Two weeks ago, we focused on how the experience of gratitude can impact positively on individual well-being. More specifically, we looked at the ‘counting blessings’ approach, which has been demonstrated to be particularly effective by an ever-increasing body of research findings. However, it would be misleading to leave this topic at that, as psychology researchers have also tested several other gratitude-related approaches, and found many to be linked with durable boosts to well-being.
In 2012, Fabian Gander, Rene Proyer, Willibald Ruch, and Tobias Wyss conducted a study in which they assessed the impact of nine separate interventions on well-being and symptoms of depression. Of the nine interventions used, four were either specifically gratitude-based or closely related to a gratitude approach.
The first was the ‘gratitude visit’. Participants assigned to this condition were instructed “to write and deliver a letter of gratitude to a person they were grateful to, but whom they had never thanked appropriately”. Commenting on an intervention of this type during the course of a TED Talk in 2004, Martin Seligman (mentioned earlier in this blog series) summed up its effectiveness be stating that “everyone weeps when this happens. And what happens is when we test people one week later, a month later, three months later, they’re both happier and less depressed.” Gander and his fellow authors do not report whether any of their participants shed tears, but they did find that the intervention proved effective in their study, based on individual scores on questionnaires measuring happiness and symptoms of depression, with these ratings assessed not only prior to the intervention and immediately upon its completion, but also one month, three months, and six months later.
The second of the gratitude-related interventions was ‘three good things’. Here, participants were asked “to write down three things that had gone well for them and an explanation why those things happened” and to do so daily for one week. While not specifically about gratitude, you should be able to see the parallels between this and a ‘counting blessings’ intervention. Whereas the latter seeks to make individuals think consciously about things for which to be grateful, the approach here looks to make individuals think consciously about what worked out for them on a given day. With ‘three good things’, a sense of gratitude may flow from this thought process, whereas with ‘counting blessings’, the cultivation of gratitude is the key objective, with the purpose of both being to fuel increases in well-being. On a broader level, both approaches seek to instil certain thinking styles that lend themselves to these positive outcomes, with the intention being that if individuals ‘learn’ to think this way, that they may continue to do so in the medium- and long-term, and thus reap the anticipated cognitive benefits.
The other relevant interventions used in the study being referred to here were a combination of the ‘gratitude visit’ and ‘three good things’ over two weeks – performing the visit task in week one and maintaining the log and explanation of positive events in week two – and ‘three good things in two weeks’, in which participants were given the same instructions as received by those in the ‘three good things’ condition, but to perform the task for an additional seven days.
It is interesting for our purposes to note that of the nine interventions tested, only one failed to have the desired effect – ‘three good things in two weeks’.
This surprised the authors. They didn’t necessarily expect a two-week log to prove twice as beneficial as one maintained over a single week, but they did anticipate that it would prove successful as an intervention; however, statistical analyses demonstrated this to not have been the case.
So what was going on here? Why would participants instructed to keep a ‘three good things’ log for one week tend to feel the benefits up to six months later, whereas those asked to perform the same task for two weeks tended to fare significantly less well?
It seems the key consideration may relate to the mind, and how individuals frame the task.
The authors suggest that being asked to maintain the log for one week did not represent any kind of imposition, and allowed participants to experience the intervention before it ‘outstayed its welcome’; whereas, participants asked to perform the task for two weeks may have been more likely to feel like it was going to be a hassle, and thus were less likely to experience well-being-related benefits.
On top of this, the authors made an additional point. Among participants who were assigned to the one-week version of ‘three good things’, at the various follow-up moments, they found that some had opted to continue the practice of their own volition for varying lengths of time, as they had found it so beneficial.
This hints at the power of our individual minds, and more specifically in terms of how we frame and perceive our circumstances, as it relates to well-being.
Consider these key points – participants assigned to ‘three good things’ for one week were more likely to experience positive outcomes than those assigned to it for two weeks, and some of those participants also chose to continue with their logs for additional time, some for another week, and some for longer.
This indicates that the element of choice was important. Given the results of the statistical analyses, it seems reasonable to speculate that one-week participants who reported benefits and continued with the practice for additional time may not necessarily have reported those same benefits had they been assigned to the two-week condition, yet by choosing to continue the practice, they most likely did so for at least one additional week, the equivalent of having been assigned to the two-week condition in the first place.
As alluded to, the key difference here appears to be the conscious awareness of choice – choosing to continue the practice for additional time, as opposed to being formally instructed to continue for a longer period in the initial instance. Objectively, there may be no difference in terms of time, but on the individual level, how participants perceived of the task seems to have been at least in part dependent upon whether they were assigned to the longer or shorter period in the first instance.
The role our mind and how we perceive of our circumstances is a point we will return to in the future.
Dr. Mark Barry
Mark Barry was awarded a PhD by University College Cork in 2015 for his research into adolescent well-being. He has lectured psychology at UCC since 2013, and is also a freelance writer.