How being ‘grateful’ or ‘processing the positives’ helps your psychological wellbeing
The way in which we think is so important! Our experiences in life are not about reality. What I mean by this is that we are not actually experiencing ‘reality’ as such, but reality filtered through our beliefs systems and thinking styles. Someone who feels powerful and capable, is positive and resilient and has high self-esteem will view a particular situation very differently to a person who feels powerless, is negative and has low self-esteem.
One thinking style, which can contribute to better psychological health, is displaying gratitude. Gratitude or gratefulness could be described as being glad or appreciative of benefits and positive outcomes in life. Research supports the notion that this positive mental attitude can promote wellbeing. Emmons and McCullough (2003) found that:
There do appear to exist benefits to regularly focusing on one’s blessings. The advantages are most pronounced when compared with a focus on hassles or complaints, yet are still apparent in comparison with simply reflecting the major events in one’s life, on ways in which one believes one is better off than comparison with others, or with a control group. In Study 1, we found that a weekly benefit listing was associated with more positive and optimistic appraisals of one’s life, more time spent exercising, and fewer reported physical symptoms. In Study 2, self-guided daily gratitude exercises were associated with higher levels of positive affect.
Studies have even suggested that in some very traumatic and unpleasant situations people are often able to find positives and that this helps them to recover and thrive. Parry and Chesler (2005) for example interviewed childhood cancer survivors and found that a majority found some positives in their experience of having had cancer. Carver and Antoni (2004) found that women with breast cancer who saw positives during the year after diagnosis had better psychological outcomes 5-8 years later. A study of US soldiers (Wood et al., 2011) observed that those who found benefits from their combat experiences were less likely to suffer from PTSD and depression afterwards. Some studies have suggested that finding positives is linked to physical as well as psychological health. For example, a review by Bower et al. (2008) described how finding benefits in relation to a range of illnesses, including heart attacks, HIV/AIDS and cancer, has been linked to better health and survival rates.
So how can you learn to display a grateful or positive attitude towards life? I have developed a unique psychological training programme, the Thrive Programme, which helps people to train themselves to be the very best they can be. It enables people to understand the importance of their cognitive processes and to see how particular unhelpful beliefs and ways of thinking can lead to the formation of many symptoms and problems, including anxiety, depression, phobias and immune system issues. Thrive encourages individuals to challenge their current unhelpful ways of thinking and then to develop helpful beliefs, thoughts and psychological tools, which will enable them to flourish in life.
Within this programme, one simple technique my clients are shown to use is ‘processing the positives’. Some people just don’t notice that they have lots of little positive experiences each day. Others diminish the positive things that happen to them and think about them in a powerless way (normally because they have many limiting beliefs about themselves). This effectively means that they receive little or no psychological benefit from the experience at all; they might as well never have experienced it. The following exercise helps people to make sure that they are recognising and processing all of their day-to-day positive experiences, helping to create a positive thinking style, build high self-esteem and a sense of personal power:
• The first thing I want you to do is to make a list of ten of your recent positive experiences. The best way to do this is to make your list on your mobile phone, so that you can easily carry this list around with you for the next few weeks and remind yourself of your experiences several times each day.
• Several times each day, I want you to read through your list, spending about 30 seconds thinking about each experience. As you think about each one, remind yourself why it was a positive experience, remember how it felt and what you thought at the time.
• If your positive experience was something that you achieved, like cooking dinner, you can also make sure that you think about the experience in a powerful way. Make sure that you remind yourself that YOU achieved it.
• Going through all ten experiences should only take a few minutes to complete. You want to look through your list as often as possible: when you wake up in the morning, before you get out of bed, during coffee and lunch breaks at work, when you are sitting on the toilet (you’ve got nothing better to do for five minutes, and you always have your phone on you!), when you are relaxing in the bath, before going into a meeting, before writing a report, and before going to bed! At the very least, you want to look at it 5 times every day.
• Once you have something else to add to your list, i.e. when you have another positive experience, add it as number 1. Then everything else moves down the list one place, with the old number 10 disappearing off the list altogether. It doesn’t matter whether you add three new positives each day or one per week, just add one when you have one.
This exercise forms just one small part of the Thrive Programme. The whole programme can be undertaken either by buying the ‘Thrive’ book on Amazon and working through it at home, or by visiting a Thrive Consultant. To learn more about the Thrive Programme, please visit www.thriveprogramme.org.
Bower, J.E, Low, C.A, Moskowitz, J.T, Sepah, S, and Epel, E (2008). ‘Benefit Finding and Physical Health: Positive Psychological Changes and Enhanced Allostasis.’ Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 223–244
Carver, C.S and Antoni, M.H (2004). ‘Finding Benefit in Breast Cancer During the Year After Diagnosis Predicts Better Adjustment 5 to 8 Years After Diagnosis.’ Health Psychology, 23 (6) 595-598
Emmons, R.A and McCullough, M.E (2003). ‘Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life.’ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84 (2) 377-389
Parry, C and Chesler, M.A (2005). ‘Thematic Evidence of Psychosocial Thriving in Childhood Cancer Survivors.’ Qualitative Health Research, 15 (8) 1055-1073
Wood, M.D, Britt, T.W, Thomas, J.L, Klocko, R.P, and Bliese, P.D (2011). ‘Buffering Effects of Benefit Finding in a War Environment.’ Military Psychology, 23 (2) 202-219