According to the Harvard Medical School, gratitude is defined as ‘thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible.’ At Outward Bound Vietnam, expressing gratitude and setting tangible goals are cornerstones of our programs that instil grit, compassion, wellness and a sense of agency in our participants.
The practise of being grateful has long been a topic of interest among world religions and philosophers, but it was only in about 20 tears ago that a systematic study of gratitude within psychology began. These looked at gratitude not only in terms of understanding feelings of distress but also understanding positive emotions as they serve as adaptive mechanisms for social life. For modern society, the increasing popularity of expressing gratitude can be linked to the North American tradition of Thanksgiving, a time to celebrate the harvest, which has promoted a culture of being intentionally grateful once a year. In Vietnam, this can be linked to the Mid-Autumn Festival. Gratitude has also long been romanticized within poetry and literature. All of these factors have led to a society that is more open to the expression of thankfulness and appreciation.
“Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.” – John Milton
What are the benefits of a more grateful outlook?
There are both physical and mental health benefits surrounding gratitude. A more grateful outlook leads to:
- Lower blood pressure
- A stronger immune system
- Heightened feelings of optimism, happiness and stress resilience
- More generous, compassionate people who are more forgiving
- People who are less likely to experience feelings of loneliness and isolation
How does gratitude tie in with goal setting?
Along with compassion and pride, gratitude is seen to be a pro-social behaviour that encourages actions such as helping others and generates a positive feedback loop that develops and maintains social relationships. This, in turn, upholds a greater sense of community. These three emotions work together to encourage individuals to exercise self-control with gratitude arguably being the driving force.
Gratitude increases people’s ability to wait and helps them to persevere in long-term goals and behaviours. This is because those who are consciously grateful are less likely to devalue future reward in favour of short-term hedonic pleasures.
Gratitude scholars Emmons & Mishra conducted a journaling study of university students in 2011 and found that gratitude does not lead to complacency, but instead enhances goal setting. Emmons and Mishra asked participants to provide a shortlist of goals they would like to achieve over the two-month study. They found that compared to the group who were asked to record their hassles throughout the study and the control group who simply wrote about their lives, the gratitude group reported achieving more progress towards their goals over the study period.
By tying in gratitude journaling with goal setting on courses, participants are encouraged to recognize the steps they have taken to achieve their goals and the team that has helped them get there.
How does OBV generate this habit on course?
As facilitators, we create a space to explore the goals and gratitude of our group and allow for the acknowledgement of individuals for their unique contribution to the team. This is done each day in the form of a journal, group gratitude jar or grid, and often precedes the evening discussion. Within this space of sharing, individuals are connected to the moment, their surroundings, their individuality and their community. These are connections that uplift and uphold the group dynamics, and society, in a positive way.
We foster self-empowerment by encouraging participants to free their entries of judgment on both themselves and others. In doing so, we try and break habits of dependence on others, and instead be aware and grateful of small appreciations that occurred today. This is no way diminishes the importance of significant others, but instead builds strength and believe in themselves.
In allowing each participant to share their entries, facilitators can build a sense of community. In understanding what others are grateful for, we can recognize other things that we too can feel gratitude towards and help build an understanding of one another. In sharing goals, we can hold each other and ourselves accountable and generate a support system to help achieve these goals. By allowing ourselves to acknowledge our goals and gratitude for the day, we can set clear intentions behind our actions while creating a space for accountability and understanding among group members.
How and why should we encourage this practice to continue after the course ends?
To help the habit of reflecting on gratitude last in the long term, it is important to allow space to acknowledge negative emotions while encouraging a positive outlook. We must accept that there will be some days where the idea of being positive makes our blood boil and acknowledge this emotion by making goals about those around us instead of ourselves. This removes the internal pressure to be positive and helps us focus on how to help others. This, in turn, generates positive feedback, which may help with the feelings of negativity.
After the course has ended, continuing this habit every day can give participants five minutes to themselves, to appreciate their blessings and acknowledge how far they have come with their goals. And if this practice is picked back up one month, six months, or even one year down the line, it can remind participants of where the practice came from and may encourage further post-course reflection.
The habit of expressing gratitude and setting daily, smart goals during participants Outward Bound Vietnam experience promotes a conscious focus on appreciations that uphold a greater sense of community, individuality, presence and connection. This practice links to our core pillars of Compassion and Wellness that we strive to instil in participants.
We acknowledge the scholarly articles below, which influenced the ideas here.
Dickens, L., & DeSteno, D. (2016). The grateful are patient: Heightened daily gratitude is associated with attenuated temporal discounting. Emotion, 16(4), 421–425.
Emmons, R., & Mishra, A. (2011). Why gratitude enhances well-being: What we know, what we need to know. pp.248-262. In Sheldon, K., Kashdan, T., & Steger, M. (2011) Designing Positive Psychology: Taking stock and moving forward. Oxford University Press, Oxford & New York.