Sunday, March 22, 2009

Gratitude: The Science Of Seeing Positive Information?

Well, here comes a personal anecdote I never expected to have relevance to any blog post I would ever write..!

I was walking back to the office with two co-workers a few weeks ago, returning from a small-scale industry function. A few glitches but overall a very rewarding afternoon, I thought. One of the co-workers is a friend of mine, and I was curious to ask my friend what he thought about a couple of the fun incidents that had spontaneously taken place; from where he was stationed maybe he had even noticed some that I missed. I had also met a lot of wonderful people, made a few good connections, as well as accomplishing the business at hand, so I was smiling wistfully as I organized my memories, preparing to start chatting with my friend.

Suddenly the pleasant experience was abruptly shattered by the other co-worker walking with us. He started going on a rant of complaints about all the petty things that had gone wrong, things that we knew were not right but that no one else would have noticed. He carefully itemized the stupid mistakes that the company and our fellow co-workers had made, and made negative and snarky remarks in general for several blocks, to the point where I was hard-pressed to get a word in edge-wise with my friend. I never did get to compare my fun memories with his; that had to wait for a later time.

As silly an experience as it was, it nevertheless stayed with me as yet another cautionary example of how negative people tend to only see the negative in their lives, and how positive people might remain positive by seeing not just the negative, but to stretch their point of view so that it can encompass the good, the positive, as well.

Is a person positive-minded from having suddenly seen the positive in their lives, or were they already positive anyway, making it easier for them to see it? If someone wasn't positive-minded, how could they become so? How can they suddenly start seeing these formerly unseen images surrounding them? I've often wondered about this chicken-and-egg question about optimism.

I thought I had the answer with my belief in the value of gratitude. Whether in prayer, or in person with friends and family, and especially with customers, I try to always show my appreciation for the blessings that come my way. By hearing myself say "Thank You" it reminds me that there is something to be thankful for, which helps me to overcome my depression, and remain positive.

Therefore I was particularly interested in this new study out of Ohio State University, which claims that positive people are positive despite seeing negative information, whereas negative people remain negative because they fail to see positive information. In other words, optimism is related to perception skills:
While depression is often linked to negative thoughts and emotions, a new study suggests the real problem may be a failure to appreciate positive experiences.

Researchers at Ohio State University found that depressed and non-depressed people were about equal in their ability to learn negative information that was presented to them.

But depressed people weren't nearly as successful at learning positive information as were their non-depressed counterparts.

"Since depression is characterized by negative thinking, it is easy to assume that depressed people learn the negative lessons of life better than non-depressed people - but that's not true," said Laren Conklin, co-author of the study and a graduate student in psychology at Ohio State.
This study is one of the first to be able to link clinical levels of depression to how people form attitudes when they encounter new events or information, said Daniel Strunk, co-author of the study and assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State.
"Depressed people may have a tendency to remember the negative experiences
in a situation, but not remember the good things that happened," Conklin said. "Therapists need to be aware of that."
For example, a depressed person who is trying out a new exercise program may mention how it makes him feel sore and tired - but not consider the weight he has lost as a result of the exercise.
"Therapists might focus more on helping their depressed clients recognize and remember the positive aspects of their new experiences," Strunk said.

The lesson I learn here is an affirmation of the old saying, The Key To Finding Happiness Is To Search For The Good In Life. To which I add: "...and the key to staying happy is to feel grateful for finding it."

(Hat Tip to Henry at Why Homeschool)

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