Express Gratitude

Countless acts each day involve the interaction of giver, receiver and gift.

Gratitude is the realization that we have much to be thankful for in each of those exchanges.

“Most of us recognize the ways in which our lives are supported and sustained by others,” says Robert Emmons, “…But acknowledging this awareness takes effort.”

I want to concentrate on the effort in this post.

A book that pushed me down the #happier path was The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky. Her book is a collection of her original research and the research of others that points directly at the actions people can take to be #happier.

The first practice in her book is “Express Gratitude.”

Feeling grateful is important, and sharing it is just as important.

Martin Seligman’s practice of gratitude letters is the most documented. Seligman asked his students to write a 300 word letter to someone who they were grateful to have in their lives. He then asked students to arrange a meeting with the letter’s recipient and deliver it to them in person. Seligman told the students not to share the reason for the meeting and present the letter when they arrived. The recounted stories of those who received the letters are as beautiful and emotional as you’d expect.

Seligman, though, was interested in the students. He wanted to know if they would be affected by expressing their gratitude in such a personal and direct way. Seligman followed up with students and he found that students were still affected weeks and even months later. They were #happier for having shared their thanks.

The other equally studied method of expressing gratitude is with a gratitude journal. Oprah gets a lot of credit for publicized the practice in the 1990’s but the research supports that people are 25% #happier, exercise 30% more, and report fewer health issues when they keep a gratitude journal.

Some have focused on follow-on research to examine frequency with which people kept their journals. Some studies found that a weekly accounting of blessings showed greater long-term effects on happiness than those kept a daily gratitude practice. Emmons, who has done the most work researching gratitude, believes that keeping the practice matters the most. In his book, Gratitude Works!, he offers a variety of suggestions:

  • Sharing more detail helps maintain a practice. In studies, it was found that writing five lines about one item was better than writing one line about five different things.
  • Write about people who have helped you and people who have helped people you love.
  • Look for things you take for granted.
  • Write about unexpected, novel, or unanticipated events and circumstances. These surprising experiences are intense and can help generate gratitude.
  • Be grateful for the negative outcomes that you avoided, escaped, prevented, and redeemed into something positive.
  • Along the same vein, think about ways an event might not have occurred. This helps counter the tendency to take benefits for granted.

A daily practice around journaling could involve focusing on one of the items above and moving others on following days. The changing focus maintains a certain variety that avoids fatigue and highlights different ways to invoke gratitude.

If you need a goal, think about 18,256 blessings.  That’s how many entries in the journal of Jane Randall of Centerville, Utah. In reaching out to Robert Emmons, she said she tried to list each blessing just once.


Before I started this #happier research, I tended to think that gratitude was cultivating an appreciation for what you have and taking time to do that is important, but considering the opposite can be just as important.

In the holiday classic “It’s A Wonderful Life”, George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, is given a chance to see the world without him ever being born. Seeing that alternate future fills Bailey with gratitude and inspiration to return to his life anew.

Dutch psychologist Nico Frijda said “constantly being aware of how fortunate one’s condition is and how it could have been otherwise, or actually was otherwise before” engages our minds to recall and imagine those times.

Spiritual practices and academic research also support the value in focusing on less or being without. During the month of Ramadan, Muslims engage in the practice of fasting while the sun is in the sky. Almost every religion places value on silence and solitude. When you ask college seniors to comtemplate the limited time they have left, they report higher levels of well-being and participate more in school activities ahead of graduation.

We assume everything we have will always be there.

Flower petals fall.

Loved ones die.

Memories fade.

As Robert Emmons sums it up – “It is a good practice to notice when a particuarly good thing in your life is going to end and not assume it will go on forever. Or just imagine that it is about to end.”

Gratitude follows.



Gratitude – What Is It?

What is gratitude?

Is it an emotion? Is it a thought that we construct? Is it a value that we cultivate? No one is sure.

Anthropologist Jonathan Haidt suggests the existence of an emotion called elevation—“a warm, uplifting feeling that people experience when they see unexpected acts of human goodness, kindness and compassion.”  He further believes that gratitiude motivates you to become a better person, and engage in altruistic acts ourselves.

Paul Ekman, the leading researcher on mapping emotions to facial expressions, is hestistate to refer to gratitude as an emotion, because he can’t find a set of expressions that universally characterizes gratitude, like a smile for happiness or frown for anger. Ekman says, “Not everything we experience is an emotion; we also have thoughts, attitudes, and values, for example.”

Robert Emmons, the leading researcher on gratitude, calls gratitude a secondary emotion.  He refers to Ekman’s research and agrees there isn’t a universally recognizable expression. Emmons thinks this may be because gratitude lags after the event and is often felt later.

No one questions gratitude exists and the discussion of where it arises from is valuable.


Gratitude is one of the most reliable ways to make you happier. Emmons says gratitude has the strongest link to mental health of any personality trait – stronger than optimism, hope or compassion. Brené Brown, in her book The Gifts of Imperfection, says that her research found that gratitude and joy arose together in people’s experiences. Better sleep, less envy, and a longer lifespan are just a handful of many benefits that come from cultivating gratitude.

Being so pivotal to our well-being, understanding the source of gratitude can help us create practices to nuture its growth.


A Vow To Gratitude

I have been mulling around on this post on gratitude for over a week.

I keep looking for something unique to say, a hook that will catch your attention.

On the surface, gratitude is something we all know. We’ve felt it. We’ve been told we should feel it more. We feel guilty that we don’t feel it more often.  This complexity we layer on top of gratitude confuses us, or more accurately, it confuses me.

I know that’s true because it feels like another reason it has taken so long to write this post. In my researching and soul-searching around happiness, I find gratitude is something I don’t focus on enough on and express enough to those around me.

At the beginning of September, I made a personal vow around gratitude. I am actively working on being more grateful in my daily life. I plan to work with it through Thanksgiving.

Over the next few posts, I’ll share more of what I have learned about gratitude and the forms I am using to practice it.


What Makes You Happy?

Katherine Liu interviewed me for a zine she kickstarted and published this spring.

She asked me:

What makes you happy? 

Here was my in the moment, on the record, lightly edited answer:

I think I’m always surprised when I’m happy. It’s when all the stress and all of the worry and all of the regret fall away, and that’s what I think makes happiness such a wonderful quality of life.

I just got back from three weeks in India for a religious pilgrimage—India is an interesting country, and it’s a complicated country. But even with all the challenging parts of the trip, there were some beautifully serene moments of happiness. It was when all that other stu! fell away. It was slowly walking around one of the temples, being there with 6,000 Tibetan monks who were chanting all day long. There was a surreal moment of ‘There is nothing else but this’, that these people were doing something similar to what I do.

I guess that’s how I’ve come to think a lot about happiness lately. I think I try to move things in a forward direction, but what I really try to do is get rid of the other stu!—the things that stress me out. I think most people think that happiness is joy. That’s a different emotion. Joy is that ultimate high— like, “Oh, my son’s going to be graduating in three months for eighth grade.” That moment that he goes across the stage, that’s a joy moment. But I think happiness has the potential of always being there, if you let it.

And it happens in such unexpected ways—it happens every day. I have three kids, and every day it’s something they say, or some joke that they tell, and you just think—wow, that’s really smart. It clears everything else out of the way, and you’re just in that moment with them.


I am working on project about happiness, positive psychology, and ways to bring them into your life. You can subscribe for updates here.

Getting Happier Is Hard

Let me share the most important thing I have learned so far about happiness.

Getting happier is hard.

I know that might be a little depressing but stay with me for a minute.

The happiness research shows that each person has a baseline.  This is the genetic piece to the happiness equation and accounts for fifty percent of your overall happiness. This baseline varies from person to person, but for an individual does not change much and is a reliable piece of your personality.

Humans, as a species, are also highly adaptable. We have evolved to live on just about every corner of the planet. We have created tools and culture to carry knowledge forward. And contrary to what many of us say and believe, humans are incredibly resilient in recovering from tragedy and pain.

This adaptability has a happiness side-effect: most activities and events do little or nothing to change how happy we are.  There may be a temporary effect but we eventually return back to our happiness baseline.  We adapt to our latest set of circumstances.

Take marriage for example. Partners experience a boost in their overall happiness in the time leading up to the wedding, but within two years, each return to their pre-engagement baseline.

I want to stress that I said most activities do little to make us happier.  To make a real impact, we should careful look at our assumptions about what makes us happy.


I am working on project about happiness, positive psychology, and ways to bring them into your life. You can subscribe for updates here.

Negative Perception, Positive Reality

We have a bias toward negativity, but let’s not interpret that the wrong way. Our brains are designed to sense, signal and remember bad things to protect us from bad things happening again.

Take a moment and roll back through the events of yesterday. You’ll likely recall the arguments, tension. the close calls. As I do that, I see a few situations where I could have been more skillful.

Now, slow down and remember all the other scenes that made up your day. My day had challenging puzzles, laughs over lunch with friends, new writings and Avatar with my son.

Shelly Gable, a researcher at UC-Santa Barbara, does research in the areas of positive psychology and social relationships. In one study, she gave participants a list of sixteen common social interactions.  Eight of the events were positive (e.g. I received a compliment) and eight of the events were negative (e.g. Someone insulted me).  Gable asked participants to record how often these interactions took place over the course of a week.  

The results showed participants experienced on average 5.9 negative interactions in a typical week. I’d say that generally matches my experience and I can remember those pretty clearly.

Participants also recorded 19 positive interactions over the course of the same week, more than three times the number of negative interactions! Think about your own experiences again and how quickly we let those numerous, beautiful moments pass.

6 to 19

Gable says, “[A] key reason for primacy of negative information may be that it violates our expectations. Positive events, information, processes and interactions simply occur more frequently than negative ones.”

So, the negativity that we see and carry with us is tinted by a perception of how we see the world.  The reality is something diferent.


I am working on project about happiness, positive psychology, and ways to bring them into your life. You can subscribe for updates here.

Stacked Against Us

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t feel, at some point, like the deck is stacked against them.

We own a twenty-ish year old house and every time it gets really hot in Portland, our air-conditioning goes out. First, it was the condenser, then a capacitor in our heat pump, and then a pressure sensor. We’ve been doing well this year, but we’ve been on alert each time the temperatures rise. The trouble is that we’ve now conditioned ourselves to believe something is going to go wrong.

Our brains have this built-in tendency . It’s called negativity bias. We are apt to view an input from the outside world as bad and detrimental. Negativity bias has an even stronger effect when something significant happens in our environment.

The first time we lost our air conditioning was the weekend after we moved in to the house.  There were boxes everywhere, we had no idea the problem, and the wait list for repair technicians was over a week. At one point, the fire alarm started going off, because the temperature in the house made the alarm think there was an actual fire.

Our negative bias helps us cautiously assess situations and be ready to quickly flee if necessary. This might be a useful method to assessing danger, but it comes with a side effect: we are more susceptible to negative information. This phenomenon has been heavily researched and the bottom line is that bad is stronger than good.

Roy Baumiester, Ellen Brataslavsky, Catrin Finkeauer and Kathleen Vohs wrote a 48 page paper in 2001 enumerating the ways:

  • Bad events created greater psychology effects than good events.
  • Bad events last longer in our memory.
  • Negative feedback creates stronger reactions.
  • There are more words in the English language for negative emotions.
  • People lament more strongly a monetary loss when compared to the exact same monetary gain.

The researchers concluded this leaning toward the negative allows us to more easily see a need to change and improves our ability to adapt to an ever-changing environment.

But, how can we not feel the deck is stacked against us?


I am working on project about happiness, positive psychology, and ways to bring them into your life. You can subscribe for updates here.


A friend wrote me today and said they were surprised by my last post.

They said they’d never associated the words sad or bitter with me.

I get that.

I am not sure I would have strongly associated those emotions with me either.

Brene Brown on her Rising Strong as a Spiritual Practice audiobook (see chapter five) asks her audience how many emotions the average person can recognize.

Take a guess.

The answer is three – happy, sad, pissed off.

That was the range of my emotional fluency. Sad and mad captured me more often than glad.

And without vocabulary, talking about what I was feeling was hard. Really hard.

Brene says what we really need is the ability to articulate thirty different emotions if we want to deal effectively with what is going on with our inner selves.

My vocabulary is larger now and there is still more work to do.


I am working on project about happiness, positive psychology, and ways to bring them into your life. You can subscribe for updates here.

Is Happiness The Right Goal?

Before we head too far down the path, I thought it was important to acknowledge that not everyone has agreed that happiness is something to be pursued.

George Bernard Shaw said, “A lifetime of happiness! No man alive could bear it; it would be hell on earth.”

Author Eric Wilson believes melancholy should be embraced as an essential part of human existence, a quality needed to find truth.

“I have the true feeling of myself only when I am unbearably unhappy,” remarked Franz Kafka

Albert Schweitzer, the man upheld for his lifelong missionary work, said, “Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory.”

I have to admit that each of these quotes touches on a part of why I never gave happiness much of my attention. I thought happiness was overrated. It appeared in my life but not under conditions where I had control. I assumed there was something in my unchanging psychologic making that favored sad and bitter.

I don’t believe anymore that happiness is a pointless pursuit or a random mental state, but it took a long time to see that.

As we get started, let me suggest examining your beliefs about happiness.  Happiness is a loaded word that conjures us complicated questions: Does happiness matter? Am I happy? Do I deserve to be happy? Why are everybody else so happy?


I am working on project about happiness, positive psychology, and ways to bring them into your life. You can subscribe for updates here.

Happier – A New Project

Today I turn 46 years old.

I am starting something new today.

I have gotten very interested in what makes people happy and what role happiness plays in our lives.

I started really thinking about my own happiness about six years ago. I am not sure I would have even said that is what I was doing. I just knew I was in a bad place and that something needed to change.

I don’t have foolproof plan or a twelve step process to share. I can only say that I have learned a lot about myself.

What I want to do is get more deliberate about being happier. From the work I have done to this point, I know it takes practice.

So, for the next year, I am going to share the deliberateness – the research I find that helps and the daily practices I use.

If that sounds interesting or you feel that same need to change something, I hope you’ll join me.

I am setting up an email newsletter for those who want a simple to keep up with the project.  You can sign up here.

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What I Read – May 2017


The Crowdsourceress by Alex Daly – I’ve supported over 140 crowdfunded projects. I love everything about kickstarting stuff and is what lead me to this book. Alex has built a creative services agency for creators needing help launching projects.  The book is the collection of her knowledge having launched 60+ projects. The case studies focus on a handful of her most successful ones. This book is a Should for creators just getting started with crowdfunding and with building skills in the world of marketing. The appendix has everything from sample email newsletters and questions to expect in press interviews. For the rest, this is probably a Skip.


Startup of You by Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha – I remember when this book came out in 2012. I liked the concept of bringing startup principles to managing career.  The book does a good job on that front. It pushes a little too much on LinkedIn specifically and some strategies that I think are only available to set of people with substantial resources. Could if you know startups, Should if you don’t.
Three things I learned:
  1. Brian Uzzi’s research into Broadway musicals showed creative teams with both people who have worked together before AND new members are more successful. That group with strong and weak ties boosted creativity and has enough existing trust to support the work.
  2. Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson sums up our flaws in decision-making with three mistakes: we overestimate threats, underestimating opportunities, and underestimate resources. A study of 700 executives showed that it boiled down to one yes-or no question: Can I tolerate the outcome if the worst-case scenario happens?
  3. “The fastest way to change yourself is to hangout with people who are already the way you want to be.” They draw on the research of Nicholas Christakis snd James Fowler (see Connected) that shows how easily you can catch the emotional states of your friends, imitate their actions, and literally absorb their values.
How to Be Everything by Emilie Wapnick – I am a multipotentialite. I knew it from the first time I heard Emile talk about it. Her book is a exploration of what is it like to work with the desire to explore many things – the problems, work models, and how to be productive. The book was helpful in describing the condition but I left wanting a little more surprise. I feel like I still have the same amount of uncertainty around working with lots of interests. Help! Could.
Three things I learned:
  1. Do any of these labels resonate with you? -> multipotentialite, polymath, renaissance person, jack-of-all-trades, generalist, scanner, puttylike
  2. Multipotentialite superpowers include idea synthesis, rapid learning, adaptability, big-picture thinking, and relating & translating. This reminds of the Symphony skill from Dan Pin’s A Whole New Mind.
  3. Emile suggests four work models:
    • Group Hug (one multifaceted job)
    • Slash (job/job/job)
    • Einsten (one job to enable other passions)
    • Phoenix (Career->Career->Career…)
The Captain Class by Sam Walker – Walker went through an elaborate process to determine the best sports teams of all time. He wanted teams that dominated over the course of years and his follow-on efforts where to find out what made the difference. He ruled out great players, great teams of players, great management, great coaches, and big bags of money. Walker thinks it is great captains. That makes it an interesting book because only the most stalwart sports fans are going to know these figures. This also creates an interesting question about whether individuals with these qualities have perceived value in today’s major sports. Could.
Walker’s Seven Traits of Elite Captains
  1. Extreme doggedness and focus on competition
  2. Aggressive play that tests the limits of the rules
  3. A  willingness to do thankless jobs in the shadows
  4. A low-key, practical , and democratic communication style
  5. Motivates others with passionate nonverbal displays
  6. Strong convictions and the courage to stand apart
  7. Ironclad emotional control

Graphic Novels

Black Panther Volume 3 by Ta-Nehisi Coates and company- Great and real end to the story arc. Must.

Mockingbird Volume 1 by Chelsea Cain and Kate Niemczyk – This was fun. I like the attitude throughout. Must.