Count Your Blessings
by C.S. Clarke, Ph.D.
In 1942, Irving Berlin wrote a charming little song titled "Count Your Blessings (Instead of Sheep)." In it he advises that worry and sleeplessness can be diminished by replacing your lists of worries with a list of the good things in your life. It sounds cute and simplistic. But it's actually a valid technique. First of all, you displace a litany of negative with a litany of positivity. Second, counting your blessings elicits feelings of gratitude. Feelings of gratitude, in turn, elicit feelings of hope, courage and trust.
(If you like to read actual studies just for fun, there's an exactly-on-point one for the "Count Your Blessings" song in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research 66 (2009) pp. 43 - 48, "Gratitude influences sleep through the mechanism of pre-sleep cognitions.")
The philosophy of the value of gratitude isn't new. Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 BC-43 BC) -- yes, the Roman senator -- is quoted as saying “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.”
Much is being researched and written these days about the value of "an attitude of gratitude." Especially in the discipline of Positive Psychology. Don't be put off by the numerous pseudo-spiritual or pseudo-psychological gurus who are offering self-serving b.s. There are plenty of good studies that show how being grateful improves your mind, your brain, your health and your relationships. Not to mention that you don't have to wait to read the studies, you can try the techniques out for yourself and get the direct effects.
Experiment with the following techniques for developing a sense of gratitude and making every day Thanksgiving Day:
1. Most folks start their days with mental lists of the undesirable things they have to do (usually more than can be accomplished) and the anticipated unpleasant encounters they will have in traffic, at work and with their family members.
There are two counters to that unfortunate habit. First, replace the mental list with a realistic written one that shows objectively what you must accomplish. And write it in positive terms. For example, instead of musing on the idea that "I have to get out that #%^&*#@ memo for that *$%@!#$ boss of mine," make a to-do list that merely says "memo for boss due at 1 p.m. Writing time, 2 hours." Replacing subjective negativity with objective written fact has been shown time and again to reduce anxiety and anger.
The second countermeasure is to transform the anticipated negative encounters with others to expected pleasant successes. If you are anticipating something, you've got a "movie" going on in your head, in full color, with audio, of how the scenario will occur. Without intervention, something similar to what you anticipate will likely happen. And, even if it doesn't, you will likely remember an unpleasant encounter despite any facts to the contrary. You will be "pre-set" to misinterpret the actual events and to sabotage the events to make them match the "movie" in your head. So, instead, play mental "movies" that show pleasant and productive outcomes. And say affirmations to yourself like "I can make this work." Or, "I've succeeded in this before and I can do better now." Pre-set yourself for pleasant encounters rather than unpleasant ones. It will change your interpretations of what's going on during the event and increase the likelihood of finding ways to make it work well.
2. Count your blessings in the morning. Make a long list of all the good things in your life. Each morning, pick three of those "blessings" as focuses. While you're going about getting ready for the day, mentally "chant" those blessings over and over.
3. Say "Thank You." Develop a habit of saying thanks for whatever others do for you, no matter how small. And, if possible, look them in the eyes and smile when you say it. If you're on the phone, smile when you say it, because a smile will change the intonation in your words and it can be heard. Studies have shown that saying "thank you" increases feelings of goodwill not only between the two people immediately involved, but also in others around them who hear it. Furthermore, it increases the probability of "good deeds" being done by the person who is thanked, the person who thanks and nearby observers.
4. Count your blessings at bedtime. Yes, as I said at the beginning of the article, it really does work. If you go to bed worried, you'll have trouble sleeping and troubled sleep. If you go to bed ticking off a list of things that make you feel good, you'll sleep sooner, better, longer and more restfully. And you'll have a better attitude when you wake.
And just in case you truly do like to read studies, the Wikipedia has obligingly provides a nice list of related references at the end of one of their articles on gratitude. I'm appending it here. Let's say "thank you" to Wikipedia.
1. ^ Emmons, R. A., & Crumpler, C. A. (2000). Gratitude as a human strength: Appraising the evidence. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 19, 56-69
2. ^ Smith, A. (1790/1976). The Theory of Moral Sentiments (6th ed.). Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Classics. (Original work published 1790).
3. ^ Linley, P. A., Joseph, S., Harrington, S., & Wood, A. M. (2006). Positive psychology: Past, present, and (possible) future.The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1, 3-16.
4. ^ a b c Wood, A. M., Joseph, S., & Linley, P. A. (2007). Gratitude: The parent of all virtues. The Psychologist, 20, 18-21
5. ^ a b c d Wood, A. M., Maltby, J., Stewart, N., Linley, P. A., & Joseph, S. (2008). A social-cognitive model of trait and state levels of gratitude.Emotion, 8, 281-290.
6. ^ McCullough, M. E., Tsang, J. & Emmons, R. A. (2004). Gratitude in intermediate affective terrain: Links of grateful moods to individual differences and daily emotional experience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86,295-309. (electronic copy)
7. ^ Lane, J., & Anderson, N. H. (1976). Integration of intention and outcome in moral judgment. Memory and Cognition, 4, 1-5.
8. ^ Tesser, A., Gatewood, R., & Driver, M. (1968). Some determinants of gratitude. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9, 233-236.
9. ^ Greenberg, M. S. (1980). A theory of indebtedness. In K. J. Gergen, M. S. Greenberg & R. H. Wills (Eds.), Social exchange: Advances in theory and research: New York: Plenum.
10. ^ Watkins, P. C., Scheer, J., Ovnicek, M., & Kolts, R. (2006). The debt of gratitude: Dissociating gratitude and indebtedness. Cognition and Emotion, 20, 217-241.
11. ^ Tsang, J. A. (2006). The effects of helper intention on gratitude and indebtedness. Motivation and Emotion, 30, 199-205.
12. ^ Carey, J. R., Clicque, S. H., Leighton, B. A., & Milton, F. (1976). A test of positive reinforcement of customers. Journal of Marketing, 40, 98-100.
13. ^ Rind, B., & Bordia, P. (1995). Effect of server's "Thank you" and personalization on restaurant tipping. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 25, 745-751.
14. ^ a b Wood, A. M., Maltby, J., Stewart, N., & Joseph, S. (2008). Conceptualizing gratitude and appreciation as a unitary personality trait. Personality and Individual Differences, 44, 619-630.
15. ^ McCullough, M. E., Emmons, R. A., & Tsang, J. (2002). The grateful disposition: A conceptual and empirical topography. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 112-127.
16. ^ Adler, M. G., & Fagley, N. S. (2005). Appreciation: Individual differences in finding value and meaning as a unique predictor of subjective well-being. Journal of Personality, 73, 79-114.
17. ^ Watkins, P. C., Woodward, K., Stone, T., & Kolts, R. L. (2003). Gratitude and happiness: Development of a measure of gratitude, and relationships with subjective well-being. Social Behavior and Personality', 31, 431-451.
18. ^ McCullough, M. E., Emmons, R. A., & Tsang, J. (2002). The grateful disposition: A conceptual and empirical topography. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 112-127.
19. ^ a b Wood, A. M., Joseph, S., & Maltby, J. (2008). Gratitude uniquely predicts satisfaction with life: Incremental validity above the domains and facets of the Five Factor Model. Personality and Individual Differences, 45, 49-54.
20. ^ Kashdan, T.B., Uswatte, G., & Julian, T. (2006). Gratitude and hedonic and eudaimonic well-being in Vietnam War veterans. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 44, 177-199.
21. ^ a b Wood, A. M., Joseph, S. & Maltby (2009). Gratitude predicts psychological well-being above the Big Five facets. Personality and Individual Differences, 45, 655-660.
22. ^ a b Wood, A. M., Joseph, S., & Linley, P. A. (2007). Coping style as a psychological resource of grateful people. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 26, 1108 – 1125.
23. ^ Wood, A. M., Joseph, S., Lloyd, J., & Atkins, S. (2009). Gratitude influences sleep through the mechanism of pre-sleep cognitions. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 66, 43-48
24. ^ Wood, A. M., Maltby, J., Gillett, R., Linley, P. A., & Joseph, S. (2008). The role of gratitude in the development of social support, stress, and depression: Two longitudinal studies. Journal of Research in Personality, 42, 854-871.
25. ^ Emmons, R. A. & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 377-389. (electronic copy)
26. ^ Watkins, P. C., Woodward, K., Stone, T., & Kolts, R. L. (2003). Gratitude and happiness: Development of a measure of gratitude, and relationships with subjective well-being. Social Behavior and Personality, 31, 431-452.