It is a widely employed therapeutic model, which has a variety of therapeutic uses from educational role-playing through trauma work (Tomasulo, 1998). The gratitude visit lends itself to psychodrama when the person you wish to extend your gratitude to may be unavailable, or deceased, and may even be used on a fictional or historical character. In fact, based on some new research in the Journal of Positive Psychology (Rosmarin, Purutinsky, Cohen, Galler, & Krumrei, 2011), it is possible the VGV may be effectively done with God.

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Using this technique, a person would be asked to write a letter of gratitude to someone who isn't available for direct contact. Two chairs would be arranged, one for the writer (the protagonist) and the other, empty chair for the unavailable person (the auxiliary position).  The protagonist arranges the chairs in a way that symbolically depicts the relationship:  Are the chairs close? Far apart? Side by side? One behind the other?  The chairs' arrangement sets the emotional tone for the encounter.

The protagonist then sits in his or her chair and reads the letter that has been prepared for the person symbolized by the empty chair.  Following the completion of the reading, the protagonist would reverse roles and become the auxiliary. By becoming the auxiliary, the person would respond as if the letter had just been read to him or her.

Following this, the auxiliary role would be relinquished, and the protagonist would return to the original chair and respond to the auxiliary's empty chair.  This ends the enactment.

If this were done as part of a group, the group members would share with the protagonist what it was like to witness this encounter. In an experiential group setting, this would most likely lead to others doing such an enactment.  Finally, the protagonist would share with the group what it felt like to engage in the process.

Using the above format, there is evidence to suggest that gratitude toward God (religious gratitude) is a powerful mediator between religious commitment and gratitude. Rosmarin et al (2011) collaborated to apply an evidence-based approach to religious vs. non-religious gratitude.  They asked whether gratitude to God is better for well-being than generalized gratitude. The study looked at the relationship between dimensions of gratitude and measures of religious commitment and mental and physical well-being.                   

The authors, like other researchers, found that gratitude was significantly correlated with religious commitment.  But these researchers also found that the relationship between these two variables was fully mediated by having gratitude directed toward God.  In other words, gratitude is more potent when you have both religious commitment and your gratitude is directed specifically toward God (Tomasulo, 2011).              

Through an online survey, the researchers looked at 405 adults of varying religious backgrounds and used gratitude questionnaires that measured both religious and non-religious expressions of gratitude.  These results were then compared to measures of religious commitment.  (Religious commitment was determined by a person's degree of belief in god, importance of religion, and religious identity.)  Happiness, satisfaction with life, positive and negative affect and physical and mental health were measured using well-known scales or adaptations of them.                                                                                      

What the research found was that general gratitude was predicted for all the outcome variables.  This means that gratitude in general, as other studies have shown, works very well. The degree to which a person is religiously committed was found to actually enhance gratitude's effect.  As the authors put it, "we propose that religion facilitates gratitude through a religious lens" (p. 393).

In this way a VGV with God thanking him for his grace may be enacted psychodramatically. This would combine one of the most successful experiential techniques with perhaps the most effective form of gratefulness.

References

Moreno, J. L., & Fox, J. (1987). The essential moreno: Writings on psychodrama, group method, and spontaneity Springer Publishing Company.

Moreno, J. L., & Jennings, H. H. (1953). Who shall survive? Beacon House New York.

Rosmarin, D.H., Pirutinsky, S., Cohen. A.,Galler, Y., & Krumrei, E.J. (2011). Grateful to God or just plain grateful? A study of religious and non-religious gratitude. Journal of Positive Psychology, 6(5), 389-396.

Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410.

Tomasulo, D. J. (1998). Action methods in group psychotherapy: Practical aspects Taylor & Francis.

Tomasulo, D. (2011). Can God and Gratitude Help Your Mental Health?. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 16, 2011, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2011/12/11/can-god-and-grat...

Daniel J. Tomasulo, Ph.D., TEP, MFA, is a licensed psychologist specializing in group psychotherapy and psychodrama.

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