Gratitude seems to be on everyone’s lips these days, and not just because of the holiday. We are urged to keep gratitude journals, write letters of gratitude and deliver them on gratitude visits, and find ways to integrate gratitude into elementary school curriculum, and all for good reason. Being able to feel and to express gratitude has been shown to make us both subjectively happier and mentally healthier (Seligman, Steen, Park & Peterson, 2005). But does gratitude practice work for everyone?
A study published earlier this year by Chen, Chen and Tsai (2012) in the International Journal of Psychology explored "boundary conditions" for gratitude, conditions that might impede its effectiveness in promoting well-being. Using a sample of Taiwanese college students (median age of about 18 1/2 years) and a definition of gratitude by McCullough et al as a "general tendency to recognize and respond with grateful emotion to the roles of other people’s benevolence in the positive experiences and outcomes that one obtains" (as cited in Chen, Chen & Tsai, 2012, p. 382), the researchers found that subjects who were ambivalent about emotional expression were less likely to experience the improved emotional well-being that gratitude is supposed to bring.
What does it mean to be "ambivalent over emotional expression"? Laura A. King (1998), psychology professor at the University of Missouri, describes it as "the experience of conflict over one's style of emotional expression, regardless of the style itself" (p. 753). Someone who is reserved may be entirely comfortable with her relative minimal expressiveness and experience little internal conflict, in which case she would not have much ambivalence. However, if she is reserved because she feels inhibited and would like to be more expressive, she would experience conflict about her style of emotional expression and thus would be ambivalent. Likewise, a gregarious person who is spontaneous with expressions of feeling could be ambivalent if he afterwards regrets or doubts those expressions and feels conflict about them, or he may feel no conflict and thus not be ambivalent. The presence of internal conflict, not the lack of expression, is what determines the degree of ambivalence.
Inner conflict over how or whether we express our feelings has repercussions that go beyond our inner experience. When we effectively communicate our feelings, including gratitude, to those around us, we set the stage for "reciprocal altruism," making it more likely that friends and family will reach out to us in turn. Those of us who are ambivalent about our own emotions also can have difficulty understanding and correctly identifying the emotional expressions of others, which only further complicates current and future relationships. Ambivalent people "tend to 'read too much emotion' even in simple emotional situations, which leads them to mistrust the expressions of others" (Chen, Chen & Tsai, 2012, p. 389). Because ambivalence can lead to an incorrect interpretation of and response to events, simply feeling gratitude isn't enough if the expression of gratitude is confused or inhibited.
In the case of those who are ambivalent about their expression of emotion, then, gratitude exercises may not always work well to improve emotional well being. What can be done to make gratitude more effective for the emotionally ambivalent? Simply being aware of one’s own ambivalence is a good start, understanding that the conflict we feel about having expressed emotion is a sign of ambivalence and not something that everyone experiences. Chen, Chen and Tsai also discuss a promising technique called psychological displacement writing (PDW). In PDW, participants write diary entries, first using first-person pronouns, then from a second-person perspective, and finally from a third-person point of view. For the emotionally ambivalent, this kind of multiple-perspective taking may be more useful than and help to prepare the groundwork for more traditional gratitude work.
Does a practice of gratitude help you to feel better? Or might you need first to address an underlying issue of emotional ambivalence?
King, L. A. (1998). Ambivalence Over Emotional Expression and Reading Emotions in Situations and Faces. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 74(3), 753-762.
Lung Hung Chen, Mei-Yen Chen & Ying-Mei Tsai (2012): Does gratitude always work? Ambivalence over emotional expression inhibits the beneficial effect of gratitude on well-being, International Journal of Psychology, 47:5, 381-392.
Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. The American Psychologist, 60(5), 410-421.