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Thanks for being… thankful!

Thanks for being… thankful!

“The more we express gratitude, the better we feel”: okay, but what does this sentence really mean to us?

What Is “Gratitude”?

The word “gratitude” has a number of different meanings, depending on the context. A practical clinical definition is the following:

Gratitude is the appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful to oneself; it is a general state of thankfulness and/or appreciation.

In other words, gratitude can be for virtually anything we (as subjective entities) realize has (or potentially has) a positive impact on ourselves. Gratitude has effects on our mood and our general well-being; it is a precursor of what is commonly called “happiness.”

3 Steps to Gratitude

Mr. Robert A. Emmons,[1] perhaps the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude, argues that gratitude has 2 main key components, which I am here splitting into 3 steps. The 3 steps are Affirmation, Recognition, and Acknowledgement. We do need to consider that the 3 steps, as identified above, are often not separate in time: they evolve naturally, all together in a synergic approach.

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“First,” Emmons writes, “gratitude is an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts, and benefits we’ve received.”

The above comprises the appreciation of something affecting us positively in many ways.

The second step is called the “recognition” stage. Immediately after (or together with) affirming goodness, we recognize that the sources of the goodness, the causes of our increased sense of inner happiness, are external to us. This coincides with a sense of inner awareness.

The last step is “acknowledgement”: giving credit where credit is due. The source of our well-being and enjoyment is external to us, and so we finally thank this entity.

Effects of Gratitude

Practicing a daily habit of gratitude has enormous advantages and apparently no contraindications at all.

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Numerous studies have demonstrated the powerful impact of practicing gratitude on both body and mind.[2]

It turns out that everyday experiences–and very simple exercises like keeping a gratitude journal–can change the wiring in your brain (neuroplasticity, anyone?) and change your life for the better.

Scientific evidence has proven that kindness changes the brain and impacts the heart and the immune and nervous systems.[3] Gratitude improves sleep quality as well.[4]

Gratitude and Kindness, expression of love and connecting with others: those ingredients are needed by the body to produce more Oxytocin, the “love hormone”. More Oxytocin equals to a general better feeling and wellbeing.[5]

According to Jane McGonigal, a scientific study concluded that “I wish I had let myself be happier” is one of the top 5 regrets of the dying.[6]

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Easy habits to cultivate Gratitude

Practical tip No. 1: Have you said “thanks” today?

Practicing saying “thank you” in a sincere and meaningful way. It’s one of the easiest psychological strategies for enhancing the feeling of gratitude. Looking for a challenge? Smile and thank the most grouchy, surly and unfriendly person you meet during the day. Perhaps you will not receive some kindness back, but remember that gratitude is a gift.

I’ve found tons of useful resources and studies all over the Internet, but if you are looking for a comprehensive starting point, a visit to the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California is a must. The key concepts summarized in this article are covered in depth on their website.

Also, at the Emmons Lab website, you can find lots of resources, including a questionnaire about gratitude.[7]

TIP: if you have just 3 minutes or so to start, take this quiz at the Greater Good website.

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Practical tip No. 2: adding gratitude to your daily journal

Simply writing down 3 sentences before going to bed and adding 3 new ones after waking up will make a substantial change. Looking for a shortcut? Then just think (and say, if not disturbing anyone) the three statements while laying down on your bed, eyes closed, before falling asleep. First, say: “Today I’m grateful for…” Then, wait a few seconds to acknowledge the sense of gratitude. It might feel like a sense of inner lightness gently warming up your chest. Then, move on and say the next one, for a total of 3. A light smile on your face is optional.

Putting feelings into words is believed to produce therapeutic effects in the brain,[8] and writing down stuff helps us become more aware of our thoughts, relieving the brain from its usual chatter. So, limit the use of the shortcut above to 2 or 3 times per week. Use some ink on the other days.

Another good resource is the article on Lifehacker.com about journaling and its effects.

Other Strategies

Everybody can easily incorporate simple and cheap habits to enhance their feelings of gratitude; consequently, we can all take advantage of the benefits associated with the experience of thankfulness. Among other psychological strategies, you can try:

Conclusion

There is nothing to lose and so much to gain by expressing and practicing gratitude. Let’s share our experiences in the comments section below!

Featured photo credit: Manlio Lo Giudice via theholisticexperiment.com

Reference

[1] Emmons Lab Website http://emmons.faculty.ucdavis.edu/
[2] Growing new neurons by weaving gratitude circuitry in your brain https://thegratefullifebook.com/2015/03/24/growing-new-neurons-by-weaving-gratitude-circuitry-in-your-brain/
[3] Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12585811
[4] Effects of Constructive Worry, Imagery Distraction, and Gratitude Interventions on Sleep Quality: A Pilot Trial http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1758-0854.2011.01049.x/abstract
[5] Why Kindness is good for you http://drdavidhamilton.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/Prediction-Aug-10.pdf
[6] TED talk: Jane McGonigal: The game that can give you 10 extra years of life http://bit.ly/1EKyPMQ
[7] The Gratitude Questionnaire-Six Item Form (GQ-6), By Michael E. McCullough, Ph.D., Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., Jo-Ann Tsang, Ph.D. http://www.sas.upenn.edu/psych/seligman/gratitudequestionnaire6.pdf
[8] Putting Feelings Into Words Produces Therapeutic Effects in the Brain; UCLA Neuroimaging Study Supports Ancient Buddhist Teachings http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/Putting-Feelings-Into-Words-Produces-8047

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Published on June 30, 2020

What Is Unconscious Bias (And How to Reduce It for Good)

What Is Unconscious Bias (And How to Reduce It for Good)

Many conversations are being held nowadays regarding unconscious bias, but what does it really mean and how can it affect your life and the people around you? With many types of biases, it can get quite confusing. In this article, we’ll touch on cognitive bias, and then zero in on unconscious bias. Both types of biases have an immediate impact on your life because they relate to how you and others think about yourself and other people.

If you want to protect your relationships and make good decisions about other people, you need to know what these biases mean[1]. Once we have clarity about that, we can explore in more depth unconscious bias and how to address it[2].

Cognitive Bias

Let’s start with cognitive bias[3], a predictable pattern of mental errors that result in us misperceiving reality and, as a result, deviating away from the most likely way of reaching our goals[4].

These mental blind spots impact all areas of our life, from health to relationships and even shopping, as a study recently revealed[5]. In other words, from the perspective of what is best for us as individuals, falling for a cognitive bias always harms us by lowering our probability of getting what we want.

Cognitive biases have to do with judgment, not mood. Ironically, cognitive biases — such as the optimism bias and overconfidence effect — more often lead to positive moods. Of course, the consequence of falling into cognitive biases, once discovered, usually leaves us in a bad mood due to the disastrous results of these dangerous judgment errors.

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Unconscious Bias

Unconscious bias is different from cognitive bias. Also known as implicit bias, it refers to unconscious forms of discrimination and stereotyping based on race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, ability, age, and so on[6]. Despite cognitive biases sometimes leading to discriminatory thinking and feeling patterns, these are two separate and distinct concepts.

Cognitive biases are common across humankind and relate to the particular wiring of our brains, while unconscious bias relates to perceptions between different groups and are specific for the society in which we live. For example, I bet you don’t care or even think about whether someone is a noble or a commoner, yet that distinction was fundamentally important a few centuries ago across Europe. To take another example, most people in the US don’t have strong feelings about Sunni vs. Shiite Muslims, yet this distinction is incredibly meaningful in many parts of the world.

Unconscious Bias and Discriminatory Behavior

Organizations often bring me in as a speaker on diversity and inclusion to address potential unconscious discriminatory behavior. When I share in speeches that black Americans suffer from police harassment and violence at a much higher rate than white people, some participants (usually white) occasionally try to defend the police by claiming that black people are more violent and likely to break the law than whites. They thus attribute police harassment to the internal characteristics of black people (implying that it is deserved), and not to the external context of police behavior.

In reality – as I point out in my response to these folks – research shows that black people are harassed and harmed by police at a much higher rate for the same kind of activity. A white person walking by a cop, for example, is statistically much less likely to be stopped and frisked than a black one[7].

At the other end of things, a white person resisting arrest is much less likely to be violently beaten than a black one. In other words, statistics show that the higher rate of harassment and violence against black Americans by police is due to the prejudice of the police officers, at least to a large extent[8].

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However, I am careful to clarify that this discrimination is not necessarily intentional. Sometimes, it indeed is deliberate, with white police officers consciously believing that black Americans deserve much more scrutiny than whites. At other times, the discriminatory behavior results from unconscious, implicit thought processes that the police officer would not consciously endorse[9].

After becoming aware that unconscious bias does exist, the next step would be learning how to recognize it in order to reduce it. I’ve outlined three crucial points to keep in mind below while further exploring the unconscious prejudice discussed above.

How to Reduce Unconscious Bias

Remember these three important points if you want to work on reducing your unconscious bias.

1. Unconscious Bias is a Systemic Issue

When we understand that unconscious bias is ultimately a systemic issue, we understand that internal cultures need to be checked and addressed first.

Interestingly, research shows that many black police officers have an unconscious prejudice against other black people, perceiving them in a more negative light than white people when evaluating potential suspects. This unconscious bias carried by many — not all — black police officers helps show that such prejudices come – at least to a significant extent – from internal cultures within police departments, rather than pre-existing racist attitudes present before someone joins a police department.

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Such cultures are perpetuated by internal norms, policies, and training procedures, and any police department wishing to address unconscious bias needs to address internal culture first and foremost, rather than attributing racism to individual officers.

In other words, instead of saying it’s a few bad apples in a barrel of overall good ones, the key is recognizing that unconscious bias is a systemic issue, and the structure and joints of the barrel needs to be fixed[10].

2. There Is No Shame in Unconscious Bias

Another crucial thing that needs to be highlighted is that there is no shame or blame in unconscious bias as it’s not stemming from any fault in the individual. This no-shame approach decreases the fight, freeze, or flight defensive response among reluctant audiences, helping them hear and accept the issue.

Unconscious bias is prevalent and often doesn’t match our conscious values. Everyone holds unconscious beliefs and prejudices stemming from our tendency to categorize people into social groups. This developed naturally as a way for our ancestors to quickly size up a possible threat. Unfortunately, it doesn’t translate well in modern life.

3. It Takes a Sustained Effort to Prevent and Protect Against Unconscious Bias

After being presented with additional statistics and discussion of unconscious bias, the issue is generally settled. Still, from their subsequent behavior it’s clear that some of these audience members don’t immediately internalize this evidence. It’s much more comforting for their gut reactions to believe that police officers are right and anyone targeted by police deserves it; in turn, they are highly reluctant to accept the need to focus more efforts and energy on protecting black Americans from police violence due to the structural challenges facing these groups.

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The issue of unconscious bias doesn’t match their intuitions, so they reject this concept, despite extensive and strong evidence for its pervasive role in policing. It takes a series of subsequent follow-up conversations and interventions to move the needle. A single training is almost never sufficient, both in my experience and according to research[11].

Conclusion

The examples and points raised illustrate broader patterns you need to follow to recognize unconscious bias. Only by doing so will you be able to determine if, and what type of, intervention is needed to address it.

Unfortunately, our gut reactions lead us to make poor judgment choices when we simply follow our intuitions. Unconscious biases are systemic and need to be addressed in order to make the best decisions[12].

We need to learn about the kind of problems that result from unconscious bias. Then, you need to develop the right mental habits to help you make the best choices[13]. A one-time training is insufficient for doing so. It takes a long-term commitment and constant discipline and efforts to overcome unconscious bias, so get started now.

More Tips on Overcoming Unconscious Bias

Featured photo credit: M.T ElGassier via unsplash.com

Reference

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