MLaTPW Part III: Gratitude
Wednesday, January 4, 2012
I feel like I don’t read at all anymore (though I do still aspire to someday getting back to that life that I once knew) but back when I did read, one of my areas of interest was sociology/social psychology — books that explain how people think, how people see and understand the world, and why people behave in the ways they do (which is often not rational and can work against one’s own self-interest). Sometimes knowing why you think or act the way you do doesn’t actually help anything, but sometimes it does.
Two of the books I read that I liked were Stumbling Upon Happiness by Daniel Gilbert and The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz. Both of them deal with how people feel about their lives and what factors contribute to those feelings, and while there is some overlap between the books — in many cases they use the same studies to illustrate points — they are coming from different angles. Stumbling Upon Happiness focuses more broadly on how we feel, what makes us happy and why things we expect to make us happy often don’t, while The Paradox of Choice focuses specifically on how making choices impacts how we feel about our lives, and provides concrete steps people can take to increase satisfaction with the choices they make and their lives in general. Both books are worth reading.
One of the things that Barry Schwartz talks about in The Paradox of Choice is how a key factor that leads to unhappiness is comparing yourself to others and focusing on what you don’t have that you think your life is missing, instead of on what you do have that you makes your life better. (“When life is not too good, we think a lot about how it could be better. When life is going well, we tend to not think much about how it could be worse.”)
Which brings me to The Pioneer Woman.
Aspirational blogs like The Pioneer Woman are similar to lifestyle magazines like Real Simple or Martha Stewart Living (not to mention all of the advertising we are constantly bombarded with, from television, radio, magazines, websites…) in that they are designed to make you focus on what you don’t have and think about how your life would be better if you had A or B, or did X or Y.
One of the main tools Ree Drummond uses to drive traffic to her site and generate page views is product giveaways. She gives away everything from flowy tops from her closet to Kitchen-Aid mixers to high-end SLR digital cameras. Product giveaways on her site generate up to 10,000 comments, and are a key part of her business strategy.
As noted, her site is aspirational, she is creating a brand, and her site is designed to make you compare your life to hers. (Or at least to her life at it is presented on the blog — whether or not that is her actual life is an open question.) It causes you to think about what she has that you don’t, and to hope that you might get a little piece of that when she gives some of it away.
But generally, getting something like that will not make you happy. It may make you feel good for a little while, but there is likely to be no real long-term benefit, due to what Barry Schwartz refers to it as “the ubiquitous feature of human psychology[,] … a process known as adaptation.”
As Schwartz describes it:
Simply put, we get used to things, and then we start to take them for granted…. When I first got cable TV, I was ecstatic about the reception and excited about all the choices it provided (many fewer than today). Now I moan when the cable goes out and I complain about the paucity of attractive programs…. Because of adaptation, enthusiasm about positive experiences doesn’t sustain itself.
You end up on what researchers have dubbed the “hedonic treadmill.” You buy things that make you happy, and then you get used to them, so you buy more things — bigger, better, faster things. The cycle can go on indefinitely, but you’re never really happier than you were before. How much nicer is the car you drive now than the first car you owned? It’s probably a lot nicer. Are you happier with it? Probably not. Were you happier after the vacation in Europe than you were after the camping trip? Were your friends more interested in looking at your pictures? (Umm … no, they were not.)
There’s a constant escalation of purchases and activities, yet you are left at the same level of happiness. (I think it actually might better be called the “hedonic stairmaster” — you’re climbing and climbing yet not getting any higher.)
One strategy for getting around this that is not discussed in either book but that I have found to be generally effective is to consciously limit your purchases. If you buy only things you need or truly want — after much thought and trying alternatives and seeing how it is to live without them — they will in fact make you happy when you get them. For instance I had a wood stove installed in my office last year and I love my wood stove with all my heart, it was the best sixteen hundred dollars I ever spent. I also continue to love the Terry road bike I bought in 1992, and my down comforter, and the hand-me-down cowboy boots my friend Rah gave me….
So I’m not going to say that things can’t bring joy, they can. But most things don’t, and the more things you buy, the less likely it is that any one of them will make you happy.
One of the reasons I love my wood stove and bike so much is because it took me forever to talk myself into getting them, and I spent a significant amount of time without them, thinking about what to do. When I finally did get them, I really, really appreciated them. And even now, when I use them, I remember what it was like to not have them, which makes me continue to value them highly.
So that’s my own personal strategy for making sure that things I get live up to expectations — don’t get very much, and only get things you really want.
Another strategy is the one outlined in The Paradox of Choice, which is to practice gratitude — to consciously spend time thinking about how much better things are than they could be, reflecting on what parts of your life bring you joy and satisfaction, and taking time to note what you do have that you love and value.
As Schwartz explains:
Finally, we can remind ourselves to be grateful for what we have. This may seem trite, the sort of thing one hears from parents or ministers, and then ignores. But individuals who regularly experience and express gratitude are physically healthier, more optimistic about the future, and feel better about their lives than those who do not. Individuals who experience gratitude are more alert, enthusiastic, and energetic than those who do not, and they are more likely to achieve personal goals.
And unlike adaptation, the experience of gratitude is something we can affect directly. Experiencing and expressing gratitude actually gets easier with practice. By causing us to focus on how much better our lives are than they could have been, or were before, the disappointment that adaptation bring in its wake can be blunted.
(To support these conclusions, he cites the work of Professor Robert Emmons at UC Davis, a leading researcher in the field.)
So the next time you are tempted to go read The Pioneer Woman as a way to escape from the tedium of your day-to-day life, thinking it will be a little break that will make you feel better, you should instead practice experiencing gratitude for what you do have.
Schwartz even gives advice on how to do that. He recommends the practice of keeping a gratitude journal, adopting a simple routine:
1. Keep a notepad at your bedside.
2. Every morning, when you wake up, or every night, when you go to bed, use the notepad to list five things that happened that you’re grateful for.
As Schwartz notes, “These objects of gratitude occasionally will be big (a job promotion, a great first date), but most of the time, they will be small (sunlight streaming in through the bedroom window, a kind word from a friend, a piece of swordfish cooked just the way you like it, an informative article in a magazine).”
He also says that you will likely feel silly or self-conscious when you start doing this, and you may have trouble thinking of things. But the more you do it, the easier it will get, and the more natural it will feel.
You also may find yourself discovering many things to be grateful for on even the most ordinary of days. Finally, you may find yourself feeling better and better about your life as it is, and less and less driven to find the ‘new and improved’ products and activities that will enhance it.
So the bottom line is … stop comparing your life to everyone else’s … stop thinking about what you don’t have that you “need” … and start thinking about what you do have that you love. It will become a self-perpetuating cycle, the more you do it, the better you’ll feel, and the more you’ll be aware of that you are grateful for, which will make you feel even better.
(And this is the last time I will write a post about The Pioneer Woman. I promise.)