Gratitude. Applying Seligman's research to your practice

Many years ago, a client showed up on my schedule that I hadn’t seen in over a decade. I was puzzled, but eager to see him again. He was every therapist’s dream client: motivated, attentive, thoughtful. He was the progeny of an abusive family, but he didn’t spend an inordinate amount of time lamenting that fact: he focussed on how he could overcome that inauspicious start to his life.

Though plagued with persistent depression in adulthood, he never blamed or whined about it, just worked as hard as he could to reduce the symptoms.

When he arrived, we spent a few minutes catching up. He was now living in another town, just here for a visit, but he wanted to see me while he was here. “So,” I said, “what problems concern you now?”

“Nothing,” he replied. “My job is satisfying, I have a good relationship with my wife and kids, and I can honestly say that I feel happy most of the time.”

I raised an eyebrow. “So, why….?”

“I came here to thank you. You really helped me years ago, and I wanted to let you know that.”

(Instant misty eyes on my part, but I did my best to keep it together.)

The Intervention I Don’t Remember

He went on. “There was one thing you said in one session that I took to heart, and it has made all the difference. You said that, instead of trying in vain to understand why my parents were abusive, that I should focus on my own children, on being the kind of parent I always wanted to have as a parent. So any time I had a flashback of my own abuse, I sought out my children and tried to be a good dad to them. And it worked!”

Ironically, I have no memory of having given that homework, and I still have no certainty about whether I read about it somewhere or cobbled it together ad hoc for him. Whatever the source, I was pleased that it had been helpful, and incredibly grateful that he had taken the time to tell me of his success.

We had peculiar arm wrestling over the fee for the session. He wanted to pay; I refused his check saying that his visit had helped me more than it had helped him.  Later, he mailed me a check, and I wrote him back saying that I had donated it to a mental health charity. In the end, we both won.

Gratitude Visits

That we were both winners is my main point. Whether he had read about “gratitude visits” or created it spontaneously to be a nice guy, his session was certainly a good example.

Dr. Martin Seligman is one of the grand masters of happiness research. He has discovered that arranging such a visit to verbalize unexpressed gratitude is the world’s most reliable way to increase the happiness of the person arranging the visit. The buoyancy in mood generally lasts a month or more.

As a bonus, I can personally attest that it increases the happiness of the receiver of that visit. Win-win!

Dr. Seligman has specific instructions for making the most of the visit. If you want to feel good for a month, and have an opportunity to express gratitude in person this Thanksgiving, click here for specifics. 

The Gratitude List

There is another gratitude exercise, second on Dr. Seligman’s list of ways to increase personal happiness. Indulge me as I pen a “gratitude list” here:

  • I’m grateful that, despite its imperfections, our country is still a nation that delivers food, shelter, and safety to most of its occupants. 
  • I’m grateful for my time as a therapist giving direct care. I’m lucky to be in the same category as nurses, firemen, physicians, teachers, and others who enrich lives.
  • I’m grateful that my current work continues to give indirect help to therapists and clients.
  • I’m grateful that, in the Autumn of my life, I have amassed a wonderful collection of satisfying relationships with family and friends.
  • I’m grateful that I have this blog as a vehicle to express my thanks to you all.

Sure enough, I feel good now! Happy Thanksgiving!


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