Psychology has spent the better part of a century focused on what’s broken and needs to be fixed, with considerable less attention on how we can live fulfilling and abundant lives.  In many ways, it parallels the world of medicine where we think of the doctor as someone we visit when we are sick. Only now are we beginning to think about how doctors promote our health and wellbeing. We still have a ways to go. After all, we still call it preventive medicine, never a healthy living visit.
So, what does promote health and wellbeing? Five year after the initial call for more research in positive psychology, Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania, and his colleagues wrote another article highlighting progress that had been made in the intervening years. He also shared some of his recent research exploring the actions that people can take that will lead to sustainable increases in people’s happiness. In this research, he looked at a control group of people who were asked to reflect on early memories in their lives. Then, he compared them to groups of people who took on one of five activities:
- Reflecting on three good things in life. Write down three things that went well today and their causes and continue this for one week.
- Gratitude. Write a letter of gratitude and deliver it in person to someone who had been especially kind to you and has never been properly thanked.
- At your best. Write about a time when you were at your best, the personal strengths you displayed in the story, and then review you story once every day for a week.
- Signature strengths. Take an online measure to identify your top five (“signature”) charactdr strengths and then use them during the week.
- Signature strengths used in a new way. Take an online test to identify your top five (“signature”) character strengths and then use them in a new way every day for one week.
The researchers then measured people’s happiness at regular intervals in the following six months. The results showed that the first two activities – gratitude and reflecting on the good things in life – had a powerful effect. The letter of gratitude led to a sharp increase in happiness one month later. Even more powerful, people who reflected on three blessings every day lead to a significant increase in happening that was apparent six months later! Their happiness levels were significantly higher than the happiness levels of the people randomly assigned to the control group. Other studies have consistently found similar results. Gratitude appears to be a powerful predictor of happiness. No wonder it is a central tenant in most world religions. As important, gratitude is contagious. It is a powerful experience for the person expressing the gratitude and a positive and reinforcing experience for the person being thanked! Gratitude has a pay-it-forward effect. We can all recall people in our lives that have invested in us, given of themselves, and left us with an abundance of love we can’t help but share with others. Gratitude creates a positive feedback loop. People who are kind tend to be more happy and happy people tend to be more kind. All this suggests that gratitude isn’t only good for you; it’s good for the people around you and ultimately the community where you live.
So, what are some ways you can begin experiencing more gratitude in your life?
Count your blessings. Every day for one month write down three good things that you have experienced during the day. For each blessing, reflect on what you did to help it occur.
Write a thank you letter. Write a letter to someone who has been particularly kind to you or others. Send it in the mail or deliver it by hand so you can thank them personally.
Practice saying thank you for a day. Set aside a day this week to focus on saying thank you to the people in your life. Consider what you just take for granted at work and at home. To your remind yourself throughout the day, put three coins in your right pocket in the morning. For each thank you, move one coin to your left pocket until all three are there. Use this exercise as an opportunity to thank the people in your life for the big and the little but significant things they do every day.
Think kindness. Spending time each day thinking about the kindness you feel towards others can make a difference in how you see and experience the world. For the next week, set aside fifteen minutes when you will focus on others and the kindness would like them to experience. Begin by thinking about someone you care about. It may be in the form of a prayer or simply thinking about them, focusing on the care and love you feel toward them. Then extend this same kindness to yourself, expand it to a wider group of friends and coworkers, and finally to people who you even don’t know. Then, wait and see what happens.
 Seligman, M. E. P., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology. American Psychologist, 55, 5-14.
 Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N. & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60, 310-421.
 The other activity that had an equally powerful effect six months later was
 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.
Mcullough, M. E., Kimeldorf, M. B., & Cohen, A. D. (2008). An adaptation for altruism? The social causes, social effects, and social evolution of gratitude. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17, 281-285.
 Fredickson, B. L., Cohn, M. A., Coffey, K. A., Pek, J. & Finkel, S. M. (2008). Open hearts build lives: Positive emotions induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 1045-1063.