Fighting Discontent with Gratitude
Chris Grace: Well, welcome to another art of relationships podcast. I'm Chris Grace.
Tim Muehlhoff: And I'm Tim Muehlhoff.
Chris Grace: And Tim, as a communication expert, one of the things that I value about listening to what you bring to this, is just this perspective on communication. You get to speak at different places throughout the world and the country. You spend time traveling and writing. We get to travel together at different times. One of the things, I think that has been so fun, is hearing people's stories and taking questions. And, last time we talked about contentment and gratitude, because people are asking about this, where you go, and people want to know, how do you gather and gain a little bit better perspective on life, and what are some different ways and things that would help them in their process.
And so, as they think through their relationships and as they think through their desire, one of the things that stands out is, people say, "I know I'm not feeling at peace as much as I should." Or, "This whole idea of being thankful or grateful is something I'm trying to work on." It's a higher good and it's a great virtue. In fact, some people talk about gratitude as one of the supreme virtues that stands out as the most important thing you can hold and grab. We talked about some New Testament passages and thankfulness, and how to be thankful in all things.
And so, as you've been traveling and speaking and listening to people about this topic, what are some things that stand out to you as we continue this topic of gratitude and contentment?
Tim Muehlhoff: There's one communication theorist that I find fascinating, his name is Kenneth Burke. He talked about these endless hierarchies that is almost impossible to get out from under these. So, depending on how you view what level of hierarchy you're at will determine your level of contentment. By the way, these hierarchies never stop.
So, I always say this to my students, I work them through this progression, I said, "Listen, I graduated and did a masters and a PHD." My students applaud, I think that's awesome. But, my dissertation didn't win the dissertation of the year award that's given out by the National Communication Association every single year to grad students, right? So, I finish a dissertation, which in of and itself, you know this, is crazy difficult. But, I didn't win the award, right? I published a book with a leading philosopher, which is awesome. I mean, what a great opportunity. But, it didn't win an award. It didn't win a Christianity Today book award, right? I'm a dad, I have three kids. Orange County, actually did a 'Best Dad of the Year', it was a Father's Day competition. Guess what?
Chris Grace: You didn't win?
Tim Muehlhoff: I did not win!
Chris Grace: Seriously.
Tim Muehlhoff: But, I know, talk about being rigged. But, think about that, Chris. There is not one level of your life, that if you allow it, you can't look at something bigger and better from that one particular hierarchy. You and I teach at Biola University, but we just went to Yale. Well, okay, well, we don't teach at Yale. So, these hierarchies are always happening. So, we have got to find a way of being content at the particular level I'm at. It doesn't mean you can't want success, and achievement, and promotion. But, are you content with yourself if you don't get those things? Are you okay with the one level that you find yourself at, or are you discontent and always looking at another hierarchy that's bigger and better.
Chris Grace: Yeah, that's really, it's a challenge, isn't it? Because, it seems as if, and we talked about this last time, that it's just natural for us to begin to compare ourselves. We compare ourselves in almost every facet, whether it's in relationships, whether it's in material goods, whether it's what somebody else has or doesn't have that we wish we had or didn't have. Tim, I think you're right, I think this researcher has landed on something about this idea of the way in which comparisons, the way in which we don't match up, we don't see ourselves achieving what maybe somebody else has achieved.
And, I've heard you even say this before, we can always find somebody whose gotten something that we lack or that we wished we had. And, what does it mean then when Paul in various letters talks about "Always be thankful, in everything, by prayer and supplication with Thanksgiving." What does that mean and how do we do this? Because, many of the Old and New Testament writers connected love, peace, and harmony with thankfulness, right?
And, there's something about it that's out there, and how do we do this? This researcher in the area of communication talk about hierarchies, you have others that talk about ways in which we have to believe that God, or somebody, life, has given us things that we can be not only grateful for, but that we also find that gratitude is just almost affirming that there are good things and that we have been given those and those things exist.
Tim Muehlhoff: We talked last time about focus. So, let's go to a friend of ours, Bob Emmons, whose one of the top researchers when it comes to gratitude and contentment. He has this great idea called 'The positive recall bias' and 'A negative recall bias'. A positive recall bias is conjuring up as many pleasant memories as you can think of. And then, the negative bias, obviously is, I look at the negative aspects of what's happened.
So, here's what he did with a group of individuals. They were asked in a single sentence to list five things that they were grateful for that had occurred in the past week, that was one group. The second group was asked, I want you to list five hassles, things that just didn't go right, "I wanted a parking spot close to the place that I work and I didn't get it." "I was late because there was an accident on I-5." Right? So, it didn't have to be major things, but you were asked to list five hassles, five negative things. He found that you get locked in that pattern. So, people who are asked, I want you to do a positive recall bias, said, "Okay, well here are five things that I think went well. We went to a movie, me and my wife had a fun time." "My team won." This could be something as small as that.
So, you get in the habit of looking at your past week. The positive recall bias group said, "You know, I start to notice the good, not the bad." Well, the other group, I want you to specifically to notice the bad, the hassles. And, they got locked into that negative perspective, and it's kind of hard to get out of. So, again, this is not earth- shattering. But, is their glass half full or half empty?
Chris Grace: And, there are some people, Tim, I think that's a great study that they've put together. Because, it helps us to see ways that our kind of focus kind determines our reality. In other words, my focus in certain areas can also lead to some interesting little consequences down the road, what I see or don't see. How then, if we have listeners out there who are saying, "Look, I want to do better in this. I want to grow in contentment, or I want to grow in the ways in which I see the world differently." I think one of the things that you said the study is, "Okay, here's one. First of all, write down three, four, five things that you're grateful for everyday or every week." That's a great way, it just changes your focus, that's a pretty easy thing to do, right?
Maybe there's a way in which you can be more mindful like that. And, someone, I know Emmons have talked about this as well, there's visual reminders that can serve as a que or a trigger of something that would trigger a thought of gratitude. And, we could start to say, I remember trying this, and I would drive on to campus or out to work, and I would be thinking to myself, "Okay, I'm excited to go to work." But, I'm not sure I would call myself grateful at that moment.
But, there's just a place on campus where I would walk past and I remember saying, "I like this, I like being here at work." I felt that I turned it from maybe a neutral thought to something of a blessing. Like, "I am just blessed to be here." And, that location became a trigger to me as a visual, almost daily reminder to be grateful. So, some people could do that, or as you said earlier, to write these things down that you're grateful for.
I love my wife Alisa's, she would do this, she decided to write a list of things that she's grateful for. And, she specifically did that even in our marriage. She would keep this list of things, and she had a whole list on her computer and I would go in there sometimes and add things, cause I thought she forgot one or two that could have been ...
Tim Muehlhoff: With google images!
Chris Grace: "Wait, she forgot about this thing." But, it was great and I saw even some tangible ways in which that changes people, including myself. You know, what do you think?
Tim Muehlhoff: You know, my dissertation director, who I just greatly respect, she gave me such a great piece of advice one time. She said, "Tim, I want you to start what she called the happiness box." She said, "Tim, academia is tough. You submit journal articles and only 10 percent get accepted. And, you know book contracts and you get evaluated by students. Some students love you and some students aren't that thrilled with you, right?" She said, "You need to have a happiness box, and stick things in there that remind you of the good times." And, you know Chris? I've done that. I have it in my office, it's kind of fun to open it and go, "Oh my gosh, I totally forgot that. Oh, that's good." I think that's important.
Because, we have to be clear, Chris, you and I aren't saying what the positive recall bias/ negative recall bias. We're simply saying, you don't ignore the hard times, you can be disappointed, "I wanted this to happen, and it didn't." We're simply saying, make sure that don't get dominated by the negative recall bias. It's okay to be realistic, this was a hard year, this was a hard whatever. But, in the midst of that, are you noticing the positive that even happened?
And, here's I think a great spiritual lesson, Chris. I found it fascinating in Psalm:103, where King David says, literally says, "I'm going to recall the benefits of the Lord." Now, here's what I think is important: if American Christians were to do that, right? I'm gonna recall the benefits of the Lord, I wonder how many of us would pick something material, a house, a car, or accomplishments, or a bank account, right? David's list is fascinating. He starts off with, "All of your iniquities have been forgiven. Second, you will be raised from the dead. Third, you have been crowned with God's compassion and his sympathy." And then, I love this, Chris, "And, he's filled your days with good things."
I think as Americans, we flip the list. We start of by saying, "Has God filled by days with good things? Then, I'm content." David says, "That wasn't the starting point. The spiritual things you need to recall, they will outweigh the material things." And, I think that's important for us to realize, we've gotten a ton of spiritual benefits that we tend to ignore because they weren't part of the American dream and things that I can touch, see, and taste.
Chris Grace: It's such a great reminder, Tim, of the way, I love that. And, this idea of seeing something differently from a perspective, calling it to mind. I love the idea where, in the Old Testament, when God would do something and they would express gratitude. They would build a monument, an Ebeneezer, right? They would take rocks and build these rock things, I guess I don't know how big they were. But, they were enough of a visual reminder that they would come by and see this Ebeneezer and it would remind them of God's faithfulness and the things that have been given to them. And, I think that's the idea, sometimes I wonder if we don't build enough Ebenezers in our lives, right? We don't stop and pause and do that. There must be things that we can build into our daily life where we see something that reminds us of what he's done.
Tim Muehlhoff: And the thing that we forget, Chris, is God himself said, "I want you to take Sabbath rest." God himself rested. Each week, God says, "I want you to do Sabbath rest." Now, Sabbath rest, if we study it, means a couple things. One, it means looking the past. So, this past week that you just had. It's looking at the past week and saying, "God, here are the things that I'm thankful for." And, I think those could be physical things as well as spiritual things. Then, it's asking God for the grace to encounter whatever is going to happen in the upcoming week, right?
So, this Sabbath rest is almost what we're saying is, "I'm gonna train myself to look back on a hard week and I'm gonna force myself to say that even in that hard week. We had a hard week in our marriage. But, you know what? I'm still married to a pretty incredible person. We had a hard time with one of our kids, it was not pretty. But, you know what? There's a lot of friends we have who struggle with infertility and they would love to have a child to have a hard time with." So, we're not denying things, but we're training ourselves to see God's goodness that follows us even through some dark and challenging times.
Chris Grace: Tim, that reminds me of this study at the University of Georgia. It was about two-three years ago, that the way in which just a little bit of gratitude and contentment, in this case, as they interviewed couples, they had about 500 couples that they interviewed, they found that a little gratitude protected their marriages from the toxic effects of conflict. And what that meant was this, all of these couples experience stressors every day. We have difficulties, things we don't like, financial stress is pretty common, right?
But, there are a lot of couples who didn't seem to be as impacted negatively, they seemed to weather the storm a little bit more. And so, what they did was, they examined the benefits of just thinking like, saying things like 'thank you' and expressing gratitude for a partner and then perceiving that that spouse or partner was grateful. Right, if they perceive that their spouse was grateful.
And so, in these interviews, they said that the number one behavior that stood out as predicting marital quality and happiness was simply how they were able to perceive and look at spousal gratitude.
Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, that's good!
Chris Grace: It went like this, the most important predictor of marital quality, regardless of their financial strain, regardless of the negative communication patterns, or even their demographic makeup, it came into that those couples that express gratitude seemed to be protected from the effects of conflict. I think that's ...
Tim Muehlhoff: That's great.
Chris Grace: Fascinating as far as ways in which doing something by looking at it differently protects and leads us into a way of seeing things even if our circumstances now aren't changing.
Tim Muehlhoff: That reminded me of a John Gottman quote, Chris. I often write this quote up in the board but leave the last part blank. Gottman says this, "The first thing to die in marriage is, and then he draws a line." And you know what goes into the line? Politeness. Think about that, when you're first dating, oh my goodness, gratitude is given, you know, "Thank you for this honey, thank you, and thank you for saying thank you." And then you get married, and it's like suddenly, I don't say thank you for dinner, that's expected. Honestly, I thank you if my laundry is unexpectedly done, I expect that.
So, I love that quote by Gottman. Man, we just stop saying thank you. And, until you lose that whole perspective of what you're grateful for, because I'm not recognizing it anymore and I'm not expressing gratitude to my spouse.
Chris Grace: Tim, I think that's, if we already have landed on a couple of practical things, if we summarized them it would go like this: One, you mentioned earlier, record the things that you're grateful for each day or week, right?
Tim Muehlhoff: A happiness box.
Chris Grace: A happiness box. Record that in a journal, record that online someplace.
Tim Muehlhoff: You could call it a 'Muehlhoff box.' A Muehlhoff box of what I'm thankful ...
Chris Grace: Yeah, every time I see you, it triggers happiness.
Tim Muehlhoff: A 'Muehlhoff crate.' Go ahead, I'm sorry, I interrupted.
Chris Grace: And so, doing that, we begin to see the world differently. So, you're more mindful of it, right? Things that trigger. But, I think that one that you just said is, that idea of throughout the day practice acting gratefully, right? Even the notion of just saying thank you, or smiling, or writing an email of gratitude, things we used to do. If you are grateful, if you were thankful for this, how would you act, what would you do?
I remember this woman who came and talked to my wife one time. And, she was just talking about how she didn't feel happy anymore in her relationship, there were some struggles. One of the things she noticed, she didn't feel happy anymore when her husband came home from work. And so, they both worked long hours, they were very busy, she tended to get home before he did. And so, when he would finally come in, she was like still trying to process the day and he'd come in and they wouldn't really greet each other. And, my wife had challenged her to say, "What would you do and what did you used to do?" And she said, "Well, I used to go to the door and greet him." And she talked about the ability to go and do that, acting gratefully.
And by the way, it's not always easy to do, right? I mean, this doesn't mean that we can fake it till we make it, but it does mean that you begin to forget the things you used to do. And, this lady used to go and talk to her husband and greet him at the door, and she tried to do it again and it was hard the first couple of days. But after a while, just simply saying thank you or acting that way, or smiling, really started a small little change in them.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah. Let me go back to something you said just a minute ago. And again, this reminded me of what Bob Emmons says in a great book called 'Thanks', is what the book is called. Some participants were given one week, he writes, to write and deliver a letter of gratitude in person to someone who had been especially kind to them, who had made an enormous positive difference. What a wild thing to do. So, Chris, and I like what you said, an email I think would work just as well, but he was asking people to actually hand deliver it in person.
So, I was speaking at a marriage conference and when I give my testimony, I often say that I became a Christian through karate, Michael Crain's 'Karate for Christ'. When I was 13, a guy walks up to me at a conference and says, "By the way, Michael Crain, he's a family friend." I said, "You are kidding me." He goes, "No, no, no. Yeah, I know him." I said, "Would you get me his phone number?" And the guy did, he went home and got the phone number, emailed it to me. I called Michael Crain. Now, this happened when I was 13, Chris. And, I just said to him, I said, "Mr.Crain, I don't know if anybody ever gives you an update on your ministry. But, it changed my life. I became a Christian, went on staff for the Campus Crusade of Christ, now I'm at Biola University. And, I just wanted to say thank you." And he got really emotional.
But, how cool to do that? To just say, "Hey, maybe I haven't said thank you enough. Or, maybe I haven't said thank you recently." But, to put it in an email, put it in a card, a letter. Man, I think that cements the gratitude and is a wonderful, fulfilling step that we can take to show signs of gratitude.
But hey, do you mind if I mess this up? I want to get your opinion on something. So, we're speaking a lot about Bob Emmons, we really like him. But, here's something I want to get your opinion on, because this sort of blows my mind a little bit. So, he says this, "One of the more fascinating findings is that each person appears to have a set point for happiness. Getting published, moving to California, having a person of your dreams answer your personal ad. Each of these may send the happiness meter right off the scale for a while, but in a few months, it will drift back to the set point that is typical for the individual. The happiness set point is genetically determined and is assumed to be fixed, stable over time, and immune to influence or control."
So, if I'm reading him correctly, each person has a happiness set point that seems to be genetically determined. And, everybody gets happy if you win the lottery, but that we all settle back to our set points. So, one, give me your comments on what Emmons is saying. And second, what happens if you have a low happiness set point? What do you do to counteract that?
Chris Grace: Yeah. He is saying that, and I think that's the findings. Well, let me just add that it cuts two ways. So, there's a group of people who have just won the lottery. And, you would expect they should be two years, three years, five years down the road, happier than those who didn't. And the answer is, they are not. They have always gone back, there's an initial outcome of increased happiness, and then they go back to this kind of level of functioning that he ...
Tim Muehlhoff: But, different set points though.
Chris Grace: You're right. So, they're at different set points, but they go back down. Now, the opposite also happens, where people who have had tragic injuries, in fact, people that say that are paraplegic after an accident, you would expect that their happiness levels would be less after the accident. But, in reality, what happens is that they go back up after an initial decrease or hit to that. And, they go back to this set point. And so, it's this, almost this kind of notion that, yeah, maybe there is something to the fact that we fix or stay at a stasis level, this static level.
Now, you could look at it one of two ways. You can say, "Well, I kind of got ripped off a little bit on the genetic background. And, I'm just not as happy or content." And, I think we probably have to make a distinction between happiness and gratitude or contentment. Because, contentment seems to have a very different feel to it. What do you think? I mean, there's a sense of peace, there's also a sense of contentment with what we have or don't have. Regardless of my set point, I could still see things differently than if I maybe experience life differently than another person's set point. I'm still forced to be content or, not forced, but I'm still looking at a content level that I'm in charge of regardless of what I'm feeling. Now, go ahead to what, how do you ...
Tim Muehlhoff: No, I like that. And by the way, this just intuitively makes sense to me. We do meet people on a daily basis who tend to be happy people, and there's other people we just kind of call them Eeyores, just a little bit, right? Now, to give you a compliment, I think you have a very high happiness set point. I think, generally speaking, you and Alisa are just in really good moods. I can think of other couples, it's just the exact opposite. So, I do think it you realize that about yourself, "Okay, I have a pretty low happiness set point, unfortunately. And, I'm just kind of unhappy or melancholy most of the time." Then, I would say, recognize that and know that you need to compensate a little bit, to say, "Okay, I know this is true about myself. So, I'm gonna have to work a little bit harder on my positive recall bias."
And conversely, this is true, people have a high happiness set point, to say, "Just remember, not everybody lives that high. So, be a little sensitive to people who don't always see the silver lining in every cloud."
Chris Grace: Yeah, I know. I think that's good, Tim. I think there is a way in which, that idea of set points and that idea of where we are, there is something to that, that we just simply have learned to adjust or adapt to as people right?
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, yeah.
Chris Grace: There's a researcher in this field, her name is Doctor Amy Gordon, and she talks about gratitude that I think applies to wherever you find yourself on that set point. Cause, she would say this, "Gratitude includes appreciating not just what your partner does, but who they are as a person." So, see there's more to just the circumstances, but there's something that you can look deeper. And so, she says, "You're not just thankful that your partner took out the trash, you're thankful to have a partner that is thoughtful enough to know that you hate taking out the trash."
Tim Muehlhoff: That's good!
Chris Grace: I don't like to do certain things, or I find myself cranky in a certain way. And then, I now have somebody, who not only does these great things, but I have a partner who even thinks about it and is thoughtful enough to know what I don't like. And, maybe there's something there, right?
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah.
Chris Grace: It means, thinking about all another person's best traits. And, I think in relationships, you have to kind of constantly remind yourself, "I might be with somebody whose set point is a little bit lower, but I am just grateful because this person is the thoughtful person that I remember being with." And so, maybe there's a way of doing this.
Tim Muehlhoff: Okay, but is it wrong to do this? And, we've only been doing this our entire life with our kids. So, a lot is riding on your answer of this question. We have said, "Listen, marry a person who has a high set point."
Chris Grace: Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: Now, is that horribly unfair? And, by the way, there's gotta be a little bit of, life would be a little bit easier with a person who has a bit of a higher set point.
Chris Grace: It would be.
Tim Muehlhoff: That they bounce back quicker. They wake up happy. I don't think, is that bad to say, "Be on the lookout for a higher happiness set point?"
Chris Grace: You can see some benefits in it, can't you? I don't think it's bad, Tim. I think what it is, is each person is going to have a sense of compatibility with another person. And, they might weight that variable higher than somebody else.
Tim Muehlhoff: That's true.
Chris Grace: So, I would say this, if you're the kind that it's not quite as important to you, maybe that variable, that personality trait is, it's important. But you know, then they might say, "Get a high set point, low set point, that's not really the biggest issue for me in compatibility." I, however, as a general rule, would encourage you to find somebody who has a pretty high set point. That, especially if you find that your, maybe emotional or personality connect compatibility varies with this other person's set point. And, if you tend to be the one that, if you kind of follow a little bit. I remember dating somebody who had kind of a way high, these different levels. They could go up high but they could also go very low. I found myself kind of following or mirroring that, so I knew I needed somebody with a higher set point. That was for me, what do you think?
Tim Muehlhoff: I think you're right. It could be, it could be that you marry an artistic person and you just marry the package, right? The unbelievably gifted, articulate. But, they're a poet, so they are in the angst, and the muck, and mire. But, that's okay, because they're a wonderfully creative person.
Chris Grace: Yep, and for you, that's exactly what you are looking for, that meets some of your own compatibility things. And, you've grown and you appreciate that. I think as a general rule, you're right. There are some of these personality traits and characteristics that we value more than others.
Tim Muehlhoff: And the only thing I'll say, from a pre marriage standpoint, is I would want to date that person long enough to know what the set point is. Right? To know what you're getting into.
Chris Grace: That's a good one. I think that's a good one.
Tim Muehlhoff: I just want to know the set point.
Chris Grace: That's good one. Well, let's end here as far as just this talk. And, we're gonna keep talking about this whole idea. Because, there's a whole lot more to talk about.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, let's do one more on really, really practical things we can do to foster gratitude, and thankfulness, and things like that.
Chris Grace: That's awesome. Tim, it's great to do this with you.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, I'm so thankful, Chris that I get to do this with you.
Chris Grace: You have such a good high set point, that's awesome. So hey, thank you for joining us here at the Art of Relationships podcast. And, we'll talk soon.
Christopher Grace serves as the director of the Biola University Center for Marriage and Relationships and teaches psychology at Rosemead School of Psychology. He and his wife, Alisa, speak regularly to married couples, churches, singles and college students on the topic of relationships, dating and marriage. Grace earned his M.S. and Ph.D. in experimental social psychology from Colorado State University.
Tim Muehlhoff is a professor of communication at Biola University and author of several books, including I Beg to Differ and Marriage Forecasting. His most recent publication, Defending Your Marriage, speaks to spiritual warfare in marriage and how to equip yourself to defend your relationship. For the past 18 years, he and his wife, Noreen, have been frequent speakers at FamilyLife marriage conferences. Muehlhoff regularly writes and speaks for the Biola University Center for Marriage and Relationships. Follow Dr. Muehlhoff on Twitter.