How a simple Facebook letter can increase your happiness
In the 1700s the prominent belief was that people would have to be threatened and punished to do good deeds for one another. The common saying was that people had to “be threatened with hell, and promised heaven” in order to be positive players in society. Along came Frances Hutcheson, philosopher and teacher, who noticed that people are at their happiest when they are helping another human being. It was recognized that stepping outside of oneself and not being self-absorbed lead to the happiest of times.
Can you recall a recent incident in which you helped somebody out? Whether it was a small or a large deed, I suspect that you had an amazing feeling afterwards. Recently I was at the grocery store and the guy in front of me in line dropped an entire container of blueberries, and the berries scattered across the floor. I immediately ran over to the produce section to grab him another package of blueberries as he picked up the berries from the floor. When I returned with the fresh container of blueberries, he had a huge smile on his face. He said, “Wow, thanks for getting me a new package of blueberries. Good things are coming your way.”
I felt so great afterwards because I saw how touched he was by my actions. Unfortunately when I got home a bottle of wine that I had just bought came rolling out of my car and broke as it crashed onto my driveway. But I still believed that my prophecy for “good things coming my way” would hold true. I had a great feeling that since I had done something good, it would lead to a cycle of more good things for myself and others.
Martin Seligman is the leading researcher in the field of positive psychology. He is also a firm believer that doing good deeds leads to greater happiness. In fact he has the empirical research to back up all of his claims. It has been discovered that simply watching other people do good deeds “elevates” our own emotions, thus increasing the likelihood that we will engage in good deeds ourselves. This means that everyone who saw me grab a new package of blueberries at the grocery store would also be more likely to go out and do good deeds of their own.
Having gratitude in life is another key to authentic happiness. Studies have found that being grateful and showing gratitude leads to greater optimism, well-being, and progress towards goals. Since gratitude can bring us so much happiness, Dr. Seligman proposed an activity called a “gratitude visit.” The assignment requires that you think of somebody that you are truly grateful for and write a 300 word testimonial to that person. He asks that you use concrete terms in explaining to the person what they did for you. For example, telling your parent that you are grateful for the rides to dance practice or baseball games.
The 300 word testimonial is then read to the other person. Ideally this is best done in person, although due to geographical distances this can be difficult. Dr. Seligman reports that the in person gratitude visits often end in weeping and a “changed life.”
The effect of the gratitude visit is long lasting. It has been measured that a month after a gratitude visit both people are less depressed and happier. When making the gratitude visit it is important to have some concrete examples about how the other person influenced you. Tell them exactly what they did to help you, how it has influenced your life, and how it made you feel.
Recently I came across my high school teacher on Facebook who I have not talked to in over 15 years. “Ms. M.” was the adult chaperone for my high school foreign exchange trip to Costa Rica. She was an amazing teacher, mentor, and support person. She was patient with all of us crazy teenagers, and was there for us when we felt home sick, or when we developed stomach bugs. I decided to write her a note to tell her how much I appreciated her, and how much the whole trip meant to me. She replied with a note that included, “just wanted you to know you made my day.”
By knowing that I had “made her day” it also made my day, and even my month and year. We now stay in touch on Facebook, and it feels really good to have expressed my gratitude to her. I can’t imagine that it was easy for her to take a group of teenagers to another country, and be incredibly patient, caring, and protective all at the same time.
Who can you write a gratitude letter to? Perhaps an old teacher, mentor, or friend? What concrete examples can you provide in writing your letter? Please comment below and let me know how your gratitude experiment goes.