Gratitude

I mentioned in my Wapack and Back race recap post, that I was asked to write the keynote speech for the Psychology and Neuroscience commencement ceremony at UNH.I gave the speech today, but I wrote a lot of it, or at least came up with the ideas, when I was running the race last Saturday. I figured I’d share it here.  This is where my mind was out on that course and where it has been for the last couple years. For that, I’m grateful.

It’s a pleasure and an honor to have a chance to speak here today. I would have never guessed 11 years ago, when I was graduating from UNH’s Psychology and English programs, that I would be back here giving a commencement speech.

I’ve only been out of college for 11 years, so what possible words of wisdom could I have to share? (That’s what you’re supposed to do at things like this, right?) So when planning this speech I started thinking about what’s happened the last 11 years that has made my life better.

I graduated summa cum laude. I was published. I earned a PhD. I got my job here at UNH. I ran some marathons. I bought a house. I adopted and rehabbed two feral dogs. I ran some ultramarathons.

I think I’m better off and happier now than I was 11 years ago, but why? Was it because of having some successes? Maybe. After most of these milestones I was definitely happy, but it didn’t last all that long. After many of them, there was a big let-down. A sort of “That was it?” feeling that lingered after the happiness faded.

But in the last couple of years I’ve realized that let down feeling doesn’t happen nearly as much anymore and I’m happy even when I’m not necessarily succeeding in traditional ways and I bounce back more quickly after disappointments.

I was thinking about that this weekend when I was running a 50mile race that took me almost 14hrs to complete, and I finished in last place. In the past, this would have devastated me – I probably would have dropped out. But instead, I was so happy. I was grateful for the opportunity to finish a race that gives you so many reasons to want to quit. I was grateful for family and friends who had wished me luck (even though most think I’m crazy), and grateful for the volunteers who gave up their Saturday. I was grateful for my health and a lifestyle that made it possible for me to even attempt something so ridiculous.

That’s when it hit me. The reason I’m happier now than I have been in the past is because there’s been a shift in my thinking. Gratitude has become a much bigger part of my life and it has made all the difference.

So, being a psychologist, I wanted to know why. What does psychology have to say about the relationship between gratitude and happiness? I’m a cognitive psychologist, so a lot of this research was new to me (and I’m sorry if I’m simplifying it!).

Research by Watkins and colleagues has shown that participating in a “gratitude exercise” such as thinking about or writing about a person for whom you are grateful increases participants’ experiences of positive emotions immediately after the exercise when compared to control groups that wrote about neutral topics. Other studies have found that these effects can be long-lasting. A study by Seligman and colleagues found that participants’ experiences of well-being could be enhanced for up to 6 months if they wrote down three things they were grateful for each day for a week in a gratitude journal.

Research has also focused on not just experiencing the emotion of gratitude, but the trait of being a grateful person and its relationship to well being. Wood and colleagues found that people who score higher on scales measuring how often and how intensely they feel gratitude tend to handle stress and setbacks better. More grateful people tend to use more positive coping strategies like seeking out emotional support from others and planning for the future and use fewer negative coping strategies like substance abuse, blame, and denial when faced with obstacles.

I read some of the questions from different gratitude scales, and I think for most of my life, I would have scored somewhat low on these measures. I used to approach life and any successes I had as things I achieved against all odds or in spite of circumstances that were stacked against me.

  • I earned my PhD, but I’m a first generation college student whose parents were raised by immigrants – I would have had it easier if I had access to resources that other grad school classmates had.
  • I’ve run marathons, but I’ve had some major medical setbacks – two that almost killed me – I bet I would be faster if that hadn’t happened.

Make sure you can still recognize injustices in the world – they are definitely there. But, it can be so easy to go through life feeling like you’ve been handed the short end of the stick or like the world owes you something. Own this feeling if you have it, but see if you can change your perspective.

For me, that internal narrative has shifted and I’m happier because of it.

  • I’m grateful for the amazing mentors I had who helped me navigate the foreign world of academia. I’m grateful for parents who worked long hours at multiple jobs who taught me the value of hard work. And I’m grateful that I can relate to my students who have had similar upbringings and experiences.
  • I’m grateful for my health and the friendships I’ve formed while training for these silly races. These benefits are so much more important than a time on a clock.

I can’t share any secrets about landing the right job, getting the right degree, marrying the right person, or making lots of money. I’d tell you if I knew! But what research and my personal experiences have taught me is that it’s the attitude toward the successes and failures that you’re sure to experience along the way that makes for a happier and more fulfilling life.

You’re done with finals and writing papers, but I’m going to give you one last writing assignment as a UNH student.

A 2012 study by Toepfer and colleagues found that participants who wrote and sent four meaningful, emotional letters of gratitude to people in their lives over the course of a few weeks showed higher scores on measures of life satisfaction and happiness and lower scores on symptoms of depression than those that did not write letters of gratitude.

Write a letter of gratitude to someone, maybe even a few people. A teacher, a coach, a boss, a friend, or your parents. Someone who has supported you through successes and failures. Someone who has forgiven you when you hurt them. Someone who has taught you something valuable. Someone who helped you to feel capable when you doubted yourself. Give them the letter. It’ll probably make them happy to receive it, and research suggests that just by writing it may make you happier as well.

Practice gratitude. Try to make it a habit. Start now.

Congratulations, and good luck in your next chapter! We’re all grateful that you shared part of your story with us.

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