Emotional intelligence is a concept that has been on the rise for a couple of decades. But it has existed as an idea since the 1960s. It promotes the idea of an alternative intelligence to IQ, creating the idea that book smarts and socially normative views of intelligence may not be all there is to our brains and life.
So, what is emotional intelligence? Is it important? Is it necessary? Can it be built? Do you have it, and if you do, what can you do with it? And if you don’t, is that a bad thing? Read on to find out what emotional intelligence is and three ways to use it!
WHAT IS EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE?
Let’s look at the hallmarks that define this concept.
1. DEFINING EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE
Emotional intelligence, often shortened to EQ or EI, refers to the ability to use, handle, perceive, manage, and understand different emotions. This idea applies to both yourself and others. Its use as a term surged in popularity in the mid-1990s. More recently, it has been touted as a highly positive and valid form of intelligence.
Someone with high EQ would presumably handle awkward situations, social environments, and interactions with others with grace. Someone with low EQ may struggle to understand why someone is sad, angry, or happy, even if the reasons seem perfectly obvious to others. This is a common experience of neurodivergent individuals who struggle with social cues or “normal” emotional affairs.
Having low EQ isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, most people do want to increase their emotional intelligence. Indeed, there are many positive things that research has associated with high emotional intelligence, such as:
Better job performance
Improved leadership skills
Higher levels of positive thinking
Better mental health
Positive influence over others
There has been a fair bit of controversy about emotional intelligence over the years, with questions about whether or not emotional intelligence is valid when compared to or used in tandem with the Big Five personality traits or standard IQ. Luckily, research has found that emotional intelligence maintains its validity even with those factors accounted for.
2. COMPONENTS OF EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE
Emotional intelligence seems like a pretty abstract concept, but there’s more theory behind it than you may think. Experts have even been able to properly identify emotional intelligence features across different people, leading to what we know about the composition of EQ.
Daniel Goleman is credited with coining the term “emotional intelligence,” and his book about his research and theories on the subject identified five components of emotional intelligence. Here are those components:
Self-regulation allows you to take note of your emotional responses to things and ensure that they are appropriate and proportionate to the inciting incident. It means being aware of the consequences of your actions, being able to pause before deciding on behavior, and pushing yourself to bring out your own best.
Emotional intelligence does have to make you focused on yourself and your actions, but that doesn’t mean it makes you self-centered. Those with high EQ can put themselves in the shoes of others and understand where they come from, even if they’ve never been in that situation before. You don’t judge people, using your own experiences as a guide.
Being aware of your motivations, patterns, and thoughts is a crucial part of emotional intelligence. It allows you to be mindful of how your actions affect the world and the people around you, as well as yourself. You know what you feel, you know how to understand what you think and their triggers, and you’re under no illusions about your strengths and weaknesses.
· SOCIAL SKILLS
You don’t need to be a social butterfly to have the social skills necessary for emotional intelligence. Mostly, this component means you can work with other people, are capable of conflict resolution, and develop positive communication techniques like active listening and welcoming body language. You would likely also know how to build relationships with others.
Emotional intelligence requires a degree of intrinsic motivation – a desire to do well and improve for yourself and your development. Your idea of success is defined by you and you alone, not by what other people try to push you into. You’re more likely to seek out goals that improve your personal growth over material goals, though there’s also nothing wrong with seeking material goals at the same time.
If you’re looking to build or increase your emotional intelligence, these are the five factors you’ll likely want to focus on improving the most. Although some people believe that emotional intelligence is innate and unchangeable, it can certainly be built and improved on, like any other skill or form of intelligence.
It is worth noting that – as is with all research and theories – there are some criticisms of Goleman’s explanation of these five components. As such, it is advised that you do some of your research or seek a professional opinion as you try to build your EQ!
THREE WAYS TO USE EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE
Here are three ways to put EI to work to improve your life.
1. STOP BEING REACTIVE
It’s easy to immediately follow an impulse to react to the situations unfolding around you, whether they’re positive or negative. In cases of conflict, adverse events, or unexpected life changes, you may jump straight to a defensive mode instead of pausing to think about things.
You can use your emotional intelligence to control these impulses. Instead of reacting to things, respond to them. Use your knowledge of actions and consequences, your empathy skills, and mindfulness of your emotions to take a pause and think of how to respond to different situations.
The goal of any adverse event is to resolve it. While you can’t always tackle these events with positive thinking, you can certainly think about how to best move forward instead of simply reacting based on your emotions. With your EQ, you can consciously adjust your response to fit the situation and work towards solving problems instead of responding to them and accidentally exacerbating them in the process.
2. LEARN ABOUT OTHERS
High emotional intelligence allows you to learn more about the people around you more quickly than those with low emotional intelligence. Better yet, the more you know about others, the more likely you are to develop even more emotional intelligence! Here are some ways to learn about others:
· UNDERSTAND WHAT OTHERS WANT AND EXPECT
Different people are driven by different things and want other things out of their world and goals. Understanding those driving forces and desires is crucial to gaining a complete picture of the people around you. It can show you how to best communicate with, relate to, and appeal to those individuals. If you’re in a leadership position, this will also help you work better with your team and cooperate with those around you!
· ASK ABOUT THEIR EXPERIENCES
Emotional intelligence can drive you to be genuinely curious about other people, their lives, and what they’ve been through. Use that to your advantage by showcasing your genuine interest and asking questions. Demonstrate that you’re genuinely interested in hearing about other people and what advice they have to share, and you’ll get to expand your horizons and impressively widen your worldview.
· PRACTICE ACTIVE LISTENING
If you want to get people to talk to you, you have to show that you’re engaged, and emotional intelligence equips you with the ability to be! But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go the extra mile to make people feel heard. Use open body language, turn towards the people that speak, make good eye contact, and indicate your understanding.
3. FOCUS ON “WE” INSTEAD OF “ME.”
As human beings, we’re all in the same boat – just trying to navigate life in the best way possible. Use emotional intelligence to keep that in mind as you go through your daily experiences and interact with the people around you.
When you connect to other people, it becomes evident that things aren’t really about you. Besides that, they’re certainly not about you versus them. Instead, there’s a collective sense that everyone in the world is in this life together.
People with low emotional intelligence may struggle to be there for other people or charitably view others because they consider their fate and life entirely isolated from those around them. Your EQ can remind you that this is not the case.
We’re all on a ship sailing through the tumultuous sea of life. If someone’s side of the ship gets damaged, you don’t shrug and say, “that’s your side, so I’m staying out of it.” Instead, you recognize that we all need to work together and keep each other afloat and healthy. Otherwise, we all go down!
This is, of course, not to say that you should feel responsible for other people and their decisions. Instead, it is a reminder to use your emotional intelligence to form team-like bonds with others instead of competing with the people around you or judging them for their struggles.
Of course, this also goes for accepting criticism. Many people struggle to accept criticism in their lives. Don’t let that be you! You can learn so much from the feedback that the people around you provide, so don’t react to any constructive statements that sound bad at first. Put on your positive thinking, absorb what’s being said, and use that information to improve.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON SOME WAYS TO USE EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE
Emotional intelligence is a valuable tool, and it can make your life, interactions, and career better in many ways. It’s a great skill to build and showcase, and it can help you build stronger, healthier relationships with others and feel more fulfilled with your situation.
If you have low emotional intelligence, don’t feel discouraged! People can improve their emotional intelligence to some degree, at least on a cognitive level, and you certainly can, too.
If you struggle with some aspects of emotional intelligence, you can also communicate your difficulties with it; for example, difficulty comprehending social cues or emotions, as a symptom of neuro-divergence, is something that the people in your life can learn to accommodate.
The bottom line is that emotional intelligence, while necessary, doesn’t have to be something innate, and it’s okay if you have trouble with some of its components. Learning to work on the things you can change, especially with a therapist or similar professional, works wonders!
Having a Strong Life Purpose Eases Loneliness of Covid-19 Isolation, Study Finds
Those Who Felt Their Life Was Guided by Meaningful Values or Goals Were More Willing to Engage in Covid-19 Protective Behaviors
Summary: Why can some people weather the stress of social isolation better than others, and what implications does this have for their health?
New research found that people who felt a strong sense of purpose in life were less lonely during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Why can some people weather the stress of social isolation better than others, and what implications does this have for their health? New research from the Communication Neuroscience Lab at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania found that people who felt a strong sense of purpose in life were less lonely during the COVID-19 pandemic. Did they achieve less loneliness by flouting public health guidance? No. Although lonelier people were less likely to want to follow public health guidance, people with a stronger sense of purpose also expressed more willingness to engage in social distancing, hand washing, and other COVID-19 protective behaviors.
Purpose in life, or a sense that your life is guided by personally meaningful values and goals – which could involve family ties, religion, activism, parenthood, career or artistic ambitions, or many other things — has been associated in prior research with a wide range of positive health outcomes, both physical and psychological.
“In the face of adversity, people with a stronger sense of purpose in life tend to be more resilient because they have a clear sense of goals that motivate actions that are aligned with personal values,” says Yoona Kang, Ph.D., lead author and a Research Director of the Communication Neuroscience Lab. “People with strong purpose may also experience less conflict when making health decisions. We felt that the COVID-19 pandemic was an important context to test whether purpose in life relates to individuals’ willingness to engage in behaviors to protect themselves and others.”
Based on their prior research, Kang and her collaborators expected that people with higher sense of purpose would be more likely to engage in COVID-19 prevention behaviors than individuals with a lower sense of purpose. In order to test their theory, the researchers surveyed more than 500 adult participants to capture their levels of purpose in life, their current and pre-pandemic levels of loneliness, and the degrees to which they intended to engage in behaviors known to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
They found that higher levels of loneliness made people be less focused on protecting themselves from COVID-19, and more skeptical that behaviors to prevent COVID-19 would be effective. However, having a stronger sense of purpose was associated with lower levels of loneliness and a greater desire to take action to protect themselves from COVID-19. Those with a higher sense of purpose also expressed a stronger belief that COVID-19 prevention behaviors would work. Even when people who had a strong sense of purpose did report being lonely, they still felt strongly about taking precautions to prevent COVID-19.
“When faced with extreme loneliness and social isolation, like during the COVID-19 pandemic, wanting to connect with other people, despite the health risks, is a natural response,” Kang says. “And yet, amidst this drastic shift in social life, we found that people with a higher sense of purpose were more likely to engage in prevention behaviors. This is striking because it shows that purpose in life can empower people to make life-saving health decisions that protect their own health and those around them.”
Additionally, the researchers found that older people expressed less loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic than younger people. Kang sees this as a sign of the resilience of older adults, and she hopes to further study how to enhance purpose in life and resilience in aging populations.
“Having a stronger sense of purpose was associated with really important, positive outcomes across the lifespan,” says Emily Falk, senior author, Director of the Communication Neuroscience Lab, and Professor of Communication, Psychology, and Marketing. “Our upcoming work will test interventions to increase their sense of purpose, in hopes of bringing these benefits to more people.”
The study, published this month in The Gerontologist, is entitled “Purpose in Life, Loneliness, and Protective Health Behaviors during the COVID-19 Pandemic.” In addition to Kang and Falk, authors include Danielle Cosme, Ph.D.; Rui Pei, Ph.D.; Prateekshit Pandey; and José Carreras-Tartak.
Story Source: Materials provided by University of Pennsylvania. Original written by Ashton Yount. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
Journal Reference: Yoona Kang, Danielle Cosme, Rui Pei, Prateekshit Pandey, José Carreras-Tartak, Emily B Falk. Purpose in life, loneliness, and protective health behaviors during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Gerontologist, 2021; DOI: 10.1093/geront/gnab081
We All Face Trauma, Adversity and Other Stresses. Here’s a Roadmap for Adapting to Life-Changing Situations, and Emerging Even Stronger than Before.
The Road to Resilience
Imagine you’re going to take a raft trip down a river. Along with slow water and shallows, your map shows that you will encounter unavoidable rapids and turns. How would you make sure you can safely cross the rough waters and handle any unexpected problems that come from the challenge?
Perhaps you would enlist the support of more experienced rafters as you plan your route or rely on the companionship of trusted friends along the way. Maybe you would pack an extra life jacket or consider using a stronger raft. With the right tools and supports in place, one thing is sure: You will not only make it through the challenges of your river adventure. You will also emerge a more confident and courageous rafter.
What is resilience?
Life may not come with a map, but everyone will experience twists and turns, from everyday challenges to traumatic events with more lasting impact, like the death of a loved one, a life-altering accident, or a serious illness. Each change affects people differently, bringing a unique flood of thoughts, strong emotions and uncertainty. Yet people generally adapt well over time to life-changing situations and stressful situations—in part thanks to resilience.
Psychologists define resilience as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress—such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stressors. As much as resilience involves “bouncing back” from these difficult experiences, it can also involve profound personal growth.
While these adverse events, much like rough river waters, are certainly painful and difficult, they don’t have to determine the outcome of your life. There are many aspects of your life you can control, modify, and grow with. That’s the role of resilience. Becoming more resilient not only helps you get through difficult circumstances, it also empowers you to grow and even improve your life along the way.
What resilience isn’t
Being resilient doesn’t mean that a person won’t experience difficulty or distress. People who have suffered major adversity or trauma in their lives commonly experience emotional pain and stress. In fact, the road to resilience is likely to involve considerable emotional distress.
While certain factors might make some individuals more resilient than others, resilience isn’t necessarily a personality trait that only some people possess. On the contrary, resilience involves behaviors, thoughts, and actions that anyone can learn and develop. The ability to learn resilience is one reason research has shown that resilience is ordinary, not extraordinary. One example is the response of many Americans to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and individuals’ efforts to rebuild their lives after tragedy.
Like building a muscle, increasing your resilience takes time and intentionality. Focusing on four core components—connection, wellness, healthy thinking, and meaning—can empower you to withstand and learn from difficult and traumatic experiences. To increase your capacity for resilience to weather—and grow from—the difficulties, use these strategies.
Build your connections
Prioritize relationships. Connecting with empathetic and understanding people can remind you that you’re not alone in the midst of difficulties. Focus on finding trustworthy and compassionate individuals who validate your feelings, which will support the skill of resilience.
The pain of traumatic events can lead some people to isolate themselves, but it’s important to accept help and support from those who care about you. Whether you go on a weekly date night with your spouse or plan a lunch out with a friend, try to prioritize genuinely connecting with people who care about you.
Join a group. Along with one-on-one relationships, some people find that being active in civic groups, faith-based communities, or other local organizations provides social support and can help you reclaim hope. Research groups in your area that could offer you support and a sense of purpose or joy when you need it.
Take care of your body. Self-care may be a popular buzzword, but it’s also a legitimate practice for mental health and building resilience. That’s because stress is just as much physical as it is emotional. Promoting positive lifestyle factors like proper nutrition, ample sleep, hydration, and regular exercise can strengthen your body to adapt to stress and reduce the toll of emotions like anxiety or depression.
Practice mindfulness. Mindful journaling, yoga, and other spiritual practices like prayer or meditation can also help people build connections and restore hope, which can prime them to deal with situations that require resilience. When you journal, meditate, or pray, ruminate on positive aspects of your life and recall the things you’re grateful for, even during personal trials.
Avoid negative outlets. It may be tempting to mask your pain with alcohol, drugs, or other substances, but that’s like putting a bandage on a deep wound. Focus instead on giving your body resources to manage stress, rather than seeking to eliminate the feeling of stress altogether.
Help others. Whether you volunteer with a local homeless shelter or simply support a friend in their own time of need, you can garner a sense of purpose, foster self-worth, connect with other people, and tangibly help others, all of which can empower you to grow in resilience.
Be proactive. It’s helpful to acknowledge and accept your emotions during hard times, but it’s also important to help you foster self-discovery by asking yourself, “What can I do about a problem in my life?” If the problems seem too big to tackle, break them down into manageable pieces.
For example, if you got laid off at work, you may not be able to convince your boss it was a mistake to let you go. But you can spend an hour each day developing your top strengths or working on your resume. Taking initiative will remind you that you can muster motivation and purpose even during stressful periods of your life, increasing the likelihood that you’ll rise up during painful times again.
Move toward your goals. Develop some realistic goals and do something regularly—even if it seems like a small accomplishment—that enables you to move toward the things you want to accomplish. Instead of focusing on tasks that seem unachievable, ask yourself, “What’s one thing I know I can accomplish today that helps me move in the direction I want to go?” For example, if you’re struggling with the loss of a loved one and you want to move forward, you could join a grief support group in your area.
Look for opportunities for self-discovery. People often find that they have grown in some respect as a result of a struggle. For example, after a tragedy or hardship, people have reported better relationships and a greater sense of strength, even while feeling vulnerable. That can increase their sense of self-worth and heighten their appreciation for life.
Embrace healthy thoughts
Keep things in perspective. How you think can play a significant part in how you feel—and how resilient you are when faced with obstacles. Try to identify areas of irrational thinking, such as a tendency to catastrophize difficulties or assume the world is out to get you, and adopt a more balanced and realistic thinking pattern. For instance, if you feel overwhelmed by a challenge, remind yourself that what happened to you isn’t an indicator of how your future will go, and that you’re not helpless. You may not be able to change a highly stressful event, but you can change how you interpret and respond to it.
Accept change. Accept that change is a part of life. Certain goals or ideals may no longer be attainable as a result of adverse situations in your life. Accepting circumstances that cannot be changed can help you focus on circumstances that you can alter.
Maintain a hopeful outlook. It’s hard to be positive when life isn’t going your way. An optimistic outlook empowers you to expect that good things will happen to you. Try visualizing what you want, rather than worrying about what you fear. Along the way, note any subtle ways in which you start to feel better as you deal with difficult situations.
Learn from your past. By looking back at who or what was helpful in previous times of distress, you may discover how you can respond effectively to new difficult situations. Remind yourself of where you’ve been able to find strength and ask yourself what you’ve learned from those experiences.
Getting help when you need it is crucial in building your resilience.
For many people, using their own resources and the kinds of strategies listed above may be enough for building their resilience. But at times, an individual might get stuck or have difficulty making progress on the road to resilience.
A licensed mental health professional such as a psychologist can assist people in developing an appropriate strategy for moving forward. It is important to get professional help if you feel like you are unable to function as well as you would like or perform basic activities of daily living as a result of a traumatic or other stressful life experience. Keep in mind that different people tend to be comfortable with different styles of interaction. To get the most out of your therapeutic relationship, you should feel at ease with a mental health professional or in a support group.
The important thing is to remember you’re not alone on the journey. While you may not be able to control all of your circumstances, you can grow by focusing on the aspects of life’s challenges you can manage with the support of loved ones and trusted professionals.
APA gratefully acknowledges the following contributors to this publication:
David Palmiter, PhD, Professor of Psychology at Marywood University, Scranton, Penn.Mary Alvord, PhD, Director, Alvord, Baker & Associates, Rockville, Md.Rosalind Dorlen, PsyD, Member: Allied Professional Staff, Department of Psychiatry Overlook Medical Center, Summit, NJ; Senior Faculty, Center for Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis of New Jersey and Field Supervisor at the Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology, Rutgers University.Lillian Comas-Diaz, PhD, Director, Transcultural Mental Health Institute, Washington, D.C.Suniya S. Luthar, PhD, Teachers College, Columbia University, New York City, N.Y.Salvatore R. Maddi, PhD, The Hardiness Institute, Inc., University of California at Irvine, Newport Beach, Calif.H. Katherine (Kit) O’Neill, PhD, North Dakota State University and Knowlton, O’Neill and Associates, Fargo, N.D.Karen W. Saakvitne, PhD, Traumatic Stress Institute/Center for Adult & Adolescent Psychotherapy, South Windsor, Conn.Richard Glenn Tedeschi, PhD, Department of Psychology, University of North Carolina at Charlotte
We don’t have to have a ton of relationships, but we all need people in our lives who get us. Who’ve seen our freak flag countless times and love when it comes out.
People who tag us on memes that capture our spirit, or Tasty videos they know we’d drool over. People who text us with random pictures of bumper stickers or book covers or bath mats or beard accessories with a note that reads “Saw this and thought of you.”
We all need these kind of close connections to feel a sense of security and belonging in the world.
We need people who think of us, look out for us, accept us, bring out the best in us, and challenge us to be the best us we can possibly be. And we need to be that person for them.
It could be the family you were born into, the one that you chose, or the one that chose you after plowing down the big wall you erected to keep yourself safe.
Whoever makes up your tribe, and regardless of its size, these are the kinds of relationships that make everything else seem manageable.
Whether you’re having a hard day or a hard month or a hard year, a call or a hug from the right person can remind you that life really is worth living. And when things are going well, it’s all the more enjoyable for having people you love to share it with.
Most of us would agree that our relationships are the most important thing. That a layoff or lost opportunity can be tolerated so long as the people we love are healthy and safe.
And yet it’s all too easy to lose sight of the big picture when we’re knee-deep in the struggles of our daily lives. It’s easy to deprioritize the little things that keep relationships strong when we’re worried about our debt and our deadlines.
It’s human nature—our negativity bias: we’re more sensitive to what’s going wrong than what’s going right. It’s how we’re wired, a means to keep ourselves safe.
But life is about more than just being safe. Or at least I want it to be. I want to focus more on what I love than what I fear. I want to be proactive, not just reactive. I want to wake up every day and be the good that happens to someone else instead of just playing defense to prevent bad from happening to me.
Instead of focusing mostly on everything I want to gain or achieve, I plan to live each day with the following intentions in mind.
I intend to…
1. Be present.
I will put down my phone and focus fully on the person in front of me. My texts and emails will be there later. The person in front of me won’t.
2. Listen deeply.
Instead of plotting what I’m going to say next, or collecting mental buckets of sage advice I can’t wait to dole out, I will listen completely, with the primary goals of understanding and being there.
3. Speak truthfully.
Even when it feels awkward and uncomfortable, I will share what’s true for me. I won’t exclude the messy parts, no matter how tempting it may be to try to appear perfect. The jig is up—I’m not. Not even close! And neither are you. Let’s be beautiful messes together.
4. Accept fully.
I will see your quirks and edges and shortcomings and peccadillos and will accept them all as crucial parts of the complete package that is you.
5. Interpret compassionately.
Instead of assuming the worst, I will give you the benefit of the doubt, as I would want to receive it. I’ll assume you didn’t mean to be rude or to hurt my feelings. That it came out wrong, or you were triggered and reacting from a place of hurt, or you were simply having a bad day. And then I’ll stop assuming and ask to verify, “Is everything okay?”
6. Forgive often.
I will take every perceived slight or offense and put it through my mental shredder before I go to sleep each night. And if I can’t let it go, perhaps because it’s too big to simply discard, I’ll tell you how I feel and what I need so we can work through it together.
7. Appreciate vocally.
I will let you know that I admire how you always stick up for the little guy and love how you make everyone laugh. I will compliment you on your passions, your parenting, and how you exude peace, because you’re awesome and you should know it.
8. Give freely.
I will give my love, support, understanding, and well wishes; I’ll give things new and old that I think will be helpful. If there’s something you need that I no longer do, I’ll send it with a note that reads, “I thought you could put this to good use. And if not, sorry for sending you clutter!”
9. Remain unbiased.
I will put aside everything I think I know about you based on who you appear to be, and will be open-minded when you tell me or show me what you believe and what you stand for.
10. Love anyway.
Even if you’re stubborn or moody or judgmental, I will love you anyway. And when I’m stubborn, moody, and judgmental I’ll try to do the same for myself. I’ll try to rise above petty thoughts and sweeping generalizations and keep sight of who you and I really are: good people who are doing our best to navigate a sometimes-painful world.
Because we all stress and strain and struggle sometimes. We all get fed up, ticked off, and let down, and at times we all lash out.
In these moments when we feel lost and down on ourselves, it helps to see ourselves through the eyes of someone who believes in us. And it helps to remember we’re not alone, and that someone else really cares.
Someone who’ll stand by us at our worst and inspire us to be our best.
Someone who’ll sit on a roof with us and and talk about everything big or nothing important for a while.
Someone who might not always know which one we need, but who’s willing to ask and find out.
This is the kind of friend I want to have, and the kind of friend I want to be. Because life is all about people. And all people need a little love.
Despite aches and pains, the wisdom that comes with age can make you happier.
Despite more physical aches and pains as we age—the ‘paradox of aging’ suggests that older people are generally more comfortable in their own skin, feel better about themselves, and grow happier in their lives year after year…decade after decade.
Nora Ephron once said, “Looking back, it seems to me that I was clueless until I was about 50 years old.” As someone who just entered my sixth decade of life, I concur. The inherent wisdom that comes from life experience makes it easier to cope with the pitfalls of aging. Empirical evidence also suggests that lots of people get happier as they get older.
A new study by age researchers at the University of California, San Diego, reports that despite having more physical ailments, older adults living in southern California tend to be happier and have markedly better mental health than their younger counterparts.
For this study, senior author Dilip Jeste, M.D., Professor of Psychiatry and Neurosciences and director of the Center on Healthy Aging at UC San Diego, and colleagues collected data via phone interviews on the physical health, cognitive function, and other measures of mental health in 1,546 adults, ages 21 to 100 years living in San Diego county.
Jeste emphasizes that this study wasn’t restricted to psychological well-being, but included other markers of mental health. One caveat about this demographic—and the cross-sectional method of collecting information—is that these findings only provide a snapshot of a limited geographic area at one-moment-in-time and are not longitudinal.
The Wisdom of Aging Facilitates an Upward Spiral of Psychological Well-Being
The researchers found a substantial improvement to psychological well-being among older adults that followed a linear trajectory—which improved year after year once people got over the hump of the colloquial “midlife crisis.” The linear nature of the findings surprised the researchers. In fact, the oldest cohort in this study had mental health scores significantly better than the youngest cohort.
Across the board, the participants in their 20s and 30s reported higher levels of perceived stress and symptoms of depression and anxiety. Alarmingly, this period of early midlife was associated with far worse levels of psychological well-being than any other period of adulthood, which is cause for concern.
These findings turn conventional notions of aging upside down. Aging in the 21st century doesn’t appear to be an unavoidable process of physical and cognitive decline. In a statement, Jeste said, “Some cognitive decline over time is inevitable, but its effect is clearly not uniform and in many people, not clinically significant—at least in terms of impacting their sense of well-being and enjoyment of life.”
In terms of causation, the specific reasons for improved positive mental health in old age are difficult to pin down. That said, below are seven elements of wisdom that I’ve found make people happier as they age based on empirical evidence and life experience.
7 Elements of Wisdom for Aging Gracefully by Bergland
Stop holding grudges against yourself and others.
Embrace who you are, warts and all.
Vocalize your imperfections shamelessly.
Practice conscientious emotional regulation.
Stay even-keel via equanimity.
Apologize wholeheartedly for any wrong-doing.
Move on! Let go of negative emotions and regrets.
As we age, many people inherently learn the above elements of wisdom through life experience. That said, over the years I’ve found that having an itemized punch list of target mindsets and behaviors makes it easier to expedite your learning curve.
Conclusion: It Really Is “Getting So Much Better (All the Time)”
From a public health perspective, Jeste is concerned that the rates of psychological distress and mental illness in young people are rising at an alarming rate. Also, other studies have shown that mortality rates among specific middle-aged groups have skyrocketed in the past ten years. In a statement, Jeste concluded,
“Inadequate attention has been paid to mental health issues that continue or get exacerbated post-adolescence. We need to understand mechanisms underlying better mental health in older age in spite of more physical ailments. That would help develop broad-based interventions to promote mental health in all age groups, including youth.”
The latest research reminds us all that there is a light at the end of the tunnel for anyone in an earlier stage of life, or in midlife, who is feeling malcontent or suffering from depression. I’ve lived through this myself. As an adolescent—and again in my late 30s—I suffered major depressive episodes (MDE) that included suicidal ideation. Hang in there. I am living proof that it really does start getting better at a certain point in life. If you are suicidal, please seek assistance: <U.S.> http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ <Canada> https://www.suicideprevention.ca/need-help
Below is a passage I wrote for The Athlete’s Way over a decade ago—just months after getting through a harrowing MDE. This advice has continued to work for me over the subsequent years. If you are currently struggling with mental health issues, hopefully, these insights will be helpful for you, too.
“When life throws me a curveball, I have learned from experience to be proactive and reach out to friends and mental health professionals to help me through. When you are in the blackest of blackness, the light seems like it will never enter your brain again. But it will. The light will flicker again. That is the human spirit; it always, always comes back. I’ve been there myself. If you are depressed or suicidal do whatever you have to do to stay vital and get yourself back on track.
You were born to be alive. Don’t isolate. Reach out. Ask for help. There will be sunbeams in your soul again. Ride out the storm—but don’t do it alone. People will take care of you. Let them. And make a vow, when you’re back on top, to give something back.”
– Not Because You Will Benefit From It,
But Others Might
The world is currently in the midst of a pandemic where the most useful thing many of us can do is stay at home and keep away from others. Schools, restaurants, office buildings and movie theaters are closed. Many people are feeling disoriented, disconnected and scared.
At this time of soaring infection rates, shortages of medical supplies and economic downturns, there are also examples of people looking for ways to express their gratitude to those on the front lines of fighting the epidemic. In many European countries, for example, people are expressing gratitude for the work of the medical staff by clapping from their balconies. Recently, this same practice has migrated to New York City.
As psychology researchers, we have been working to study the connection between gratitude and well-being.
Gratitude and well-being connection
In 2013, psychologists Robert Emmons and Robin Stern explained gratitude as both appreciating the good things in life and recognizing that they come from someone else.
There is a strong correlation between gratitude and well-being. Researchers have found that individuals who report feeling and expressing gratitude more report a greater level of positive emotions such as happiness, optimism and joy.
At the same time, they have a lower level of negative emotions such as anger, distress, depression and shame. They also report a higher level of life satisfaction.
Furthermore, grateful individuals report a greater sense of purpose in life, more forgiveness and better quality of relationships, and they even seem to sleep better.
In short, grateful individuals seem to have more of the ingredients needed to thrive and flourish.
There are several plausible explanations for the apparent connection between gratitude and well-being. It may be that gratitude serves as a positive lens through which to view the world.
For example, grateful individuals may be inclined to see the good in people and situations, which may result in a more compassionate and less critical view of others and themselves.
Grateful individuals may also be naturally prone to forming mutually supportive relationships. When someone expresses gratitude, the recipient is more likely to connect with that person and to invest in that relationship in the future.
Gratitude exercises have weak effects
However, there is one important caveat to this research. It shows that gratitude is correlated with well-being, but it does not prove that expressing gratitude actually improves well-being.
Psychologists have conducted a number of experiments to see if giving thanks leads to greater well-being. For example, individuals may be asked to perform gratitude exercises at home and then report on their well-being afterward. These exercises include writing a thank-you letter or keeping a journal of things one is thankful for.
Several review papers over the past four years, including our recent paper, indicate that these gratitude exercises have fairly weak effects on well-being.
These review papers combine the findings from multiple different studies, which allows researchers to be more confident that the findings are consistent and can be trusted.
Researchers found that such gratitude exercises only increase happiness and life satisfaction a little bit. Similarly, the effect on symptoms of depression and anxiety was also small.
Express gratitude to help others
We are not suggesting that expressing gratitude has no value. Rather, we argue that gratitude should not be thought of as a self-help tool to increase one’s own happiness and well-being.
Instead, gratitude may be most valuable as a way of honoring and acknowledging someone else. Indeed, researchers have found that expressions of gratitude lead to improved relationships for both the one expressing gratitude and the recipient. The lead researcher of a 2010 study – psychologist Sara Algoe – concluded that for romantic relationships, gratitude worked like a “booster shot.”
During this global pandemic, perhaps it is more important than ever to express gratitude to the important people in our lives – not just loved ones, but the countless public officials, health care professionals and others who are fighting on the front lines.
April 2, 2020
Jennifer Cheavens Associate Professor of Psychology, The Ohio State University
David Cregg Doctoral Candidate in Clinical Psychology, The Ohio State University
Jennifer Cheavens receives funding from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
She is also under contract with Cambridge University Press and receives compensation for editorial duties from John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
David Cregg does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article,
and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
The Ohio State University / The Ohio State University provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation US.
20 Ways To Be A Happier Person In 2020, According To Therapists If you’re going to make a resolution for the new year, it may as well be improving your mental health.
Looking to make 2020 your happiest, most fulfilling year yet?
If your mental and emotional wellness took a backseat in 2019, there’s no better time than right now to prioritize it. (If anything, it’ll make the election year just mildly more bearable.) Your mood affects everything in your life ― your relationships, your work, your self-care ― so improving it should be at the top of your goal list.
That might feel like a huge and lofty task, but small, actionable habits can help you get there, according to experts. Below are the most common happiness tips therapists recommend. Maybe they’ll sound challenging or unrealistic (more on that later), but maybe they just might change your life.
1. Conquer one anxiety
Give yourself a motivational benchmark to start conquering your biggest fears this year.
“Single out the goal of selecting an anxiety that is holding you back, and thoroughly commit yourself to obliterating that fear,” said Forrest Talley, a clinical psychologist. “Hold nothing back in your assault; treat that fear as though it is enemy number one.”
Perhaps you’ve been worried about signing up for a half marathon. Maybe you’re afraid to reach out to book agents because you don’t want to be rejected. Perhaps you’re fearful of having a difficult conversation with a toxic friend or family member and you’re putting it off. Set the goal, pick a reward you’ll get when you complete it, then get to it.
“The thing to keep in mind is that very often happiness is found just on the other side of a doorway guarded by our anxieties,” Talley said. “And the new year is a great time to start kicking down some doors.”
2. Lock down a sleep schedule that works for you
You may think you’re doing OK on sleep, but take a closer look at your schedule. Are you really getting optimal hours? Are you maintaining relatively the same bed time every night?
“Getting a [consistent] good night’s sleep is vital; chronic sleep deprivation is a huge problem, especially for those who work late or are extremely busy,” said Joanna Konstantopoulou, a psychologist and founder of the Health Psychology Clinic. “It’s not just the 40-hour marathons without sleep which can be detrimental to your psychological health, but simply losing an hour or two on a regular basis can have a significant impact on your mind and well-being.”
That last bit is important. If you’re constantly shaving off an hour here or there ― thinking you can get by on five hours a night ― it’s time to reevaluate that sleep schedule.
“Start with small steps by giving yourself a sensible and realistic bedtime,” Konstantopoulou said. “Try to go to bed half an hour before your usual bedtime and stick to it. Evaluate this new habit every day by having a journal and writing down your progress.”
She noted that this new routine will improve your memory, reduce anxiety, and “transport toxins out of the brain” to potentially prevent chronic illnesses.
3. Find one small self-care act that works for you and prioritize it
Pick a you-centric activity and engage in it regularly, said Elena Touroni, co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic.
“The most impactful mental health goal a person can set is the commitment to balance workload and responsibilities alongside activities that bring them a sense of well-being and enjoyment,” she said. “When there is an imbalance in what we’re giving out to the world, and what we’re taking for ourselves, that’s when our psychological resources get depleted.”
Her suggestions to get you started? Try beginning each day with a five-minute mindfulness meditation session. Want to go further? “Go to therapy to unravel a lifelong pattern, get a personal trainer, or make time for reading,” she said. “This commitment can be broken down into specific and concrete goals, depending on your personal preferences, but it all comes down to making self-care a priority.”
4. Spend 10 minutes a day outside
Go for a walk during your lunch break, spend a few minutes drinking your morning coffee outside or pick up running. It doesn’t even have to be for a long period of time.
“This year, resolve to spend less time inside and more time outdoors in natural settings,” said Michael Brodsky, a psychiatrist. “Research in multiple countries show that spending time in green spaces can lift your mood and relieve anxiety in as little as 10 minutes.”
5. Regularly practice a simple mindfulness exercise
“Many of us spend our days worrying about the future or ruminating about the past, thus, missing a great deal of what is happening in the here-and-now,” said Anna Prudovski, the clinical director of Turning Point Psychological Services.
Making an effort to be more present “increases the sense of well-being, promotes vitality, heightens our awareness, helps train our attention, improves the quality of our work, and enhances interpersonal relationships,” she said. Sounds pretty nice, right? “Be more present” can feel a little vague, so here’s how you can get started:
Each day, spend five minutes noticing your surroundings and how you feel. Do this by naming five things you see, four things you can physically feel, three different sounds you hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. It’s OK if you point out something far away from you. Then take a second to label how you’re feeling in the moment (like, “I’m frustrated,” “I’m bored,” or “I’m excited”). This is known as a grounding exercise, which experts say helps with anxiety.
6. Say nice things about yourself
Roseann Capanna-Hodge, pediatric mental health expert and psychologist, suggested an adjustment to your everyday vocabulary, both in your thoughts and out loud.
“Instead of always focusing on the negative, flip your dialogue to only positive outcomes. For example, instead of saying, ‘If I get that job,’ switch it to, ‘When I get that job.’ Those subtle changes in using positive language helps to change your mindset to a glass half full instead of a glass half empty.”
You can also increase your positive thoughts by stating one thing you like about yourself when you look in the mirror each morning. Cheesy, but worth a shot.
7. Give up or cut back on one unhealthy habit
We know when things are bad for us, which can cause stress. You can curb that by reducing them or giving them up entirely, said Sarah C. McEwen, a cognitive psychologist. Think activities like high alcohol consumption or excessive caffeine consumption.
Getting those things in check “will all help to manage stress levels,” McEwen said.
8. Find a physical activity you love
“Exercise plays a large role in mental health,” said physician Jena Sussex-Pizula. “While studies are ongoing, a review article found consistent beneficial effects of exercise on depressive symptoms across multiple studies.”
How often? McEwen suggests 30 minutes a day if you can. “This [amount] has been shown to produce the most benefit for improving mood and reducing stress levels,” she said.
The most important part is finding something you enjoy. It doesn’t matter if it’s pilates, martial arts, spinning, running, dancing or lifting weights ― just make sure the activity is something that excites you.
9. Try meditation
Haven’t jumped on the bandwagon just yet? Now is as good a time as ever. McEwen suggests meditation for those who want to improve their level of stress resilience.
“A mindfulness meditation practice will have a tremendous positive effect longterm,” she said. “I recommend allocating at least 30 minutes daily, which can be divided into morning and evening.”
Feeling intimidated by the concept? McEwen suggested trying a local class or an app like Headspace, Waking Up or Insight Timer.
“Research has shown that the regular practice of meditation can actually improve your health because it lowers the negative effects of not only high cortisol, but also high cholesterol and high blood pressure,” she said. “Other great benefits of regular meditation include mental clarity and focus, improvement of memory and overall higher level of mental performance.”
10. Stop negative thoughts in their tracks
“Our thoughts are not always reality,” said Judy Ho, a clinical and forensic neuropsychologist and author of ”Stop Self Sabotage.” “And we need to get into the routine of challenging them and changing our relationships to our thoughts.”
You can do this by asking yourself a simple question when you’re beating yourself up. Next time you have a negative thought, ask yourself: Does this completely and accurately capture what’s going on?”
Ho said from there, you can transform the thought using one of two tactics. One is called “yes, but” and one is called “labeling.”
“‘Yes, but’ involves recognizing a not so great thing, and [adding] something that is positive or shows progress,” she said. “Example: I did eat three cupcakes while trying to cut down on sugar, but I have been doing a great job with healthy eating and can start fresh tomorrow.”
And as for labeling, try mentally recognizing or acknowledging that the thought you’re having is toxic. According to Ho, this “takes the wind out of the sails of a negative thought and reminds you that a thought is just a mental event, and nothing more.”
11. Invest in a quality relationship
“If you want to have good long-term mental and physical health, you need to first see if you have meaningful, loving relationships,” said clinical psychologist Kevin Gilliland. “Who knows you better than anyone and who do you know better than anyone? Have you invested in that relationship by staying in touch and talking on the phone (not just texting)? And when was the last time you got together?”
Gilliland suggests picking one person close to you this year, and planning to spend quality time together.
“If we’re not careful, we will end up giving our best in places that aren’t good for our mental health,” he said. “Study after study finds that loving meaningful relationships are good for our mental and physical health.”
12. Read self-development books
“Read at least one book on someone you admire, and how they have dealt with the struggles in their life,” Gilliland said. “There are a lot of ways to learn about your mental health, from therapy to self-help to the lives of other people.”
You can pick up many tips and find a lot of inspiration in these motivational books, whether they’re memoirs or expert-backed advice. Need a specific suggestion?
“I have so enjoyed Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography and recent album ‘Western Stars’ where he talks about his struggle with depression and family issues,” Gilliland said. “It’s powerful and encouraging … You can’t help but see yourself in some of his stories, he can paint with words like very few people can. It’s a wonderful way to learn about your mental health without feeling like its work.”
13. Cut back on your social media use
So often we view people’s highlight reels on social media. This can lead to feelings of inadequacy in our own lives, according to experts. And given that research shows spending too much time online is linked to poor mental health, now’s the perfect time to cut back.
“External validation is temporary; it’s difficult to maintain the pressure to chase ‘likes,’” said therapist Jennifer Musselman. “Build your self esteem from competence of something important to you, and by being of service to others.”
14. Set better boundaries
Did you find yourself feeling chronically overwhelmed and stretched thin in 2019? Time to reel that in and make more space for you by setting boundaries.
“This one is more important than people realize, and they have way more control than they realize,” Gilliland said. “If you don’t want to go, then don’t go!”
Consider: Is it something you think you “should” do? If so, then why? In the words of a popular therapist joke, stop should-ing yourself. Set those boundaries to thrive in 2020.
15. Make a progress list each week
Expecting perfection guarantees you’ll feel like a failure at least part of the time, and can lead to serious anxiety.
“Learn the art of progress, not perfection,” Musselman said. “We are setting ourselves up for failure from the get-go [when we expect] to ‘have it all’ perfectly balanced. In other words, we will always feel like we are failing.”
From “doing it all” as a mom to building your entrepreneurial business to perfecting your talent, it’s time to let go of that expectation that things are always going to be perfect. Instead, try writing down the incremental improvements you made each week. Celebrate small successes that eventually will lead to big ones.
17. Get a therapist if you’re able to do it
If you were trying to get in physical shape and had no idea where to start, you might turn to a coach or personal trainer. Mental health works the same way.
There are so, so many benefits to seeing a therapist. And there are affordable options, too: Attend group therapy at a local mental health center, seek free options in your community, opt for a sliding-scale psychologist, find a provider through your health insurance or try an app like Talkspace to get started.
“Getting a therapist in 2020 would be a good goal if you need a therapist and have been putting it off,” Talley said.
18. Write in a gratitude journal
Practicing gratitude “is so essential for a full and happy life,” Talley said.
Instead of allowing your brain to go to a place of anxiety and stress, Talley says to arm yourself with grateful thoughts. Writing them down helps.
“If you wake up and focus on that which you have to be grateful for, your brain becomes better at finding even more [gratitude],” Talley said.
19. Turn your phone off
It’s been shown in many studies that too much tech time can negatively impact mental health.
Become less available via text and email so you don’t feel emotionally tethered to your phone, and spend more time off your devices. Opt for screen-free activities ― especially at night ― that help you disconnect from certain social and work stressors.
“While it’s unclear if sedentary screen time is a marker for or risk factor for depression (as all that has been shown is a correlation), there appears to be a consistent association of increased screen time in patients with depression and anxiety,” Sussex-Pizula said.
20. Reduce food shame and stress through mindful eating
Have thoughts around food, calories, dieting, etc. been weighing on you in 2019? Lisa Hayim, a registered dietitian and founder of food therapy program Fork The Noise, said it’s time to kick this to the curb.
“When we feel nervous, scared, anxious, or even unsure of what to eat or how much, our stress hormones begin to fire,” she said. “Our sympathetic nervous system becomes activated, and we’re no longer making empowered decisions.”
Does this sound like you? Are you constantly thinking about what a food choice might “do” to your body?
“Breathe. Your body knows what it wants and how much it wants, when it wants it,” she said. Listening to it is called intuitive or mindful eating: enjoying whatever you want and taking cues from your body when it’s hungry and full.
“Decreasing stress around food choices is not just good for the body, it’s good for the mind and the soul,” Hayim said.
6 Things To Let Go Of
If You Want To Be A Tiny Bit Happier This Year
Examining the toxic thoughts and behaviors that you should kick to the curb and advice on how to do it.
Most people kick off January by creating resolutions that drastically aim to add healthy habits to their daily lives (which doesn’t always work, by the way ― and that’s OK). But sometimes the best thing we can do for ourselves is to let some things go instead.
“The new year offers a fresh opportunity, while the weight of the past keeps us in a place of inaction,” said Olecia Christie, a certified life coach and owner of Optix Communications in San Antonio, noting that it’s important to discern when to release the things that no longer serve our own growth and happiness.
With that in mind, here are a few things you should consider leaving behind in the new year, according to Christie and other experts:
Comparing your life to others’ on Instagram
In this era of social media, it always appears that everyone is living their best life — that is, everyone except you. Ibinye Osibodu-Onyali, a licensed marriage and family therapist at The Zinnia Practice in California, said you should remember that social media is a highlight reel. Comparing your daily life to a single picture capturing a perfect moment isn’t the best use of your time.
Instead, Osibodu-Onyali suggested engaging with the people you admire in 2020.
“Rather than spending so many hours per week scrolling mindlessly, begin to actually connect with people you admire on social media. Send them a DM, ask for advice, seek out actual mentorship,” she said. “You’ll be surprised how many new friends you will acquire just by reaching out, rather than being a jealous onlooker.”
Letting fear hold you back from something you want to do
Anthony Freire, the clinical director and founder of The Soho Center for Mental Health Counseling in New York, said in order to release fear, shame and guilt, you must first “shine a spotlight” on them.
“On your deathbed, you don’t want to be kicking yourself for not having completed your bucket list for any reason, but especially because of feelings like guilt, fear and shame — which are only problematic feelings because you’ve told yourself that you should feel that way,” he said.
Worrying about things you cannot control
It’s unrealistic to suggest giving up worry or stress entirely ― these feelings are a normal part of life. Instead, try to focus just on the worries you can take action on.
“Focus your thoughts on things you can change. When you have a list of worry thoughts, write out what you can change and what you can’t. Work on the situation that you can change, and just release the rest. It takes a lot of time and practice to learn this skill, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll find that you’ll worry less,” Osibodu-Onyali explained.
For some, this is easier said than done. If you find that you’re unable to manage your excessive worrying ― especially over things out of your control ― it might be worth seeking advice from a professional. This could be a sign of an anxiety disorder, which is a very real and common condition.
Old grudges or grievances
Research shows holding onto a grudge or anger for longer than necessary can be toxic for your physical and mental health. Right now is the perfect opportunity to work on letting go of some old baggage “by either working on repairing strained relationships or closing the chapter on relationships that cannot be salvaged,” Osibodu-Onyali said.
This doesn’t apply to people who have severely damaged or hurt you, but could be useful for someone you’ve grown distant with or just no longer envision as a healthy part of your life. You can either choose to move forward or let go.
“Although saying goodbye to a relationship can be tough, the closure can be very freeing,” Osibodu-Onyali said.
What other people think of you
There’s a saying that goes “what other people think of you is none of your business.” It’s important to know what your values are and to be grounded in them, so that you’re not swayed by the thoughts of others. Osibodu-Onyali said she often challenges her clients by asking: “So what if they don’t like you? What happens next?” She said more often than not, the answer is usually “nothing.”
“The truth is that the world doesn’t end and you don’t have to be liked by everyone,” she said. “Stick to your core group of supporters who truly love and respect you, and don’t spend time worrying about the people who don’t quite get you. If they don’t get you, that’s OK. You can’t be a part of every group.”
The need to be right in every conflict
We’ve all strived to win arguments; however, that can cause more stress than it’s worth. Freire said letting go of the need to win “takes up enormous energy because people tend to want to be right.”
“How many times do we fight with someone and we’re simply fighting to be right?” he said. “We say things we can’t take back and later we apologize and think to ourselves ‘I overreacted’ or ‘We fought over something so stupid.’ Sometimes we don’t even remember why we were fighting to begin with. Sometimes trivial things we get stuck on are just smaller manifestations of larger underlying issues.”
These kinds of interactions can often lead to “negative self-talk and anxiety as [we] overanalyze the situation and stress about the impact of the interaction,” according to Elise Hall, a licensed and independent clinical social worker in Massachusetts.
Instead, try looking at a fight as a problem to be solved (experts say there’s one phrase that can easily help you do this with a partner). This can help you let go of the need to be right and put your focus on a solution.
This all might be challenging, but it could be worth it to increase your joy — even just by a fraction.
As a physician, I have helped to care for many patients and families whose lives have been turned upside down by serious illnesses and injuries.
In the throes of such catastrophes, it can be difficult to find cause for anything but lament.
Yet Thanksgiving presents us with an opportunity to develop one of the healthiest, most life-affirming and convivial of all habits — that of counting and rejoicing in our blessings.
Research shows that grateful people tend to be healthy and happy. They exhibit lower levels of stress and depression, cope better with adversity and sleep better. They tend to be happier and more satisfied with life. Even their partners tend to be more content with their relationships.
Perhaps when we are more focused on the good things we enjoy in life, we have more to live for and tend to take better care of ourselves and each other.
When researchers asked people to reflect on the past week and write about things that either irritated them or about which they felt grateful, those tasked with recalling good things are more optimistic, feel better about their lives, and actually visit their physicians less.
It is no surprise that receiving thanks makes people happier, but so does expressing gratitude. An experiment that asked participants to write and deliver thank-you notes found large increases in reported levels of happiness, a benefit that lasted for an entire month.
One of the greatest minds in Western history, the Greek philosopher Aristotle, argued that we become what we habitually do. By changing our habits, we can become more thankful human beings.
If we spend our days ruminating on all that has gone poorly and how dark the prospects for the future appear, we can think ourselves into misery and resentment.
But we can also mold ourselves into the kind of people who seek out, recognize and celebrate all that we have to be grateful for.
This is not to say that anyone should become a Pollyanna, ceaselessly reciting the mantra from Voltaire’s “Candide”: “All is for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds.” There are injustices to be righted and wounds to be healed, and ignoring them would represent a lapse of moral responsibility.
But reasons to make the world a better place should never blind us to the many good things it already affords. How can we be compassionate and generous if we are fixated on deficiency? This explains why the great Roman statesman Cicero called gratitude not only the greatest of virtues but the “parent” of them all.
Gratitude is deeply embedded in many religious traditions. In Judaism, the first words of the morning prayer could be translated, “I thank you.” Another saying addresses the question, “Who is rich?” with this answer: “Those who rejoice in what they have.”
From a Christian perspective, too, gratitude and thanksgiving are vital. Before Jesus shares his last meal with his disciples, he gives thanks. So vital a part of Christian life is gratitude that author and critic G.K. Chesterton calls it “the highest form of thought.”
Gratitude also plays an essential role in Islam. The 55th chapter of the Quran enumerates all the things human beings have to be grateful for — the sun, moon, clouds, rain, air, grass, animals, plants, rivers and oceans — and then asks, “How can a sensible person be anything but thankful to God?”
Other traditions also stress the importance of thankfulness. Hindu festivals celebrate blessings and offer thanks for them. In Buddhism, gratitude develops patience and serves as an antidote to greed, the corrosive sense that we never have enough.
Roots even in suffering
In his 1994 book, “A Whole New Life,” Duke University English professor Reynolds Price describes how his battle with a spinal cord tumor that left him partially paralyzed also taught him a great deal about what it means to really live.
After surgery, Price describes “a kind of stunned beatitude.” With time, though diminished in many ways by his tumor and its treatment, he learns to pay closer attention to the world around him and those who populate it.Reflecting on the change in his writing, Price notes that his books differ in many ways from those he penned as a younger man. Even his handwriting, he says, “looks very little like that of the man he was at the time of his diagnosis.”
“Cranky as it is, it’s taller, more legible, and with more air and stride. And it comes down the arm of a grateful man.”
A brush with death can open our eyes. Some of us emerge with a deepened appreciation for the preciousness of each day, a clearer sense of our real priorities and a renewed commitment to celebrating life. In short, we can become more grateful, and more alive, than ever.
When it comes to practicing gratitude, one trap to avoid is locating happiness in things that make us feel better off — or simply better — than others. In my view, such thinking can foster envy and jealousy.
There are marvelous respects in which we are equally blessed — the same sun shines down upon each of us, we all begin each day with the same 24 hours, and each of us enjoys the free use of one of the most complex and powerful resources in the universe, the human brain.
Much in our culture seems aimed to cultivate an attitude of deficiency — for example, most ads aim to make us think that to find happiness we must buy something. Yet most of the best things in life — the beauty of nature, conversation and love — are free.
There are many ways to cultivate a disposition of thankfulness. One is to make a habit of giving thanks regularly — at the beginning of the day, at meals and the like, and at day’s end.
Likewise, holidays, weeks, seasons and years can be punctuated with thanks — grateful prayer or meditation, writing thank-you notes, keeping a gratitude journal, and consciously seeking out the blessings in situations as they arise.
Gratitude can become a way of life, and by developing the simple habit of counting our blessings, we can enhance the degree to which we are truly blessed.
Richard Gunderman, The Conversation
Richard Gunderman is the Chancellor’s Professor of medicine, liberal arts and philanthropy at Indiana University.
“Gratitude enhances performance in every domain that’s been examined, psychological relational, emotional, physical,” said Robert Emmons, a professor and psychologist at the University of California, Davis. “This is why it’s been referred to as the ultimate performance-enhancing substance.”
The field of gratitude health studies is still young, but researchers say that practicing gratitude may positively affect physical health in two main ways: It can change your biology and your behavior.
“A health behavior change is when someone that practices gratitude ends up engaging in more self-care behaviors, or following the directions of their care provider more closely,” said Emiliana Simon-Thomas, science director at the Greater Good Science Center, an interdisciplinary research center at UC Berkley. “Sometimes you’ll find that a study reports that a particular gratitude intervention leads to lower blood pressure — that’s the biology pathway.”
Gratitude “interventions” are a method that researchers use to determine how expressing gratitude may be directly causing positive health effects. A common approach is to ask participants to write down what they’re grateful for each day in a “gratitude journal” or to pen “gratitude letters.”
Several studies have concluded that keeping a gratitude journal improves physical health. A 2015 study of 119 women at the University College London found that just two weeks of keeping a gratitude journal can improve sleep quality and decrease blood pressure.
Researchers at UC San Diego came to a similar conclusion the following year. A 2016 study of nearly 70 men and women at risk of heart failure asked participants to keep a gratitude journal for eight weeks. Researchers found that, over time, the participants who kept gratitude journals had lower levels of inflammation, a biomarker of heart failure.
“Along the lines of physical exercise, a healthier diet, or higher-quality sleep, gratitude is worth the time,” Simon-Thomas said.
Practicing gratitude is also tied to lower stress levels, Simon-Thomas said, because people who regularly express gratitude have a greater capacity to regulate emotions in a constructive way. It can even “short-circuit” the body’s stress response.
“The holiday season can be very stressful,” Emmons said. “People are exhausted, worn down and worn out, feeling depleted and defeated. That is why gratitude is especially important this time of year. Grateful people less likely to experience envy, anger, resentment, regret and other unpleasant states that produce stress and thwart positive emotions.”
Jeff Huffman, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of the Cardiac Psychiatry Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, says the field of gratitude studies still has a lot of ground to cover. In the past 15 years, there have been less than ten trials of gratitude-based interventions in patients with chronic health conditions, according to an article published this year in the British Journal of Health Psychology.
“At this point, we are not quite there in terms of conclusively saying that experiencing or expressing gratitude is linked to better physical health,” Huffman said. “More definitive study is needed.”
Huffman said his team of researchers is currently looking into how gratitude-based interventions may help heart attack victims recover faster and better. “We hope to have answers in the not-to-distant future,” he said.
As wine is poured and clashing personalities take their place at the table, controversial issues can hijack conversation.
Like any holiday that brings far-flung family members into close proximity for extended periods of time, Thanksgiving can be a fraught and imperfect occasion, despite our best efforts. Old grudges simmer quietly between relatives, wine flows too quickly, extroverts dominate the room and conversations veer into dangerous political territory (Trump, Trudeau, #MeToo, climate change, and on and on). Meltdowns happen, with no child or adult spared.
This Thanksgiving, experts from various fields offer their best practices for getting through dinner unscathed – from an apology ace who walks people through testy family reunions, to a skilled debater adept at arguing without rage, to a gratitude guru on feeling this emotion more deeply, in the moment, over stuffing. Above all else, the experts remind, you’re here to share a meal, not dissect your dysfunctional family (that you can do later, at home).
THE INTROVERTS AT YOUR TABLE
Marsha Pinto, creator of Softest Voices, an organization that helps introverted youth, said people bring vastly different conversational styles to the family table. Extroverts tell stories and introverts listen; both skills are valuable.
“With this highly social holiday, remember that each person shares themselves socially in different way,” said Pinto, who is from Markham, Ont. “If not for the introverts, the extroverts would have no one to listen to them. If not for the extroverts, it would be a rather quiet Thanksgiving dinner.”
Pinto said she’s had many quieter children and teenagers write to her complaining they feel pressed by parents to speak eloquently at family gatherings. “Just because a kid is quiet, it doesn’t mean they have nothing to say or know nothing,” Pinto said. “It means they are thinking of what to say and absorbing what is said by others.”
Pinto suggested families not put introverted children on the spot in front of distant relatives; instead, engage them in one-on-one conversation away from the more boisterous group.
POLITICS OVER TURKEY
As wine is poured and clashing personalities take their place at the table, controversial issues can hijack conversation. Debra Miko, Calgary-based president of the Canadian Student Debating Federation, said the most challenging aspect of debating is understanding where others are coming from, even if you vehemently disagree with their world view. “Remember that a 25-year-old will have different values and priorities than grandma or grandpa,” Miko said.
Resist the urge to get personal. Instead, listen closely and then query, Miko said. “Be open to exploring issues rather than trying to force family and friends to agree with you. Try, ‘It’s interesting that you saw it from that perspective – not quite the way I had interpreted it. Can you elaborate?’”
If you happen to be wrong, take the high road. “It’s okay to lose an argument,” Miko said. “My son, a former high school Team Canada debating member used to tell me, ‘A loss is a learn.’”
QUELLING TABLE-SIDE ERUPTIONS
Discord is often unavoidable at sizable family gatherings, although what you do with it is up to you, according to Darcy Pennock, Edmonton-based director of Verbal Judo Canada, which provides conflict-management training for government, corporations and law-enforcement agencies.
Start by taking a breath, Pennock said. “Whether something is slowly building or appears to erupt spontaneously, take some deep yoga breaths that slow your heart rate and prevent your body from being ‘high-jacked’ by your emotions.”
Although it may seem hard to tap into in the heat of the moment, empathy is the fastest peacemaker. “Empathy is essential for absorbing tension and calming people down,” Pennock said.
He recommends modifying one’s “delivery style” so it relays compassion, not combativeness. “A concerned, listening look on your face and open, non-threatening body language sends the right message,” Pennock said. “Acknowledge their emotions with phrases such as, ‘I can see you’re frustrated.’ Follow this with open-ended questions. These techniques help us strengthen relationships during times of conflict, not destroy them.”
Pennock recalled one family gathering at which he pacified 89-year-old Grandma Betty. Pennock’s nephew was lamenting how little free time he and his wife have amid hockey practice for their two children. Grandma Betty shot back with: “You spoil your kids. We never ran around with our kids like parents do today.” Uncomfortable silence ensued, so Pennock took a deep breath and interjected, not with a rebuke but with grace. He raised his own years playing hockey as a boy: What he remembered most was Grandma Betty or his father watching from the stands. “The conversation shifted to happy hockey memories,” Pennock said, and Grandma Betty’s parenting insult was diffused.
BEYOND SORRY, NOT SORRY
Every family has its sore spots. For feuding relatives who bristle at the thought of being in close quarters this Thanksgiving, the time to try and resolve matters is now, not in real time, urged Jennifer Thomas, a psychologist who co-authored the book When Sorry Isn’t Enough: Making Things Right With Those You Love with Gary Chapman.
“Around the family meal (or even off in another room during the gathering) is not the time to hammer out situations that caused hurt feelings in the past,” Thomas said. “It’s really something that should be done a week or a month before the holiday. You’re going to be together for the whole day.”
Thomas recommended reaching out in person or over the phone; this conveys more commitment than a text or e-mail. Then, use the holiday meal as an opportunity to repair trust. “Go in with a mindset of giving compliments. Tell the host, ‘I think you’re really great at making people feel welcome. Thank you for having us over,'” Thomas said. “Offering to help out can also help rebuild relationships and show that we’re willing to roll up our shirt sleeves and make it easier for them. It also can be a way of keeping us busy so that we don’t reach for the alcohol, which can be a landmine, or get into arguments.”
THE GRATITUDE PUSH
Gratitude is the order of the day at Thanksgiving. But kitchen pandemonium, testy adults and children running underfoot can make it nearly impossible to summon authentic gratitude. Amid the chaos, rituals of giving thanks around the table can feel forced and abrupt, said Diana Butler Bass, author of the 2018 book Grateful: The Subversive Practice of Giving Thanks. “People pressure themselves by insisting that family members or guests recite what they are thankful for in advance of the meal,” Bass said. “Although well intended, it sometimes feels more like a turkey hostage situation than genuine gratitude.”
Bass offers a depressurized alternative to traditional, around-the-table thanks. “Well before you begin eating, ask guests to write what they are thankful for on slips of paper and place those slips in a ‘gratitude jar’ on the table. Throughout the meal, when conversation lags or between courses, have different people pull a slip out and read it aloud to the group,” Bass said. “It’s a nice way to keep one extroverted guest from monopolizing conversation, involve children in a gratitude practice and spread thanks across dinner.”