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SALT LAKE CITY — Whether saying grace, giving a compliment or counting your blessings, gratitude has been scientifically proven to not only improve mental health but physical health.
But is there a right way and a wrong way to give thanks? Let’s say that some methods are more effective than others.
The first step toward gratitude
The first step in feeling gratitude is awareness. Especially in the United States, our lives are abundant with blessings. Positive psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar said we have a bad case of Affluenza. We are so affluent, we make ourselves sick. Why do we not appreciate these things more often? We get used to our blessings — and we do so shockingly fast. You might have loved your new home or car when you first got it, but after you have had them for a while, it is easy to take them for granted.
Just by taking a moment to be mindful, we can rekindle our feelings of appreciation. And by taking a few moments to think about the reasons we are appreciative can fan the flames even more. If you have difficulty tapping into genuine gratitude, just think about how your life would be different if something were suddenly gone from your life.
How to give a compliment
Compliments are always welcome, but sincerity is essential. People seem to have a nose for insincerity. So, if you struggle to find something to compliment a person about, wait until you can find something for which to be sincerely grateful. An insincere compliment may have the opposite of the desired effect. To help with the sincerity, you might spend a few moments exploring the depth of your appreciation. For instance, if you appreciate grandma’s cookies, you might think about the efforts she went into making them, the good memories you shared in helping her making them or just close your eyes and truly savor the cookie before sharing with her your appreciation.
Every effective compliment has detail. Though it feels nice to hear, “You’re amazing," or, "I'm grateful for you," it is much too vague and therefore lacks depth. Giving reasons as to why you believe the person is amazing will stick with them much longer. For instance, “You are amazing to me because you always do what you say you are going to do and I can always count on you for unflinching honesty — which is really rare in the world today.” Notice that the compliment is about them, not about you. This is an important point. An example of a compliment meant for them but turns out to be about you is "You always make me feel so good." As for how much detail, a good rule of thumb is two or three sentences. That way it is long enough, but not too long.
Compliment publicly or privately? Again, with an eye toward sincerity, know your audience. The object of your compliment might appreciate hearing your words of kindness in front of others but then again, they might feel that your compliments are more sincere in private. For instance, complimenting a friend in front of mutual friends might have a different effect than giving the same compliment in front of co-workers. Just taking a moment to think it through before expressing thanks will increase your chance of success.
One twist on complimenting publicly, is complimenting publicly but not directly. In other words, bragging about the person to others while the object of the compliment is within earshot. A recent happiness student offered the opinion that people will feel the compliment giver is getting some sort of secondary gain by expressing gratitude. She gave the example of complimenting her friend by raving to her children while the friend was around the corner (but within earshot) — an interesting perspective to consider.
How to take a compliment
How you receive a compliment is important as well.
We see this dynamic play out often: one person gives a compliment and the other person argues, minimizes or dismisses the compliment. This is hardly encouraging for the person to give more compliments. If you are not good at accepting compliments, practice. Just say “Thank you.”
Is it possible to compliment too much? The founder of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, says yes. A person who compliments too often and about every little thing discredits their compliments by making them too commonplace and they therefore lose value. While you can't put a number on it, for optimal impact, praise should be done fairly frequently but not too frequently. Compliments have a great impact when given to someone who just completed a great accomplishment. But do not be afraid to compliment the mundane as well. Criticizing only when a person falls short but failing to occasionally compliment routine tasks is fertile ground for resentment. Compliment the behavior you wish to support.
Can you be too grateful?
If we can over-compliment, does that mean we can be too grateful?
Robert Emmons, one of the leading researchers in positive psychology specializing in gratitude assures that we cannot be too appreciative. Making gratitude a part of daily life has been shown to significantly improve happiness, strengthen relationships, improve hope and optimism and lower anxiety and depression. but has also been scientifically proven to lower blood pressure, sleep longer and deeper, have less aches and pains and have stronger immune systems.
Make gratitude a habit
To make appreciation an automatic part of your daily life, you might consider keeping a gratitude journal. This consists of writing three to five things for which you are grateful. Try writing two to three sentences about each good thing. With this simple intervention, those struggling with severe depression had nearly miraculous results in a mere 15 days, according to one study by Seligman, Emmons and McCullough.
Sharing these positives with others can help them to see blessings they have taken for granted. It’s a bonding and fun activity to do with your loved ones to start the day on a positive note, to set the stage for good dreams or to put family in the right state of mind before carving the turkey.
Frank Clayton is a clinical mental health counselor specializing in happiness. He has more to teach about gratitude on his website. He hosts a number of free events including Happiness 101, The Happiness Social and a talk at The Leonardo on December 11th. Go to www.saltlakementalhealth.com for details.