It turns out that it’s been a big theme in my reading over the past few years – more so than I realized.  I just finished reading The Gratitude Diaries, and I wanted to share what I found most compelling about the books I’ve read on this topic, as well as some of the common threads that run through them for me.  Today is Worldwide Gratitude Day, so it seemed like a perfect time to finish off this post and share with all of you!


Of all the books on this topic, the one that has had the most staying power for me is Martin Seligman’s book Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being.  In his book, Seligman explains that psychology has typically focused on helping people to alleviate things that make us unhappy … but never about actually becoming happier.  His passion for the topic seems to have come in part from his extensive research on psychotherapy and drugs.  He says that through an extensive literature review on SSRIs:

for each you get a 65% relief rate, accompanied by a placebo effect that ranges from 45 percent to 55 percent … so high is the placebo response that in half the studies on which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) based its official approval of the antidepressant drugs, there was no difference between placebo and drug.

He felt the lack of focus on happiness was a significant gap in modern psychology that needed to be addressed, and he set out to do so over the course of his career.  He is now widely considered the founder of today’s positive psychology movement.  Seligman says that “well-being, not happiness, is the topic of positive psychology”.  Well-being has five measurable elements (PERMA – positive emotion, engagement, positive relationships, meaning, and accomplishment or achievement).  No one element defines well-being, but each contributes to it.  This is in contrast to Seligman’s earlier writing in Authentic Happiness, in which “happiness is the centerpiece”.

Through his research and applied work he learned that positive psychology has lasting effects, and that unfortunately, while we wish well-being for our children, schools focus on teaching them how to succeed in the workplace.  The studies and programs for children that he outlines in the book seek to address that gap.  Along with the other dimensions of PERMA (as summarized above), Seligman talks about the notion of resilience, and explores why some people have it and others don’t.  The Penn Resiliency Program (PRP) teaches these basics to children, and has been proven to “prevent depression, anxiety, and conduct problems in young people”, in addition to teaching them how to recognize and capitalize on their strengths.  An amazing and humbling accomplishment, to establish a scientifically-grounded approach that both alleviates the bad and amplifies the good in people!  Seligman has conducted a huge range of studies with people from many different life experiences – from the army to schoolchildren.  The fact that he was able to establish this vision for the field as a whole, and then do applied research to make it realizable and practical in a variety of circumstances has enormous appeal to me.

Based on his research and its application with many different types of people in a variety of contexts, Seligman has some very practical recommendations about how to bring ideas about gratitude into everyday life.  Keeping a gratitude journal (an exercise he calls The Three Blessings) is a process of writing down three things you’re grateful for every day – it the single most effective way to bring a positive outlook to your life.   I learned this many years ago during my sessions with a life coach, and it was interesting for me to learn that what felt good and true at the time was also proven to be uplifting.  And a gratitude letter – writing a heartfelt letter and then delivering it in person – was by far the most impactful way to lift the spirits – the spirits of the author!

Stumbling on Happiness

Some time ago I had the opportunity to read Daniel Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness.  I enjoyed his summary of all the research on happiness, but since I already knew (from Seligman) about the distinction between happiness and well-being, I was disappointed to find that it was not explicitly addressed in Gilbert’s book.  In retrospect, I had two major takeaways from Gilbert:  (1) Humans don’t know what makes them happy. (2) Science confirms this to be true.

If you ask people to predict what will make them happy, what they thought beforehand and what does end up making them happy are not the same.  In my case, just knowing that has been beneficial.  I know now that my biggest life decisions were made without fully understanding the consequences or implications.  Those decisions turned out ok.  But I was a bit naive in assuming that the situation was under control or that I really understood the implications of the choices I was making.  It’s good to know as I make big decisions in the future, at least.

For the most part, Gilbert doesn’t talk about how to apply the ideas he shares and make them real – which he acknowledged towards the end of the book.   The only substantive advice he offered was to find someone who has made a similar decision recently and ask them about their experience, e.g. before relocating for a job, speak to someone who has just done so.  This can be a valuable way to understand the practical realities of the decision you have in front of you.

The other part of Gilbert that I continue to reflect on is the Happiness Curve:


This particular graphic is a collection of the data from several different studies.  The finding is, consistently, that we think that kids are going to make us happy, but the lowest point of happiness in our lives as a couple is when we have young children.  The happiest moments are when we get married, and after our kids move out of the house.  And yet, our social system and our biology continue to reinforce that we should reproduce.  And we do – even though the belief that it will make us happier is patently untrue!

We know now that having children brings a deeper sense of gratification and life satisfaction that runs much deeper than happiness.  Even if I prefer the concept of well-being and flourishing, it’s good to be reminded why raising kids is hard. And that we should enjoy it because it won’t last forever!

The Gratitude Diaries

The main impetus for writing this blog post was my completion of The Gratitude Diaries: How a Year Looking on the Bright Side Can Transform Your Life, by Janice Kaplan.  It was an impulse buy from Barnes & Noble when I was there a few weeks ago.  Perhaps because of Kaplan’s background in writing for magazines, I found that her summaries of research and the resulting insights were very accessible.  She draws on Seligman, Gilbert, and many others – and she does a nice job reflecting on how to bring these ideas into practice.

In short, through the book she does Seligman’s Three Blessings exercise, and reflects on how it changes her life.  It was a good reminder for me how powerful that exercise is – because I haven’t done it myself in many years now.  She describes how the process of looking for the positive helps her change her relationship with her husband, her children, her estranged sister, her body (including exercise), her personal finances and her work.  It was amazing to see the concept applied to so many life situations.  I found myself uplifted by the book as I followed her transformation  – I think she was buoyed by her experience, and the reader is too.

I was interested in the book at one level because I had stopped actively keeping a gratitude journal, but also because – in spite of some difficult circumstances at work and with my health – I have been more grateful in the past few years than I have been in my whole life.  Why is that the case?  And what are we doing differently in our family and in our home life that makes that kind of attitude shift possible?  It was gratifying (!) for me that we have naturally engaged in the activities that lead to a more positive attitude.

There is obvious value of practicing gratitude in every aspect of our lives, but there were a few that especially resonated with me.

  • One of the huge responsibilities I feel as a parent is to raise strong, independent, well-adjusted kids.  I worry that my kids – who are more privileged than I was as a child, and even more so than the generation before – will not appreciate what they have.  How to do we help them achieve that (to the extent that it’s possible) through parenting? Kaplan describes the research in that space, and provides some guideposts for helping other parents bringing those ways of thinking to their kids.  Among others, sharing with them the wider world, so that they have a better perspective on their own life.  And then, this idea (for small children especially) that there is no distinction between gratitude and reciprocity.  That reminds me of my earliest readings in classical anthropology – Mauss’ The Gift, which was ultimately about the importance of creating healthy tension and mutual obligation between people.
  • I also really liked her writing about exercise and appreciating our bodies.  She shares that exercising outdoors and being in nature causes us to reflect on our place in the world, and so that inherently helps to create a healthy perspective that we might not otherwise get at the gym.  My partner and I – in spite of the brutal Chicago winters – do everything we can to exercise outdoors.  It was interesting to read that there is research that reinforces that.
  • It’s been so very hard to be grateful for the body I’m in as I struggle with an autoimmune disease.  Remembering that I still have two legs, two arms, and more may help me focus on everything I do have, instead of the vibrant health that I have lost over the past few years.
  • There is very moving passage where she talks about many people who have lost loved ones, and how that has transformed their thinking on what is important.  As I have lost a number of dear family members during this past year and a half, that one really resonated with me, too.

All in all it was an easy read and an accessible introduction to a growing body of research in the field of applied positive psychology.


Earlier I described Seligman as the founder of today’s positive psychology movement.  I described him in that way because there are others who preceded him.  For me, one of the most notable authors on this topic is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.  His is one of the most compelling books I read during my first Masters’ degree in Whole Systems Design, and the themes have stayed with me since I read it more than twenty years ago.  He describes optimal experience as

times when, instead of being buffeted by anonymous forces, we do feel in control of our actions, masters of our own fate. On the rate occasions that it happens, we feel a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is  long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like.

Csikszentmihalyi says that we achieve that experience through flow, when people are

so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.

He says that

When people try to achieve happiness on their own, without the support of a faith, they usually seek to maximize pleasures that are either biologically programmed in their genes or are … [considered] as attractive by the society in which they live … But the quality of life cannot be improved in this way. Only direct control of experience, the ability to derive moment-by-moment enjoyment from everything we do, can overcome the obstacles to fulfillment.

For me these ideas were particularly interesting and compelling because the idea of flow seemed natural and obvious in the context of being an artist or a musician. But what about for those of us working in a corporate setting every day?  Csikszentmihalyi believed that we could achieve a state of flow at work, and in fact provides some examples from subsistence farmers to surgeons.  At one point in my career I was told that I would need to ‘give up anthropology’ if I wanted to get ahead.  In other words, I could advance my career, or I could do what I loved and what I was passionate about, but not both.  I just didn’t believe that was the case, because I saw both my parents study and work on topics about which they were both curious and passionate.

It was in June 2011.  I had defended my PhD seven years prior, and I was feeling restless about my lack of career growth and the fact that I was doing a lot of other things besides User Experience (which is how I brought my anthropological self to work).  I had a chance to hear Daniel Pink speak about his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.   The premise of the book is quite simple – we are motivated by three very specific things – autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

  • He said that we need autonomy because human beings don’t engage by being managed and controlled.  People thrive when they have control over time, the team (who), the tasks, and the technique (how).  This flexibility gives people a sense of  autonomy, and when they have that, they are more likely to be engaged – and more likely to do the creative, conceptual, breakthrough work.
  • People achieve mastery by giving them additional control over time (such as the Results Oriented Work Environment – ROWE), over team (such as Facebook’s model for letting new hires pick which team they want to work for- company picks the talent, but the talent picks the team), technique, and over tasks.
  • And purpose matters, Pink argues, because at a philosophical, existential level, we’re all wondering why we’re here.  Human beings deep down want to do things for a reason – particularly in work.  In his research for an earlier book, he travelled around the US talking to people who had left large organizations to work for themselves.  In those discussions, people often used the same word in telling their story.  They were willing to work, but they felt like they weren’t making a contribution.  The highest performing companies today combine a profit and a purpose motive.

You can watch a short video about Pink’s work on YouTube.

About a year later I had a chance to hear Barry Schwartz, author of Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to do the Right Thing.  I wrote a blog post about it which you can read here.  In summary I said:

What makes people happy? What we now know with reasonable certainty is (1) meaningful engaged work and (2) close relationships with people. That means that if you can get organizations to change the mindset and cultivate wisdom, they will help business and customers … but they will also be happier. The reason for optimism is to imagine that it would be self-sustaining, and that all levels of the organization could operate with the same level of thoughtfulness and empathy …

So for me, these ideas about happiness (or preferably well being!), gratitude, and empathy are woven together, both in our personal lives, and in how we engage at work.

These findings are also consistent with research that has been done at Gallup.  Incidentally, Tom Rath (author of Gallup’s book Strengthsfinders) was a member of the first graduate program that Seligman taught on positive psychology.  The Strengthsfinder model provides a structured way for people to uncover what they are good at, so that they can bring those strengths to their work.  Employees that leverage their strengths are more engaged, and therefore more likely to stay.  I have used the program many times as a way for team members to get to know each other, and for me to get to know them so we can jointly identify opportunities in our project portfolio that are a good fit for them.  I find – consistent with the research – that my teams do their best work under those conditions.

In Conclusion

There was an interesting passage in Kaplan’s book about the relationship between gratitude, empathy, and emotional intelligence (EQ) … and what that means for raising kids.  She says:

It turns out that empathy is fundamental to gratitude – and to what psychologists now describe as ’emotional intelligence’.  Various studies in brain and behavior suggest that IQ accounts for only 20 percent of a child’s success in later life. A full 80 percent is determined by other factors that revolve around emotional style. When kids can step outside of themselves for a moment and imagine what it is to be someone else, they are better able to respond to other people’s emotions – and to recognize their own. They also start to appreciate both what they have and what others have done for them.

For me – perhaps because my work has such clear value and purpose to me – this way of thinking has profound implications.  I still identify as an anthropologist, and so in the work context, being a good researcher requires being empathetic.  Empathy requires the risk of opening ourselves up and being vulnerable so we can do our best work.  In the rest of our lives, being empathic also then makes space for gratitude to flow in.

Learn More

To celebrate Worldwide Gratitude Day, author Anne Lamott has a lovely piece on this topic that you might also enjoy.

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