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In August of this year, my wife, Angelika, and I have been married for 15 years. To express my gratitude for our marriage, I wanted to do something different than give her a bunch of roses and go out to dinner. Darren Hardy inspired me. In his book, “The Compound Effect,” he writes how he made a gratitude booklet and gave it to his wife on their wedding day.
For over two months, I wrote down the things I am grateful for to my wife. I did this every day. It is a wonderful exercise to be more aware of all the beautiful things in your relationship. Gratitude improves human well-being.
I am still very grateful to my wife, but it is more difficult to perceive that positive feeling right away. I’d have to grab a pen and paper again to write down what I’m grateful to her (thanks for the tea you made me earlier this morning, dear).
A too familiar experience
It takes effort and discipline to list what I am grateful for to experience that positive feeling. Sometimes I only feel a little better when I’ve written down what I’m thankful for because I’ve done it too many times, and it has become too common, too familiar.
A great article by Ozan Varol mentions a psychological study by Koo et al. The 2008 study shows that I am not the only one who does not experience a good feeling or a temporary feeling of happiness when I express my gratitude.
That doesn’t mean we should be less grateful. There is another way to experience the positive feeling, the well-being of gratitude.
Imagine another world
Instead of reflecting on a positive event and for which you are grateful (“I am grateful for the opportunity to have worked for my first employer“), reflect (or marvel) about the absence of a positive event (“What if I had never studied in Wageningen?”). Imagine a world where this positive event does not occur.
The study found that people who compared themselves to themselves in a different world where they were less fortunate felt better and more positive in the present situation.
I’ve tried this exercise for myself, and instead of saying I’m thankful for my wife, I imagine a world where I’d never met her. If I hadn’t gone to study in Wageningen (1991), I would never have met Reinoud, who had introduced me to my first employer, for which I did many great projects at home and abroad. If I hadn’t moved to Germany (2011), I would never have started my own business and never met Marius (2015), and we would never have founded “Help, wat moet ik kiezen?”
I can imagine a world much worse if I hadn’t met my wife (the adventures on our travels to Africa, Morocco, Japan, or Sri Lanka, our boys, our happiness, and our love would not have happened.)
This exercise helps me to experience a more intense & deeper sense of well-being, happiness, positivity, and gratitude. It’s also more sustainable than just writing down what I’m grateful for.
The complete (intense) gratitude exercise
Do this complete exercise to experience gratitude even more intensely.
Imagine a world where a certain positive event did not take place.
Are you having trouble identifying a strong positive event? Describe an event for which you are grateful in one of the following categories: education, health, safety/security, possessions, vacations/weekends/holidays, kindness/support from others, achievements/performance. Then, describe how obvious it was that this event happened and how easy it was.
Next, describe how this event(s) could never have happened or that it was not part of your life and how surprising it is that this did not happen.
Write half a page and take as much time as you need for both the presence and absence of a particular positive event.
Then indicate a value from 1 to 7 for the following 13 affected emotional states (1 = not at all, 7 extremely):
distressed, happy, thankful, upset, grateful, joyful, sad, hopeful, appreciative, lonely, depressed, secure, optimistic.
Do this for both the absence and the presence of a particular positive event. Then add the values of the emotional states for each event and divide that number by 13.
There is a high probability that the number for an absence of a particular event is higher than if the event took place. In the situation where I had not met my wife, the average emotional value is 5.15, and in the case where I did meet her, 4.38.
Although this confirms my positive well-being at this moment, it is more important that I actually feel a deeper & intense (emotional) appreciation and gratitude for my current situation that comes even faster to me.
BONUS: Another way to be more satisfied and grateful
The study also found that participants were more satisfied with their romantic relationship if they told how it might have been possible that they hadn’t met than telling the story of how they met.
If people ask you how you and your loved one met, rather tell them how you might not have met (and what wouldn’t have happened in your life).
You can also do this if people ask you how you ended up at your first employer, how you found your current house, how a certain project came about or how you chose a certain study. Then tell how it would be possible if this had not happened and what the effects would be.
You will experience that you are more satisfied, more confident about your life and your choices. There is also a good chance the story will reach the other person better because emotions and feelings are present in your story. As humans, we are much more sensitive to stories than facts and data.
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What would your life be like if a certain positive event had not happened? To what extent do you feel better about the situation you are in now? Other readers of this article. and I are looking forward to reading from you!
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