Gratitude, happiness, and relationships

14 11 2014

Gratitude is another positive emotion that is strongly associated with happiness. Specifically, it boosts happiness, self-worth, social relations and optimism. It lowers negative emotions such as envy, materialism, self-blame etc.

To be grateful means to allow oneself to be placed in the position of a recipient—to feel indebted, aware of one’s dependence on others, and obligated to reciprocate.Above all, Gratitude is a mindset than a single act. The realization that all is gift is freeing, and freedom is the very foundation upon which gratitude is based.

One interesting thing is, gratitude may seem counter-intuitive to us.  “Thinking about oneself is natural, humility is unnatural.” We may have to really fight our narcissist instincts to cultivate gratitude in life, but it’s well worth it.

As eminent psychologist Thomas Gilovich puts it, there are two major enemies of gratitude:

  • The headwinds/tailwinds asymmetry or negativity bias, which refers to our tendency to see the things that are holding us back more clearly than that are pushing us forward.
  • Power of adaptation – which refers to our tendency to get used to things and take them for granted.

Practicing gratitude means counting your blessings. Life may not always be just, but you feel grateful for what you have got and move on. Gratitude amplifies the good in our lives – it enables us to notice the good, to reflect more positively on our past. It improves our social lives – because people like grateful people, it enhances pro-social behavior.

However, there is an important caveat to the practice of gratitude. More is not always good. Research studies have shown that while recording in the gratitude journal thrice a week boosted  happiness,  recording daily didn’t result in any increase in well-being. So, don’t overdose on gratitude.

An important thing we need to keep in mind while practicing gratitude is that we should not ignore or fail to recognize our own effort and value. Grateful people give credit to others, but not at the expense of acknowledging their own responsibility for their success. They take credit, too. It’s not either/or. 

Research suggests that gratitude is a key ingredient to successful romantic relationships. Sara Algoe’s study found that grateful couples are more satisfied in their relationships and felt closer to each other. Amie Gordon has done some remarkable research on Gratitude in romantic relationships and she defines gratitude in this context as “appreciating not just what your partner does, but who they are as a person”. You just don’t thank the person for the “act” but thank their intention behind the act. She says that gratitude means “thinking about all about your partner’s best traits and remembering why you got into a relationship with them in the first place.”

This is really a profound insight because one of the major problems in long term relationships is that the spark usually fizzles out with time and partners take each other for granted before too long and this results in a kind of disillusionment and/or everyday dissatisfaction, which may introduce new problems. But if we continue to appreciate our partners and be grateful for their presence in our lives, the relationships will continue to bloom.

Couples researchers Philip and Carolyn Cowan have shown that when the partners feel that the division of work in their relationship is unfair, they are more dissatisfied with their marriage and more likely to think they would better off divorced. But Jess Alberts and Angela Trethwey theorized and affirmed that it’s not the division of labor but the expression of gratitude that’s the key to strong and lasting relationship.

Jess Alberts and Angela Trethwey explain how one partner gets stuck with a particular household chore. The first thing is, there is something called “response threshold”, which may be different for each partner. So, the one who has lower response threshold for a task acts earlier on it than the other. Secondly, if a partner is skilled at a particular task, it increases his or her chance to perform the task again. As a result of these phenomena, the partner who does a particular task more frequently is perceived as a specialist and gets stuck with that task. Thus is the pattern set.  The problem here is that the under-performing partner does not feel grateful because, the over-performing partner is just doing his/her job. And this is a sure recipe for resentment and frustration. Given that each partner has different thresholds for different tasks and have different sets of skills, appreciating each other’s effort and contribution  and feeling grateful for each other boosts bonding. So, when the division of labor is unfair, perceiving the efforts of over-performing partner as gifts is important.  This typically makes the other partner feel obligated to reciprocate by offering his or own gifts by contributing more to household tasks.

Amie emphasizes the importance of communicating our appreciation and gratefulness to our partners; just feeling is not sufficient. Because only then it will result in the generosity cycle (That is, one partner’s gratitude can prompt both partners to think and act in ways that convey gratitude to each other and promote commitment to their relationship.) :

Feel grateful -> Work to keep relationship (Express gratitude, show concern, be attentive etc.) ->Partner feels appreciated -> Partner feels grateful

However, practicing gratitude in abusive and/or unhealthy relationships is not good for you.

Part 9 of Science of Happiness Series.

Part 1    Part 2    Part 3    Part 4   Part 5    Part 6    Part 7    Part 8

Friendships and happiness

7 11 2014

Like many other important relationships, friendships also tend to relate to greater happiness. Studies have found that friendships are strongly associated with happiness. It is important to note that both quality and quantity of friendships matter. Like all associations, it may be difficult to determine whether friendships lead to more happiness or happy people tend to make more and better friendships but some studies have suggested that the former is more likely.

Some of the many benefits of friendships include:

  • Practical help
  • Emotional support
  • Confiding or sharing as coping
  • The tendency toward friendship counteracts the responses of stress.

Scientists define the tangible and intangible benefits we get from our web of contacts, coworkers, friendships, family, and more as ‘Social Capital’. We need to work on building this capital for our own happiness. We all have strong ties and weak ties. Strong ties constitute close relations, best friends, partners, family etc. Weak ties are our acquaintances, either online or offline, professional networks and the like. Both strong and weak ties are essential and contribute to our social capital. Social capital is a fluid and we need to nurture it continually.  By setting the priorities right, we can avoid getting overwhelmed by having to maintain all of our ties.

In today’s diverse society, it is important to have egalitarian attitude because it makes interaction with people from other groups less stressful. As such, cross-group bonds play an important role in our happiness and health.

So, make time and reach out for your friends. You can only be so much happy in your life without them.

Part 7 of Science of Happiness series.

Part 1    Part 2    Part 3    Part 4     Part 5    Part 6

Marriage and happiness

29 09 2014

We are evolutionarily, and biologically wired to form social connections. And these social connections boost our well-being. The most important of our relationships are romantic relationships.

Marriage – it’s the cause of much happiness and otherwise too when it doesn’t turn out well. Some studies conclude that married people are happier compared to unmarried people. There is also another recent finding that says that once married but now divorced people are sadder than those who are either married or never married.

The question is – is it the institution or the people? Put in other words, does marriage makes people happy or happy people tend to have good marriages? A research study has shown that on an average it takes 2 years after marriage for people to come back to their baseline level of happiness. Hmm..

Nevertheless, a happy marriage is what most people seek. John Gottman has done a lot of research and conducted several studies trying to figure out the determinants and breakers of marriage stability.  A study conducted by him along with Robert Levenson focused on the communication skills between the couple that affect the marriage. By just watching a 3 -min muted video clipping of a couple chatting, he can predict with about 90% accuracy whether they will stay together after 6 years. Remarkable. Isn’t it? This technique is called thin slicing. He says that how couples interact on a day-to-day basis conveys so much about their relationship. According to him, there are four things, the occurrence of which can predict marriage instability or divorce:

  • Contempt
  • Criticism
  • Stonewalling
  • Defensiveness

So, what makes a stable and happy marriage?

  • Humor
  • Gratitude
  • Appreciation
  • Forgiveness
  • Emotional disclosure

Now that the wisdom is out in the open, make the best of use of it! 😉

Well, of course, not all problems of a marriage can be solved by these tips but undoubtedly these will definitely help. The first and foremost thing that is essential, before one attempts to apply these invaluable dos and don’ts, is  one’s belief in marriage and the desire to make it work, without which everything becomes pretentious and superficial.

Part 4 of Science of Happiness series.

Part 1    Part 2    Part 3

Relationships and happiness

25 09 2014

Relationships are an important part of our happiness. We derive a major chunk of our happiness from our various relationships –  both intimate and otherwise. Research has shown that number of friends is a good predictor of happiness. Also that talking with friends is strongly related to being happy. A Daniel Kahneman study found that intimate relations and socializing are the most highly associated experiences with positive emotions.

The converse is true too. Loneliness causes unhappiness. Lonely people have weaker immune system, difficulty of sleeping, and hyper-inflammation in their bodies. It is interesting to note here that social exclusion/loneliness (social pain) activates the same regions of the brain that signal physical pain.

From evolutionary perspective, we are a care-giving species. we tend to reconcile when conflict occurs (a reconciling species),  we have a sense that we are all fairly similar, we are a hyper-coordinated species. We imitate the behavior of other individuals in our group. We tend to maintain monogamy ( or at least try to).

We have lost some of our ultra-sociality now evident by the increasing no. of divorces, less happy marriages, and loneliness. So, what are the obstacles? – insecure style of attachment is one. There are three styles of attachment (John Bowlby):

  • Secure – loving, warm, and affectionate
  • Anxious – always worry about the trustworthiness of the bond ; worries, intrusive, insecure, feeling of abandonment; more likely to have experienced divorce, abuse, or loss of a parent
  • Avoidant – cold, aloof, dismissive

Secure people tend to have greater life satisfaction, greater happiness, more likely to be in stable relationships, experience more positive emotions on a day-to-day basis, more optimistic, more likely to forgive, to offer social support to their partners. Several studies have found that inducing feelings of attachment security in adults can help overcome some of the negative effects of an insecure attachment history.

It is argued that early childhood attachment patterns predict adult attachment styles in romantic relationships later in life. However, Meghan Laslocky, in this article, says that the pattern can be changed. She feels that it will help: to first learn about one’s attachment style (knowledge is power), then seek out partners with secure attachment style, find a therapist, and go to couple therapy -if both have insecure style.

Scientific studies have shown that we are also biologically wired to socially connect. We have something called “vagus nerve”, which is strongly related to feelings of connection and care toward others.- it is interconnected to oxytocin networks, regulates inflammatory responses to disease, it relates to stronger immune system, it helps you communicate, to empathize, feel compassion. Oxytocin is a hormone that is sometimes referred to as the “cuddle hormone,” the “love hormone,” or the “moral molecule.” Oxytocin increases monogamous tendencies in mammalian species. It quiets stress responses. It’s a promoter of family attachments, social connections and friendships.

Can we seek and achieve happiness outside of our relationships? Absolutely yes, and it’s required too. Though relationships – life partner, children, parents, close friends, – contribute a lot, they are not everything. Depending solely on someone or a few for our happiness is a mantra for disaster. It’s difficult for both the parties. It often results in feelings of disappointment on one side and burden on the other side.

Part 3 of Science of Happiness series.

Part 1    Part 2

Shuddh Desi Romance

6 05 2014


Got to watch this movie this weekend. Remember hearing positive reviews from friends about it back when it got released. But frankly, after watching the movie now, I don’t know what to say. For one thing, it’s bold. 🙂

Despite the risk of having dismissed as being from old school, I must say I found the movie irritating. What’s the whole point? I can think of a few:

  • It’s ok to be confused
  • Follow your heart even if it’s confused
  • Take forever to make up one’s mind
  • It’s ok to be irresponsible and commitment phobic
  • It’s ok to keep on acting on impulses until you have realized what’s in your heart and make up your mind about it, if it ever happens

I’m not saying that marriage is the holy grail and one should go for it, no matter what, or that the sooner, the better. I am pretty aware of why many youngsters today are skeptical about marriage and are afraid to take the plunge. Rightly so, I must admit, given the long term and intense repercussions in case of a misjudgment.

But backing off from marriage even after finding the right person – I have really hard time trying to fathom it. Agreed that things can go wrong after marriage, even with the person you (think you)  love, but it doesn’t mean that the alternative of living together – with confusion and commitment phobia – guarantees you better things. It’s only an illusion of happiness. True happiness comes only from commitment and responsibility, in the absence of which there  are always the demons of uncertainty and insecurity towering over you.

Think guys, there must be a reason why the institution of marriage has lasted so long! Fix it, do not throw it away!

PS: Personally, I think that the hero got lot more than he deserved. Just look at him! God! 🙄

On relationships

18 09 2009

Never take any relationship for granted. Every action you do counts and affects the relationship. Better make sure it’s in a positive way. Every relationship needs to be nurtured. Sometimes it requires a lot of effort. Right words should be spoken, right things should be done. Everything follows the ‘give and take’ rule. First give to the relationship, what you expect from it – be it respect or love or care or empathy or anything. Well, I guess this is what that binds us to other people. If the nature of relationships is not the way it is now, our lives would have been utter chaos.

It seems to me that you can’t afford to be yourself with anyone all the time – if you really care about your relationship with that person. There is nothing called unconditional love. Everything is conditional – only the degree varies.

But as I think it over, it doesn’t seem to be such a bad thing. On the contrary, I feel that it enables one to become a better person.  By responding to the demands of a relationship (assuming we want to make it work successfully), we constantly acquire new abilities. As social beings, there is no desire for us to get out of the relationship entanglement.  So, we just have to do our best.