Thank you: The psychology of gratitude and appreciation

My university, The Open University, has recently started a ‘thank you’ campaign (#OU_thanks) where students and alumni have been encouraged  to express their thanks to people who’ve helped them along their journeys of studying at the OU. I was interviewed about this for an article that appeared in The Metro yesterday.


The OU has always had a major commitment to opening up access to higher education beyond those who have conventionally engaged in it. They put on flexible courses so that people can study alongside working full-time, they encourage lifelong learning, and online courses mean that people can study from home, while travelling, or from prison.

This recent thank you campaign recognises that for every OU student there is generally an unacknowledged cluster of other people who have encouraged and helped them to study in this way. There are supportive friends and family members, people who’ve assisted financially with fees, flexible employers, and the OU tutors and peers who’ve helped them through the process. With this campaign, students are taking the opportunity to express their thanks to all these people who’ve helped them to do something which they are often extremely proud of, and which opens up their possibilities in all kinds of important ways.

Interestingly, at the same time as the campaign was happening, a bunch of OU psychologists were putting together a new psychology module called ‘Living psychology: From the Everyday to the Extraordinary’. I’ve been writing two chapters for this module that have a bearing on gratitude: one on self-help and happiness, and one tackling relationship conflict. So I thought I’d take this opportunity to reflect on what we know about the psychology of gratitude, as well as giving some of my own thoughts on the matter.

Gratitude for mental health and well-being?

We probably assume that gratitude will be a positive thing for the person being thanked, but recent research in ‘positive psychology’ has found that it also has a very positive impact on the person doing the thanking.

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Collaborative approaches to conflict

Yesterday I ran some training on relationship therapy for counsellors which involved exploring various different approaches and techniques. I was reminded of a chapter that I’ve found particularly helpful in this area, which I gave out to the students. Re-reading the chapter I realised that it says something a lot more profound than I originally realised. I thought it would be useful to summarise it here and draw out some implications: both for intimate relationship difficulties and more for conflict more widely.

Collaborative relationship therapy

The approach is the ‘collaborative couple therapy’ of Daniel B. Wile, a US therapist. You can read all about it on Dan’s website here. Personally I prefer the term ‘relationship therapy’ to ‘couple therapy’ as it recognises that not all relationships are couple relationships.

Dan’s first idea is that the aim, in relationship therapy, should be to ‘solve the moment, not the problem’. This takes the pressure off trying to fix the whole – often seemingly overwhelming – difficulty that people are having. Instead, the emphasis is placed on addressing each interaction that comes up as something that can be ‘solved’, or engaged with more helpfully. Dan shares my view that conflict isn’t a problem in relationships: it is inevitable, and it can be helpful depending on how we engage with it.

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Compassion all round? A little story about Elan & Diane

When I woke up this morning a lot of people had shared a link on facebook to the story of a conflict between two people on a plane, ironically on a flight that was taking many people home to celebrate thanksgiving. The story got me thinking a lot about compassion – and the limits that we place on it.

For anybody who hasn’t read it, the story goes that the plane was delayed and one woman – Diane – made a big fuss about needing to get home for Thanksgiving, causing the cabin crew some stress. Another passenger – Elan – livetweeted the exchanges. During the flight he continued to tweet as he sent Diane messages about her lack of compassion. She responded defensively, his messages became increasingly offensive, and when they landed she slapped him in the face. People following Elan on twitter retweeted his story and many deemed him a hero for calling Diane out on her lack of compassion.

You can read Elan’s whole livetweet commentary here.

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Privilege & Oppression, Conflict & Compassion

This is an article written by Jamie Heckert and myself which original appeared over on The Sociological Imagination.

The political project of learning to recognise and name patterns of oppression has been, and continues to be, an important one. It has helped us to recognise that our own experiences of pain are not just personal; they are also political. And so we have become involved in social movements responding to these patterns and creating new ones. In this way, learning to name oppression can help to create a sense of connection among those who experience it.

At the same time, we notice that an idea (or ideology) of connection can substitute for the more complex experience of direct connection, of listening to another’s stories and of empathising with another’s pain. Political identity based on oppression can assume that experiences are identical: that all LGBT folk, all workers, all women, or all people of colour will have experienced the same oppression and should have the same politics. Of course, this all falls apart when we notice that everyone is characterised in different ways at different times in different contexts. No one is simply LGBT or a worker, or only a woman or a person of colour. Assumed, rather than directly experienced, connections rapidly fall apart when those who are assumed to be identical point out that they are not. Queer, working-class women and transfolk of colour experience all four of these patterns of oppression in particular ways (and, quite possibly others around ability, age, appearance, education and more). No politics of identity can incorporate so many differences.

Tensions around naming oppressions and recognising such complexities have formed the backdrop of a number of recent conflicts which we have been aware of due to living in the UK and being involved in LGBTQ politics. Some have played themselves out publicly, some more privately via emails and social networking sites. All of these cases have involved members of two marginalised groups, one attempting to name the oppression which the other is (unwittingly?) perpetuating due to their (perceived) privilege. Examples include complaints about trans-exclusion and cisgenderism in lesbian, gay and bisexual spaces (due to labeling of toilets, mono-gender workshops, etc.); criticisms of perceived biphobia in the work of lesbian and gay academics; pointing out the ignorance of structural power relations and imperialist narratives in the polyamory and kink scenes and associated literature; and many concerns about the perceived racism and/or ethnocentrism of gay and queer activists and journalists such as Peter Tatchell, Johann Hari and the organisers of ‘East End Pride’. On a personal level we have found ourselves saddened by the divisions and rifts often resulting from such conflicts. At the same time we recognise the echoes of earlier vital interventions, such as 1960s and 70s black and lesbian feminists pointing out the vastly different experiences within womanhood.

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Mental health: beyond a health focus

A number of news pieces in recent weeks have discussed a new report which found that only 25% of people with mental health problems get the help that they need. Articles highlight both the frequency of such difficulties (a third of families having a member with mental health problems at any one time), the high financial cost of not treating such difficulties, and the effectiveness of treatments like cognitive-behavioural therapies (CBT) for those who do receive them.

Certainly it is extremely important to make support available when people are struggling. However, these news reports seem to miss something by regarding this purely as a health issue, and by focusing only upon treatment once mental health difficulties are present rather than also considering measures which may prevent such problems or increase resilience.

The fact that so many people suffer with issues such as depression and anxiety has implications far beyond the health service, and the focus on targeting funds only at treatment for existing mental health problems seems somewhat blinkered.

As a starting point, here is a list of other arenas which could usefully attend to statistics on mental health and shift policy and practice accordingly. In all of these areas a broader biopsychosocial understanding of the experience of mental health problems would be of value:

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Tuning out, turning in – Turning out, tuning in

Yesterday I found myself reflecting on two different issues that I think about a lot: depression and conflict.

I’m about to start writing a chapter for my mindfulness book on depression so I’ve been mulling over what the experience of being depressed Is like, and what things help and hinder when we’re in that place. At the same time I’m becoming fascinated and concerned by the processes of conflict between people which seem to inevitably happen in all the academic and activist groups I’m part of. I’m wondering what might be done to maintain some kind of useful dialogue, rather than people convincing themselves that the other side is wrong and bad whilst they are right and good, and thus ceasing all engagement. Even as I see the problems in this approach I recognise the same tendency in myself.

As these two lines of thoughts unfurled themselves yesterday I found that they began to weave together into a similar set of ideas, so I decided to write a little about the patterns that I see in how we experience depression and conflict, and in how the experience can shift. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised that these ideas have come together: I deliberately started my book on relationships with a chapter on the self because of the connections that there are between how we relate to ourselves and how we relate to others.

Depression: Tuning out, turning in
When I reflect on being depressed the experience is one of being simultaneously tuned out, but turned in. What I mean by tuned out is that when we’re depressed many of us become terribly concerned with other people and the outside world. We monitor ourselves closely through the imagined gaze of others and judge what we think they are seeing very harshly. We become anxious about what others will see in us, and frightened that we will get it wrong somehow and be exposed in all our uselessness. Decisions become very difficult because we are so tuned out – trying to be okay for everyone else – that it is almost impossible to tune in to what we want and need ourselves. We might find ourselves busily rushing around trying to please everyone and not letting on how much we are struggling, or we might withdraw from contact as much as possible for fear of what others might see if we let them in close.

At the same time as being tuned out, we are also turned in. Whilst we are hugely concerned with what other people think of us or how we are being seen out in the world, we don’t really see or hear the people around us because we are so turned in and focused on our own struggles. We often spend a great deal of time in internal conversations with ourselves about whether something is wrong with us, what it is, and how we might fix it. We view other people in terms of their danger to us (‘they might see me as I really am!’), or the possibility that they might be able to help (‘maybe they have the answer’), but it is hard for us to make the shift that is necessary to understand how they are feeling and what is going on for them. Often we assume that we are the only person who is this bad and full of problems, and we are so fixated on not showing other people that this is the case, or apologising to them for our perceived wrong-doing, that there is no space available to turn towards their experience and let go of all of our own stuff for a moment.

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Self help or not self help?

I recently read a great new book by my colleague, Scott Cherry, called How to Stop Reading Self-Help Books. As well as being an entertaining read it presents some serious problems with self-help books and the self-help industry more widely. The book ends with a programme for weaning oneself off self-help books, written in a self-help book style of course!

But of course I am in a bit of a strange position in relation to criticising self-help books because haven’t I recently written something which looks very much like a self-help book myself? Here I want to summarise some of the reasons why I agree, with Scott, that it is worth being very cautious about such books, and also to explore some possibilities for engaging with this genre creatively (and, as Scott emphasises, critically) rather than wishing for its total demise.

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Mental Health – Beyond the 1 in 4

A short while ago I was asked to take part in an Open University day about mental health for tutors. It was a good chance to give a workshop about self care and why that might be useful for both students and staff. But I was also given a lecture slot in the day. I decided to share some of my thoughts on mental health more broadly. I was nervous because this was the first time I had spoken on this topic specifically and I know that my ideas on it can be challenging to hear. However, the talk seemed to go well and led to some great discussions, so I’ve decided to share it here too.

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