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Why Gratitude Makes Us Happy

Dr. Laurie Santos, Professor of Psychology at Yale University, explores how we can Grow in Happiness.
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<v ->We’ve learned what we can do</v> about the sucky parts of our mind. But if we harness those and we deal with them, what should we actually be looking for? What’s going to make us happy or put a different way, what should we want, but don’t often want, we talked about what we do want, what we shouldn’t want, now, what should we want, but we don’t want? Or put differently, what should we be spending a lot of our time and energy on, but we’re not? Spending a lot of time and energy on worrying about jobs, worrying about salary, definitely worrying about grades. What are you not worried about right now that’s really affecting your happiness?
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Like what is going to do it? And now we get to jump to that because we skipped all the other part of the psychology. We’re just jumping right in. Super awesome. Okay, so first thing is to remember how we figured this out. We did lots of studies where we found these people, these elusive, super happy people. And we had said, okay, what are these super happy people doing? And then we got hints from just what they’re doing. And then we did experiments to say, is that really true? Could one of us do that same thing and get happy? And in all the cases, the answer is going to be yes.
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So what are the things that super happy people do that we could be doing ourselves? And we heard a little bit about this one the last time, but the first thing that we could be doing, something we should seek out to make ourselves happier is taking time to experience gratitude. You’ve seen definitions of gratitude, a bunch, but here it just is again, in case you missed it, it’s this positive type of emotion where you’re recognizing and appreciating what you have in life. And it has these two parts, two important parts when you do it, part number one is that you have to recognize the thing you’re like, oh my gosh, I can walk out of here on two legs.
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I’m healthy enough to do that today. My life is awesome. And then you think realizing that this is a gift and you think of someone to thank for it. You all thank my mom, who gave birth to me. I wouldn’t even be here without her. I might thank God, or thank a religious figure or thank my husband for putting up with me and not like, you know, breaking my legs, I’ve been so annoying with this course. Like lots of people have helped me have this altruistic gift.
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And I’m going to realize that it’s not just me, it’s other people too, those two parts together, that’s gratitude and what we’ve seen a little bit in practice, although you haven’t seen the data yet, is that in fact, this stuff helps. And we know this from one study by Sonia Lyubomirsky, who just tested the simple thing you did for your rewirement. Is it the case that just taking time to experiencing gratitude, jotting those things down helps you?
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And so she did this over a six week period where she gave participants different conditions, some wrote down what they were grateful for once a week, some wrote down what they were grateful for three times a week, and some did nothing just due to control. And she measured well-being before and after those six weeks. And the question is, does this bump up happiness? And as you read briefly in her article, a couple of weeks back, when you ask if it increases subjective wellbeing, you find that it does. So here’s the control’s happiness over six weeks, happiness in general, on average, if you don’t do anything is going down.
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Here’s what happens when you do gratitude either once a week or three times a week, you get a significant bump for doing it three times a week, and you get an even more significant bump for doing it one time a week. Some of you saw this and asked, why was I torturing you by making you do it every day for a week? And I was torturing you because there’s different data suggesting that if you do something a lot, it turns into a habit. And my guess is that even those of you who are trying to do it every single day for a week, probably forgot a few days.
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So I was giving you extra medicine, ‘cause I knew you’re going to forget and stuff, but it turns out you don’t have to spend that much time on it just once a week, taking the time can give you a nice bang for your buck in terms of your change in subjective wellbeing. So that’s doing your gratitude list, but there’s a more powerful gratitude thing that you can do. And we are working up to it so that you have it at the end of the course, which will matter for you the most as you’re going into finals. And that is verbally expressing your gratitude to someone. You heard from Dr.
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Emmons, that this is a really powerful way to have gratitude affect you deeply, but we are going to do it in the way that the data suggests is the most powerful way to do it, which is what’s known as a gratitude visit where you don’t just like stop someone on the street and say, thank you. You really put some time in to experience it and tell them how you feel. And that is what Seligman and colleagues looked at. He developed this intervention known as the gratitude visit, where you’re going to kind of walk up to somebody and talk to them. And here’s the prompt, this is what you’re going to do for one of the last rewirements.
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You have to in the next week, sit down and write a letter of gratitude to someone who thanked you. Somebody who’s been especially kind to you, but you never properly thanked and then you deliver that to that person like live. And in the best case scenario, you read it to them. And you say, I know, I know, I know it’s embarrassing, but I just want to, just let me do this. I’m just going to read this to you and then you just see what happens. And what the data shows is that this is one of the most powerful interventions in the moment to increase your happiness.
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but also over time to increase your happiness because here’s what Seligman found in a big study, looking at these interventions over time. Here’s what looks like pretests, before you do it, the white bars are when you do the gratitude visit, here’s immediately after, that’s a big increase in happiness. It’s probably a bigger increase than we’ve seen in any of the other things, but it doesn’t just happen, like, all right, I did the letter that felt good. You actually get sustained increases in your happiness, one month later. This isn’t one month of doing gratitude visits every week. This is just one gratitude visit one time, one month later, you’re still feeling happier.
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So, what we’re seeing is that gratitude is super powerful. Like why is it working so well? Like we heard from Dr. Emmons a little bit about why it’s so powerful, but in the context of the course, you’ve seen some hints, like what’s gratitude doing that makes it so powerful from the perspective of all those reasons why our minds suck, all those reasons why we’re not enjoying the things that we could be enjoying? And what we see when you look and think about how gratitude works is you realize like, wait a minute, what gratitude is doing is it stopping hedonic adaptation. I have this moment where I recognize like, wait a minute, I can walk, like, that’s super awesome.
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Like I hadn’t noticed that I could walk. I had been completely adapted to it, I’ve been walking all my life. But now when you stop and you focus on it, you’re like, that’s amazing. You can snap out of your own hedonic adaptation. And that means you can use gratitude as a powerful strategy to make you not adapted to all the stuff we want to keep enjoying in our lives. For example, marriages, I kept doing a little star when I talked about marriages, I say, marriages don’t make us as happy as we often think. And that’s because we usually get adapted to them. You saw all these hedonic adaptation curves where year one and two, it’s great.
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And then after that you get kind of bored. Can you use gratitude to pop out of that? And that is what Barton and colleagues actually looked at. They tried to see whether or not you could do this with gratitude. And they did that by asking, okay, if we look at all the different things we can use to predict marriage quality, what’s one thing that consistently predicts that your marriage is better? And what they find in their study, is it spousal gratitude? Is it how grateful are you for your spouse? How much do you express that gratitude regularly?
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If you do that, it is a protective force against adaptation in your marriage, but it’s also a protective force against other bad stuff that can happen in your marriage. They looked at whether or not other marriage problems could be alleviated by just having gratitude. And the one they focused on was poor communication. If your spouse tries to talk to you and you’re like, I’m not going to hear that and you walk away, like spouses differ in how much their communication works, how much they yield when their partner wants to talk. They put those people in different bins. If you’re good at that or bad at that.
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And then they said, because those things we know, predict divorce, those are bad things in life when you don’t talk to your spouse, it often predicts to the worst, they asked, can gratitude save a marriage that’s going through that? Can they save you from your own communication problems? And so here’s what they looked at. This is just looking at male subjects here. They looked at whether or not you are low, moderate or high on this, which is like when the wife demands to talk, the husband withdraws, so it is kind of a measure of bad communication problems. That leads to what we’re seeing on the Y axis, which is divorce proneness.
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So the more you do that, the more prone you are to divorce, can gratitude help? Well, if you divide the different couples into whether they’re high gratitude or low gratitude, here’s what you find. If you’re a low gratitude couple, this is really bad. You know, communication problems can lead to divorce, but if you’re high gratitude, then you seem to be protected. Even if you’re like really crappy at communication, you have some protective value. And that’s true, not just for women, but for men, sorry, not just for men, but also for women on a slightly different measure, withdrawal. You’re seeing again that the high spousal gratitude is having this protective effect to protect you against this stuff, why?
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Because you’re not getting adapted, you’re like, oh, my husband sucks at communication. But like I do really appreciate him. It can protect you from the things you would normally get adapted to. It doesn’t just work for marriage, but it also works for adaptation on your job. Why we don’t like our jobs, we just get used to it, get used to our salaries. We stopped liking it anymore. Can gratitude help here and can it help you as a manager, thinking about the performance of your employees? This is what Grant and Francesca Gino and colleagues looked at. They looked at employees who worked in a kind of not great work environment. One that runs you down a lot.
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These are folks who work a call center, trying to fundraise for the university. Some of you might’ve had these jobs, you know, this is tough. You keep calling people and they keep rejecting you. And it’s kind of like, eh, the question is, if your boss expressed gratitude to you, would it help? Would it make you feel better about your job? Would it increase your performance? And so they just did a really simple manipulation. They had half of the folks who worked at this call center, just hear the following thing from their supervisor. At the end of the shift, they said, look, I’m really grateful for your hard work. We really sincerely appreciate your contributions to the university.
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Like, thanks so much. Like, that short, does that affect performance? And what they find is that when you do that gratitude manipulation, fundraisers increase their number of calls by 50%. So you’re not paying your workers extra stuff. You’re not giving them more vacation time. You’re just telling them, thank you. And then all of a sudden you’re bumping up performance by as high as 50%, crazy, crazy stuff. So this gratitude is an extra powerful force because it breaks up adaptation. It kind of kills it. It pops you out of that, and you’re like, wait, I really love this thing that I’ve been super bored with for a long, long time.
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But gratitude works, not just because it breaks up hedonic adaptation, what we’re going to see later, as we see the other things that we should be worrying about to make us happy is that gratitude is a kind of meta reason for that. That’s the second reason gratitude is so good. It’s kind of a meta strategy for doing the other stuff. We’re going to see that the act of expressing gratitude is a way to be kind to somebody, it makes people feel good. It’s a way to increase social connection. If you’re expressing gratitude to people, you have to talk to them like it’s going to be getting you to do all the other stuff that helps you be happy.
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And it’s going to be as you’ll see a little meta strategy for keeping us happy.

One key to happiness? Appreciating the good in our lives that we may have started to take for granted.

Laurie Santos, Professor of Psychology at Yale University, explains how gratitude can prevent hedonic adaptation and promote happiness in this lecture.

Did any of Dr. Santos’s lecture feel especially meaningful to you? What’s something important to you that you might take for granted?
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