Learn to Cultivate Gratitude & Forgiveness to Enhance Satisfaction About the Past …*

Learn to Cultivate Gratitude & Forgiveness to Enhance Satisfaction About the Past ...*  | rethinked.org -Photograph: Elsa Fridman

Today, let’s review what Positive Psychology has to say about happiness in the past. In a nutshell: the single most effective way to change your satisfaction about the past is to change your thinking:

There are three ways you can lastingly feel more happiness about your past. The first is intellectual—letting go of an ideology that your past determines your future. The hard determinism that underpins this dogma is empirically barren and philosophically far from self-evident, and the passivity it engenders is imprisoning. The second and third variables are emotional, and both involve voluntarily changing your memories. Increasing your gratitude about the good things in your past intensifies positive memories, and learning how to forgive past wrongs defuses the bitterness that makes satisfaction impossible. (82)

RETHINKING TWO PERNICIOUS BELIEFS THAT HINDER SATISFACTION ABOUT THE PAST:

DETERMINISM

To the extent that you believe that the past determines the future, you will tend to allow yourself to be a passive vessel that does not actively change its course. Such beliefs are responsible for magnifying many people’s inertia. (66)

THE HYDRAULICS OF EMOTION | PSYCHODYNAMICS

We live in a society that promotes the venting of emotions. The cultural assumption about feelings is that they must come out and be expressed for if they are not, they grow and fester within us leading to resentment, pent up frustration and ultimately, poor health. Interestingly, the research shows a completely different story:

  • Depression & The Invention of Cognitive Therapy – Aaron (Tim) Beck found that there was no problem getting depressed people to re-air past wrongs and to dwell on them at length. The problem was that they often unraveled as they ventilated, and Tim could not find ways to ravel them up again. Occasionally this led to suicide attempts, some fatal. Cognitive Therapy for depression developed as a technique to free people from their unfortunate past by getting them to change their thinking about the present and the future. Cognitive therapy techniques work equally well at producing relief from depression as the antidepressant drugs, and they work better at preventing recurrences and relapse. (69)
  • Dwelling on trespass and the expression of anger produces more cardiac diseases and more anger. Anger is another domain in which the concept of emotional hydraulics was critically examined. America, in contrast to the venerable Eastern cultures, is a ventilationist society. We deem it honest, just, and even healthy to express our anger. So we shout, we protest, and we litigate. “Go ahead, make my day,” warns Dirty Harry. Part of the reason we allow ourselves this luxury is that we believe the psychodynamic theory of anger. If we don’t express our rage, it will come out elsewhere—even more destructively, as in cardiac disease. But this theory turns out to be false; in fact, the reverse is true. (69)
  • The overt expression of hostility turns out to be the real culprit in the Type A-heart attack link. Time urgency, competitiveness, and the suppression of anger do not seem to play a role in Type A people getting more heart disease. In one study, 255 medical students took a personality test that measured overt hostility. As physicians twenty-five years later, the angriest had roughly five times as much heart disease as the least angry ones. In another study, men who had the highest risk of later heart attacks were just the ones with more explosive voices, more irritation when forced to wait, and more outwardly directed anger. In experimental studies, when male students bottle up their anger, blood pressure goes down, and it goes up if they decide to express their feelings. Anger expression raises lower blood pressure for women as well. In contrasts, friendliness in reaction to trespass lowers it. (70)

So if venting our anger and frustration only makes us feel worse and endangers our health, what can we do to increase our satisfaction about the past? Seligman suggests cultivating gratitude and forgiveness:

Insufficient appreciation and savoring of the good events in your past and overemphasis of the bad ones are the two culprits that undermine serenity, contentment, and satisfaction. There are two ways of bringing these feelings about the past well into the region of contentment and satisfaction.

  1. Gratitude amplifies the savoring and appreciation of the good events gone by.
  2. Rewriting history by forgiveness loosens the power of the bad events to embitter (and actually can transform bad memories into good ones). (70)

GRATITUDE – 

Numerous studies have shown the benefits of cultivating gratitude which increases joy, happiness, and life satisfaction. Just head over to the Greater Good Science Center for a plethora of reviews on the benefits of gratitude.

2 EXERCISES TO CULTIVATE GRATITUDE

In Authentic Happiness, Seligman proposes two gratitude interventions to try out in order to cultivate your capacity for gratitude:

GRATITUDE NIGHT 

Select one important person from your past who has made a major positive difference in your life and to whom you have never fully expressed your thanks. (Do not confound this selection with newfound romantic love, or with the possibility of future gain.) Write a testimonial just long enough to cover one laminated page. Take your time composing this; my students and I found ourselves taking several weeks, composing on buses and as we fell asleep at night. Invite that person to your home, or travel to that person’s home. It is important that you do this face to face, not just in writing or on the phone. Do not tell the person the purpose of the visit in advance; a simple “I just want to see you” will suffice. Wine and cheese do not matter, but bring a laminated version of your testimonial with you as a gift. When all settles down, read your testimonial aloud slowly, with expression and with eye contact. Then let the other person react unhurriedly. Reminisce together about the concrete events that make this person so important to you. (If you are so moved, please do send me a copy at Seligman@psych.upenn.edu) (74)

GRATITUDE JOURNAL

Set aside five free minutes each night for the next two weeks, preferably right before brushing your teeth for bed. Prepare a pad with one page for each of the next fourteen days. The first night take the Satisfaction with Life Scale and the General Happiness Scale and score them. Then think back over the previous twenty-four hours and write down, on separate lines, up to five things in your life you are grateful or thankful for. Common examples include “waking up this morning,” “the generosity of friends,” “God for giving me determination,” “wonderful parents,” “robust good health, and the “Rolling Stones” (or some other artistic inspiration). Repeat the Life Satisfaction and General Happiness Scales on the final night, two weeks after you start, and compare your scores to the first night’s scores. If this worked for you, incorporate it into your nightly routine. (75)

FORGIVENESS

We cannot control the memories we carry inside us. What we can control however is our focus and interpretation of these memories. We can cultivate gratitude to shift our focus towards experiencing more positive memories and we can cultivate forgiveness to alleviate the hurt of negative memories.

Forgiveness must be given freely and voluntarily if it is to be effective. Whether you decide to forgive someone for a past wrong is entirely your choice. Moral implications of that choice aside, I would like to point you to the research on the benefits of forgiveness:

In the largest and best-done study to date a consortium of Stanford researchers led by Carl Thoresen randomly assigned 259 adults to either a nine-hour (six 90-minute sessions) forgiveness workshop or to an assessment-only control group. The components of the intervention were carefully scripted and paralleled those above, with emphasis on taking less offence and revisiting the story of the grievance toward an objective perspective. Less anger, less stress, more optimism, better reported health, and more forgiveness ensued, and the effects were sizable. (81)

Forgiving is much easier said than done, but perhaps you will find a helpful entry point into forgiving through psychologist Everett Worthington’s acclaimed 5 step process to forgive REACH:

{ R } RECALL THE HURT

Recall the hurt, in as objective a way as you can. Do not think of the other person as evil. Do not wallow in self-pity. Take deep, slow and calming breaths as you visualize the event. (79)

{ E } EMPATHIZE

Try to understand from the perpetrator’s point of view why this person hurt you. This is not easy, but make up a plausible story that the transgressor might tell if challenged to explain. To help you do this, remember the following:

  • When others feel their survival is threatened, they will hurt innocents.
  • People who attack others are themselves usually in a state of fear, worry, and hurt.
  • The situation a person finds himself in, and not his underlying personality, can lead to hurting.
  • People often don’t think when they hurt others; they just lash out. (80)

{ A } GIVE THE ALTRUISTIC GIFT OF FORGIVENESS

A stands for giving the altruistic gift of forgiveness, another difficult step. First recall a time you transgressed, felt guilty, and were forgiven. This was a gift you were given by another person because you needed it, and you were grateful for this gift. Giving this gift usually makes us feel better. But we do not give this gift out of self-interest. Rather, we give it because it is for the trespasser’s own good. Tell yourself you can rise above hurt and vengeance. If you give the gift grudgingly, however, it will not set you free. (80)

{ C } COMMIT YOURSELF TO FORGIVE PUBLICLY

C stands for commit yourself to forgive publicly. In Worthington’s groups, his clients write a “certificate of forgiveness,” write a letter of forgiveness to the offender, write it in their diary, write a poem or song, or tell a trusted friend what they have done. These are all contracts of forgiveness that lead to the final step. (81)

{ H } HOLD ONTO FORGIVENESS

H stands for hold onto forgiveness. This is another difficult step, because memories of the event will surely recur. Forgiveness is not erasure; rather, it is a change in the tag lines that a memory carries. It is important to realize that the memories do not mean unforgiveness. Don’t dwell vengefully on the memories, and don’t wallow in them. Remind yourself that you have forgiven and read the documents you composed. (81)

Source: Seligman, Martin. Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology To Realize Your Potential For Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press, 2002. Print.

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