Jen Cunningham Butler uses a highly proactive and inspiring approach in dealing with the anniversary of her cancer diagnosis. At once it was corrective and intuitive; courageous and simple; heartfelt and effective. Jen prepares for the day by honoring her health and recovery. She actively demonstrates her gratitude toward the physicians, nurses and support staff involved in her treatment. Her story is detailed in Part One.
Part One chronicles Butler’s ongoing effort to demonstrate gratitude to all those who helped during her treatment. These are simple acts of gratitude such as writing notes, bringing a tray of goodies into the treatment center, and even lollipops to the parking attendants.
Although these offerings of gratitude are modest, these actions undid the anxiety of recalling the day, while activating a positive sense of self and affecting others. Instead of anxiety and depression, she was able to instill joy, feelings of well-being, and hope — because some of the goodies were delivered personally to women currently undergoing radiation.
We could leave this as a beautiful example of a human interest story, knowing that the tale alone will inspire others to approach their diagnosis day, divorce day, or whatever their “D” Day is in a different manner. But there is something more to this story that intrigued me.
What Jen had done intuitively was to follow some foundational research in gratitude. In fact, the cornerstone of what she did is an exact representation of one of the original positive interventions offered by Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association and the man introduced at conferences now as the “Father of Positive Psychology.”
In a seminal 2005 article, Seligman and his colleagues (Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005) reported on studies with five positive interventions. One of these they simply called the gratitude visit. The Internet-based study engaged participants to write a letter of gratitude to someone who had been particularly kind to them in the past, but who had never been properly thanked. Then the participants had to deliver the letter personally.
What made this study so unique in the field of positive psychology was that it was a randomized control study. The gold standard of research designs, it randomly assigns participants to the condition(s) being studied, one of which is a placebo. The placebo condition for this experiment was to ask participants to write about their early memories every night for a week. These folks were then compared to people delivering the gratitude visit. Those participants were given a week to write and deliver a letter of gratitude as described above.
The researchers used results from 411 participants and measured them on two scales, the Center for Epidemiological Studies–Depression Scale (CES-D), and the Steen Happiness Index (SHI).
The results? One week after the study, people taking part in the gratitude visit were happier and less depressed, and this lasted for one month after they had completed the visit. Of the five interventions studied, those taking part in the gratitude visit demonstrated the greatest positive change.
There are two interesting features of this study. First, it demonstrates that a gratitude visit isn’t merely an act of kindness, it is a proven method of improving well-being by increasing happiness and reducing symptoms of depression. Second, a six-month followup of all participants found that those who continued their particular exercise on their own continued to experience long-term benefits.
Jen thinks about her gratitude visits all year long. Her benefits are ongoing.
Thank you, Jen, for giving us inspiration and encouragement with your ongoing examples of turning lemons into lemon trees. For the rest of us there is only one question left: Who are we going to write our gratitude letter to?
For more information and another gratitude intervention check here.
Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410.
Tomasulo, D. (2012). The Year in Gratitude: Introducing the Virtual Gratitude Visit. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 28, 2012, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2012/01/03/the-year-in-gratitude-introducing-the-virtual-gratitude-visit/