Chapter OneThe Power of
Reflect on your present blessings-not
of which every man has many-on
your past misfortunes,
of which all men have some.
Some days you want to just stay in bed, pull the
covers over your head, and hope the world forgets you ever existed.
David Patrick Columbia was having one of those days. New to
New York City, he was completely worn down by the hustle and
bustle of the city that never sleeps. The excitement and pride he'd
felt when he relocated to Manhattan several weeks earlier was
gone. He'd imagined himself the hot young talent about to take
the magazine world by storm. The reality was he was a low-level
assistant, mostly assigned to grunt work on stories about vacuous
celebrities with meaningless lives. He couldn't afford a place of his
own and knew he was lucky to have a friend on the Upper East
Side who didn't seem to mind how long he was a guest in the extra
"I was rethinking everything about my move to New York," he
recalled. "My ability as a writer, my choice of career-everything."
He knew when he relocated to town that it would be a struggle,
but he never imagined it would be this hard. That salary that had
seemed so attractive when he accepted the job didn't go nearly as
far as he'd thought it would. And as nice as his friend was about
his extended stay, David couldn't help but feel as if he was sponging
off his pal. He felt like Blanche Dubois in Tennessee Williams'sA Streetcar Named Desire: dependent on the kindness of strangers.
The only difference was that he knew the people who were being
kind to him.
Against this depressing backdrop, all David wanted to do this
Saturday morning was stay in bed and hope it would just get better.
But no. This Saturday morning, he had to get out of bed and go
pick up a photograph that was needed for the next issue. Low man
on the roster, it was David's job to hike across town and get it.
It was cold, gray, and damp when David walked out of his
friend's apartment building and headed across town. "To this day,
I don't know what possessed me to do this, but I decided to start
counting things I passed along the way that made me smile," he
says. "Maybe it was something someone had told me from an
Al-Anon session or something, but for whatever reason, I just told
myself I was going to see how many pleasing things I came across
as I walked over to Fifth Avenue."
The first thing on David's list: a mother walking her baby, all
bundled up in a stroller. "I have always had a soft spot for babies,
and that little face just made me smile." Then after that, a movement
in the sky caught his eye. It was a jet passing over Manhattan.
"Something about flying has always captivated my imagination, and
to this day, every time I see a plane in the sky, I just get excited."
And so it went. From the smells of the bistros to the displays in
the store windows, each block of David's compulsory crosstown
trip found him acknowledging something that brightened his
mood. By the time he'd delivered the photo as required, he says he
was feeling pretty good-and thankful that he'd made the intimidating
move to the Big Apple.
"That walk reminded me that I lived in a place that was exciting
and interesting and invigorating," he told me. "I often do this
whenever I'm feeling down-for some reason, it just makes me
feel better." It's been more than twenty years since David took that
walk of thanks across Manhattan. Today he's a successful entrepreneur
in the media business. His gratitude stroll continues to
help him stay focused.
It's easy to say thank you when you've just won the lottery.
The words just roll off your tongue when you've been given a big
raise or a promotion. Get an incredible piece of jewelry or a new
golf club? Thank you. And that second helping of a sinfully delicious,
totally calorie-free dessert? Thank you. We live in a society
in which the spectacle of saying thank you attracts more than a
billion television viewers. That's really what the Academy Awards,
the Emmys, and all those other awards shows are, aren't they? Just
one big, teary thank you after another, intertwined with an occasional
memorable speech or gaffe.
Saying thank you is one of the first things a cooing mother
teaches a baby. When times are good, we're good at saying it. Weknow we are supposed to acknowledge what we're given. When a
person knows that thank you is going to seen by others, he makes
an extra effort to say it.
The other day, my son was buried in the sports section at breakfast
as I poured the milk on his cereal. He mumbled, "Thanks,"
and I am quite sure he had no idea he was saying it. Gracias, merci,
tack, obrigado, danke, asante-you probably can say thank you in
a zillion languages that you don't speak.
But have you tried feeling it, embracing it? You know you
embrace all the stuff for which you aren't thankful. If you're like
most people, you probably grab hold of life's negatives like a pit
bull, and won't let go. "Oh, not me," you say. Really? Keep reading.
Chances are something didn't go the way you planned it today.
Perhaps something even went hideously wrong. A cross word over
breakfast stays with you all day. Your morning starts off on the
wrong foot, and the bad feelings just won't leave. Like a bad penny,
that unpleasant exchange at breakfast keeps popping up in your
mind. Your stomach tightens at the thought; your lips purse. You
think of all those things you were too angry or not smart enough
to say over the breakfast table. You're much more assertive in those
fantasy conversations, and-man!-you're letting him have it, saying
all the things you wished you'd said.
Aside from breakfast-how was the rest of your day? Not the
best, huh? Actually pretty awful? Do you think, just maybe, that
your no-good, very bad, terrible, awful day might have had something
to do with your holding on to that morning mix-up like a
dog to a piece of meat? The crashing dominoes of things that went
wrong all began with that spat over the Cheerios, a spat on which
you fixated all day.
What if you'd focused on something else? Instead of letting
the argument at breakfast dominate your thoughts, what if you'd
reminded yourself instead of that automotive magic that got you
smoothly to work this morning? Every single light on that usually
backed-up four-lane you take daily was green. You sailed through
traffic-the most stress-free drive you've had in ages.
How would you have felt at the end of the day if you had let
your thoughts be dominated by the memory of the office assistant's
face when she received her surprise birthday cake? She was so
pleased. It was nice that the lady who does so much for everyone
else at work was on the receiving end of something sweet herself.
Did you notice that letter you got from a long-lost friend?
Filled with news, tidbits about her life, genuine interest in what
you've been doing-reading that letter was like having your
friend right there in the same room with you. Reflecting on it, you
can't help but feel a smile growing at the corners of your mouth.
Yet you've let yourself plod through the day, ticked off, mad at
the world, and probably short-tempered with people who didn't
deserve it. All because you just won't stop thinking about that
silly dispute at breakfast. Snap out of it!
If you'd spent the day relishing the magic of the easy ride,
acknowledging your good fortune to work with such kind and
caring people, and being valued by a dear friend, you'd feel pretty
good right now. Literally. You'd feel good. There they are: three
things today that were positives in life's ledger book. Had you
focused on them, you would be happier.
But, nah, you opted to let a squabble over . what was that
argument about, anyway?-wreck your day. You've come home in
as foul a mood as you left it.
Fifty years ago, scientists discovered that female silkworm moths
put out a powerful sex attractant. "The minutest amount of it
[makes] male moths beat their wings madly in a `flutter dance'" that
proves their attraction. Humans may not work the same way, but a
few studies seem to indicate that there's a similar chemical-attractant
effect in people. What is quite clear is that certain human behaviors
can cause predictable outcomes. Science has proven it.
Spend just a few minutes each day focusing on the good things
that happened, the incidents and situations that you'd put in the
plus column if you were noting plusses and minuses. You'll be
healthier. You'll sleep better and exercise more. You'll feel more
optimistic. Take just a moment to note the day's blessings and
you'll sense that you have more energy. You will feel more alert
and active. Do this for a period of time, and you'll realize you are
making progress toward your goals in life. You may even discover
you're less of a mess, more organized, less possessive-the clutter
that used to collect around you seems to disappear.
The hardest arithmetic to master is
that which enables us to count our blessings.
Remember David Patrick Columbia from earlier in the chapter?
What he discovered in his own life, Robert Emmons proved
in his laboratory. A professor of psychology at the University of
California-Davis, Emmons has long been interested in the role
gratitude might play in one's physical and emotional well-being.
As a scientist, his world revolves around proving what others
accept on faith. Gratitude proponents, like Oprah Winfrey, preach
that it's a good thing to keep a journal, to take note of your blessings.
With a fortune estimated by Forbes magazine at $1.4 billion,
certainly Oprah's got plenty to be grateful for. But if noting your
blessings is a good thing, how much of a good thing is it?
The short answer? More than you'd ever believe.
"There was a whole lot of better stuff going on!" Speaking
from his office at the University of California-Davis's psychology
department, Robert Emmons's enthusiasm has an almost hurricane-like
force. His career has been devoted to trying to understand
what it is that makes people happy.
"I wanted to see if we could actually make people more grateful,"
Emmons recalled during our interview. He said, "There are a
lot of ideas floating around in the self-help literature about how
to be happier and how to live an optimal life, but until it's been
established scientifically, it means nothing."
The experiment I did during my storm-induced layover at
the Pittsburgh airport, Professor Emmons, along with psychology
professor Michael McCullough of the University of Miami,
conducted in an organized fashion, putting into place the controls
and variables that make a study trustworthy. It was brilliant
in its simplicity.
The professors took three groups of volunteers and randomly
assigned them to focus on one of three things for a week: hassles,
things for which they were grateful, or ordinary life events. Group A
focused on everything that went wrong or was irritating, such as
"The battery was dead on my car" or "That jerk cut me off on the
highway." Group B volunteers honed in on situations that they felt
enhanced their lives, e.g., "My boyfriend is so kind and caring; I
am lucky to have him" or "That was the most spectacular sunrise;
I'm glad I got up early." Group C just remembered events: "I
cleaned my closet," or "I went shoe shopping."
Participants were asked to list five examples in their respective
categories and then quantify how they felt about what they'd
listed: irritated, ashamed, stressed, joyful, grateful, forgiving, calm,
proud, etc. They were also asked specific lifestyle questions: How
much time do you spend exercising? What physical symptoms do
you experience-are you sick, suffering from allergies? Do you
feel particularly energetic? If they had received assistance from
someone, participants were asked how they felt about it: grateful?
annoyed? embarrassed? appreciated? Finally, they were asked how
they felt overall, both as they looked back at the past week and as
they looked forward to the week ahead.
The people who focused on gratitude were just flat-out happier.
They saw their lives in favorable terms. They reported fewer
negative physical symptoms, such as headaches or colds, and they
were active in ways that were good for them: they spent almost an
hour and a half more per week exercising than the people who
focused on their hassles. In addition, those who'd been on the
receiving end of someone else's kindness rated higher in joy and
happiness than the others. In short, those who focused on what
they were grateful for felt a higher level of gratitude. Life just
seemed better for them.
People around them recognized that. Professor Emmons says,
"They noticed that the people had more joy, more energy. They
could see that they were becoming more optimistic. They even
seemed to be perceived as more helpful, you know, going out on a
limb to help people." Emmons was surprised by this result. "This
is not just something that makes people happy like a positive
thinking/optimism kind of thing, but really gets people to do something,
that is, to become more prosocial or more compassionate or
more optimistic." This didn't happen in the other two groups.
Emmons and McCullough took their study further. Rather
than focus on hassles, blessings, or events on a weekly basis, they
rounded up some volunteers-college students, who received
course credit for their participation in the experiment-to do itevery day. Along with the focus on life events, the researchers
asked for specifics: how many alcoholic drinks volunteers had,
how many aspirin or other pain relievers they took, the quantity
and quality of their sleep-and they wanted folks to compare
themselves to others: Are you better or worse off?
If you were going to have dinner with anyone from the study,
you'd want someone from the gratitude group at your table. Right
off the bat, Emmons and his team recognized that there was
something especially impactful about a regular gratitude check. A
follow-up study found the effect even more powerful when the
gratitude exercises were done on a daily basis. Those who found
something to appreciate every day were less materialistic, that is,
they were less apt to see a connection between life satisfaction and
material things. They were more willing to part with their possessions.
The bumper sticker that reads "The one with the most toys,
wins" was unlikely to be found on any of their cars.
The grateful people were less depressive, envious, and anxious,
and much more likely to help others, a fact not lost on
those around them. When other people were asked their impressions
of the daily-gratitude students, they generally judged them
as empathetic, helpful, and prosocial. That is, they felt the members
of the gratitude group were more likely to put themselves
out for others.
Here's a laundry list of the study's conclusions about test subjects
who were consciously grateful:
* They felt better about their lives as a whole.
* They were more optimistic.
* They were more energetic.
* They were more enthusiastic.
* They were more determined.
* They were more interested.
* They were more joyful.
* They felt stronger about handling challenges.
* They exercised more (nearly an hour and a half more
* They had fewer illnesses.
* They got more sleep.
* They made progress toward important personal goals.
* They were more likely to have helped someone else.
* They were perceived by others as more generous
* They were less envious of those with more possessions.
* They were less cluttered.
Related studies have found additional benefits, all of which
could arguably be linked to a grateful mind-set:
* Clearer thinking-more creativity and openness to ideas
* Better resilience during tough times
* Higher immune response
* Less likelihood of being plagued by stress
* Longer lives
* Closer family ties
* Greater religiousness