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Gratitude is good for you

Giving thanks could help to lift your spirits, says David Servan-Schreiber

by Psychologies

There is a wonderful moment when you’re writing a book, when there’s nothing left to do except write the acknowledgements.

It’s by far my favourite part, and I often look forward to it — like a distant goal — during the long months of writing. When I finally get there, it means that everything has been said, all the ideas explored, the statistics quoted, the references listed. The abstract world of concepts and all those stories about the past fade away, and their place is taken by something alive and present: the bonds that tie me to other people — everyone who’s been part of my story, who has enriched my life. Over the past 10 years, the US school of positive psychology has explored the ways in which we can construct happier lives for ourselves, rather than focusing on reducing our level of suffering.

One of the methods most often recommended is to keep a diary, and jot down at various times whatever has brought us pleasure. These are usually the simplest things — a dish turning out well, a ray of sunlight catching you as you cycle along, a friendly smile at the supermarket check-out. The simple act of noting down these positive experiences enables us to focus on what makes us feel good, improving our mood and sense of wellbeing.

For Professor Martin Seligman, a leading proponent of this school of psychology, there is an even more effective exercise than the diary: he recommends writing a letter, thanking someone for what they have brought to your life. This is an exercise in courage — the courage to let your feelings take over, so that your thanks are expressed with your heart, rather than just words. You also have to tell a story: reminding the person who was there for you in your moment of need exactly what he or she did, and how it helped. You might write, for example, ‘I was at rock bottom. I had put everything into passing that exam and I failed it. You took me off to your place in the country for the weekend. You listened to me for hours, you told me about your own moments of failure when you were my age, you pointed out the strength and courage I’d had. You restored my self-confidence. Without your encouragement, I would never have re-sat the exam. I’ve been meaning to tell you for ages how much what you did meant to me. And I just want to thank you.’

I worked for a time in Pittsburgh with a Native American doctor, who was also something of a shaman. He used to tell a tale about a wise old Indian, who explained to his grandson that within each of us there are two wolves locked in combat. One wolf represents anger, jealousy, pride, fear and shame; the other stands for gentleness, kindness, gratitude, hope, happiness and love. Anxiously, the small boy asks him: ‘And which wolf is stronger, grandpa?’ The old Indian replies, ‘The one you feed.

More inspiration

Read Cheryl Rickman on giving thanks on LifeLabs