the gratitude visit - 1/24/14
In today's selection -- a generation ago, the study of psychology was dominated by a focus on the abnormal and the negative. But more recently, there have been academic movements that have undertaken a data and research-based study of the positive dimensions of psychology, with a view toward prescribing activities that can be imbedded into a person's life and increase that person's structural level of happiness. One such effort comes from Martin Seligman and the University of Pennsylvania. The following is a sample of the type of activity this academic school of thoughts recommends based on its own systematic studies to deal with the increasing prevalence of depression in our society:
"Here's a brief exercise that will raise your well-being and lower your depression: The gratitude visit. Close your eyes. Call up the face of someone still alive who years ago did something or said something that changed your life for the better. Someone who you never properly thanked; someone you could meet face-to-face next week. Got a face? Gratitude can make your life happier and more satisfying. When we feel gratitude, we benefit from the pleasant memory of a positive event in our life. Also, when we express our gratitude to others, we strengthen our relationship with them. But sometimes our thank you is said so casually or quickly that it is nearly meaningless. ... Your task is to write a letter of gratitude to this individual and deliver it in person. The letter should be concrete and about three hundred words: be specific about what she did for you and how it affected your life. Let her know what you are doing now, and mention how you often remember what she did. Make it sing! Once you have written the testimonial, call the person and tell her you'd like to visit [him or] her, but be vague about the purpose of the meeting; this exercise is much more fun when it is a surprise. When you meet her, take your time reading your letter.
"You will be happier and less depressed one month from now. ...
"Here's a second exercise to give you the flavor of the interventions that we have validated in random-assignment, placebo-controlled designs: [The] What-Went-Well Exercise (Also Called 'Three Blessings') We think too much about what goes wrong and not enough about what goes right in our lives. Of course, sometimes it makes sense to analyze bad events so that we can learn from them and avoid them in the future. However, people tend to spend more time thinking about what is bad in life than is helpful. Worse, this focus on negative events sets us up for anxiety and depression. One way to keep this from happening is to get better at thinking about and savoring what went well.
"For sound evolutionary reasons, most of us are not nearly as good at dwelling on good events as we are at analyzing bad events. Those of our ancestors who spent a lot of time basking in the sunshine of good events, when they should have been preparing for disaster, did not survive the Ice Age. So to overcome our brains' natural catastrophic bent, we need to work on and practice this skill of thinking about what went well.
"Every night for the next week, set aside ten minutes before you go to sleep. Write down three things that went well today and why they went well. You may use a journal or your computer to write about the events, but it is important that you have a physical record of what you wrote. The three things need not be earthshaking in importance ('My husband picked up my favorite ice cream for dessert on the way home from work today'), but they can be important ('My sister just gave birth to a healthy baby boy').
"Next to each positive event, answer the question 'Why did this happen?' For example, if you wrote that your husband picked up ice cream, write 'because my husband is really thoughtful sometimes' or 'because I remembered to call him from work and remind him to stop by the grocery store.' Or if you wrote, 'My sister just gave birth to a healthy baby boy,' you might pick as the cause 'God was looking out for her' or 'She did everything right during her pregnancy.'
"Writing about why the positive events in your life happened may seem awkward at first, but please stick with it for one week. It will get easier. The odds are that you will be less depressed, happier, and addicted to this exercise six months from now.