In 2009 I was in a hotel lounge in Helsinki having breakfast, the BBC 24 hour news channel was on in the background and I remember one of the headlines being something like “China has its slowest economic growth for 20 years at 8%.” I stayed in the lounge across the morning working and about 11 am I noticed the news again, but this time the headline was something like “China is growing faster than all other major economies at 8%” and I laughed out loud. The facts were the same, the world was still the same, but a different editor had a different angle and told the story in a different way.
This is the same way our brains work to process and view our world. The facts can be the same, but the stories we tell ourselves can be completely different depending on how we filter our experiences. Just like the news, we are subject to ‘editorial slant’.
Why do we care? Well the way we see our world is what drives our happiness and success.
Let me give you a case study to illustrate:
People who work in certain professional functions like auditing, legal, risk or law enforcement can have a tendency to scan the world for problems, it’s what they need to do in their work and this habit can spill over into their wider life. Shawn Accor from Harvard University conducted research with 200 tax audit managers at KPMG during the 2009 tax season. This is a particularly stressful time for the people in that role, they work long hours, have a great deal of pressure and tend to have low life satisfaction scores. Shawn wanted to see if could reduce that low by teaching them some simple positive psychology exercises. He asked them to write down 3 new things they were grateful for, every day, for 21 days in a row. He told them how important it is to make the things they think of specific and not general, so ‘I’m grateful I can take my son Bobby to football tonight’ is specific but ‘I’m grateful for my son’ is general, and how 21 days of repeating something is enough time for our brain to create new patterns and habits that can last.
This is what he reported finding:
‘Four months later, the optimism, life satisfaction and job satisfaction of these tax managers was re-tested, and was significantly elevated. Compared to the control group who received no training, they saw a 24% improvement in job and life satisfaction’.
Doing the gratitude exercise for 21 days was enough to change the way their brains scanned and filtered the world; it changed their ‘editorial slant’.
There is a huge amount of very solid research behind gratitude, which shows what a major driver of happiness it is, but what people find difficult is simply remembering to be grateful; so I’m going to give you something to help.
Find yourself a little pebble, rock or small stone, pick out something you like the feel, look and texture of. When I do this with large groups I like to go to our local beach and pick up some of the more attractive looking pebbles to hand out. What’s amazing is how much people like having these, there is something beautifully aesthetically pleasing about holding that piece of nature in your hand, so choose something that feels good to you. Once you have your stone, re-name it your ‘gratitude rock’, then put it in your pocket or your purse. It’s a little trick, an anchor to remind you to think about what you are grateful for. Every time when you reach into your pocket or your bag for a pen or some money and you accidentally touch your ‘gratitude rock’, think of one thing (specific and detailed) you are grateful for right then. Just pause for a couple of seconds whatever you happen to be doing in that moment and recall something you’re grateful for. It might be the good weather today, something you’re doing on the weekend, a compliment you received, something that happened with your family yesterday or what you might be doing with them tomorrow, anything at all.
To try this idea out for size, imagine you’re holding in your hand your gratitude rock right now, stop reading this for a moment and think of something specific and detailed that you are grateful for. It can be anything, something small or something large, it doesn’t matter but make sure it’s something specific that you are grateful for right now.
Thinking about what you are grateful for more often is a solidly researched tactic to raise life satisfaction scores (one of the best scientific measurements of happiness we have). This story also serves to remind us of one of the most fundamental principles of being human; that how we think and talk (mindset) drives how we feel.
Your Gratitude Rock will help you create new more constructive patterns of thinking, a new ‘habit’ of gratitude.
In other words if you keep that little stone close it will make you happier.