It's the time of year for turkey, football, frenzied shopping, oh, and also supposedly giving thanks for the all good fortune in our lives. Although the original intent of the holiday sometimes gets lost among all the festivities, most of us likely recall at some point this week that we should be reflecting on all the things for which we are grateful.
And what could possibly be wrong with counting your blessings? For most of us an occasion to show our gratitude to others and put our problems in perspective fosters a sense of well being. But enumerating the positive aspects of our lives and giving thanks for them can actually be harmful to the mental health of some people, recent research shows.
How can accentuating the positive turn out to be so negative? Sometimes it just triggers more bad feelings, a new experiment suggests. The BPS Research Digest blog reported the results of a study in which 772 volunteers engaged in one of three positive psychology exercises every day for a week, and then followed up to see how the exercises affected the volunteers' moods.
The exercises were either listening to happy tunes, writing about childhood memories or making lists of things for which the volunteers were grateful. At this time of year, you'd hope at least the last of these exercises would cheer people up, but for some study subjects just the opposite happened, BPS reported:
The high neediness participants actually experienced reductions in their self-esteem following the gratitude and music exercises compared with the control exercise, and no benefits. "The present findings provide the first hint of deleterious effects that can be incurred by the use of positive psychology exercises," the researchers said.
The psychologists speculate that the neediest participants (those you'd expect to get the biggest boost from dwelling on the good things in their lives) felt no emotional change from the exercises -- except for being annoyed and saddened that they didn't help.
BPS notes this isn't the first time experimental evidence indicated that self-help positivity might actually make matters worse. "These results add to an existing literature on the potential hazards of self-help," says the blog. "A 2009 study found that uttering positive self-help mantras (e.g. "I'm a lovable person") backfired for people with low self-esteem."
So if a member of your Thanksgiving party seems more moody than merry this year, the bad attitude may just come down to indigestion or being stuck with an annoying relative. But, as science suggests, the grumpiness may stem from frustration of not feeling the cheer expected from the holiday in the first place.