The Myth of the SupertraitⅠ- Woodmam

When Ashley and I began this book, we adamantly chose not to focus just on children’s intellectual prowess. Brainy prodigies were not our goal; rather, we were interested in a more complete perspective of children, including the development of their moral compasses, their behavior around peers, their self-control, and their honesty.

We chose this subject at what seemed a fortuitous time. Over the last ten years, a new branch of psychology has emerged. Rather than studying clinical patients with pathologies, these scientists have applied their skills to studying healthy, happy people who thrive, in order to discern what were the habits, values, and neuroscience of those with greater well-being. This new starting-point has led to insights about the strengthening of positive emotions such as resilience, happiness, and gratitude.

In one celebrated example, Dr. Robert Emmons, of the University of California at Davis, asked college students to keep a gratitude journal—over ten weeks, the undergrads listed five things that had happened in the last week which they were thankful for. The results were surprisingly powerful—the students who kept the gratitude journal were 25% happier, were more optimistic about the future, and got sick less often during the controlled trial. They even got more exercise.

Emmons repeated his study, this time with undergrads writing in a gratitude journal every day for two weeks—and he also sent questionnaires about the participants to their close friends, asking them to rate their friend on a variety of measures. He wanted to see if the subjects’ improved sense of well-being was more than just an internal state of mind; did it actually affect how they interacted with others? The answer was a confident yes. Their friends had noticed them being more helpful and emotionally supportive.

Philosophers have long written about the importance of gratitude. Cicero called it the parent of all other virtues. Shakespeare described ingratitude as a marble-hearted fiend, and he decried ingratitude in children as being more hideous than a sea monster. But until Emmons’ research, we couldn’t really say whether gratitude triggered well-being, or whether gratitude was merely the by-product of well-being. Certainly the two rise and fall together, but Emmons showed that gratitude could be enhanced, independently, and greater well-being would result.

By itself, this wasn’t exactly extraordinary, but in the context of happiness theories, it was significant. Back in 1971, two scholars, Philip Brickman and Donald Campbell, described the human condition as a “hedonic treadmill.” Essentially, we have to keep working hard just to stay in the same relative place in society. Even when our situation improves, the sense of achievement is only temporary, because our hedonistic desires and expectations rise at the same rate as our circumstances. Brickman and Campbell noted that lottery winners are not any happier, long-term, than non-winners, and paraplegics are not less happy than those of us with all our limbs. They argued that this plight was inescapable, due to our neural wiring. Our brains are designed to notice novel stimuli, and tune out everyday, predictable stimuli. What we really notice, and are affected by, are relative and recent changes. As soon as those become static, we return to a baseline level of well-being.

That we are so adaptive can be a good thing. When life falls apart, we’ll soon get used to it—such changes in circumstance don’t have to become incapacitating. But when our lives are blessed, and things are going well, there seems something morally decrepit in how we so easily overlook how good we have it.

In the last forty years, a lot of cracks have been discovered in Brickman and Campbell’s theory of the hedonic treadmill. First, while most people might have a happiness set point, it’s not a flat neutral—it’s actually a fairly positive state. Around the world, 80 percent of people report being quite happy or very happy. Also, while paraplegics and lottery winners might return to their baseline, other classes of people (on average) never quite recover—such as widows, divorcees, and the long-term unemployed.

Emmons’ work was yet another crack in the hedonic treadmill theory. Effectively, he demonstrated that our default wiring can be consciously tricked; by forcing college students to pay attention to the bounty in their everyday lives, he got them to escape the perception-trap of the treadmill.

One of the many scholars inspired by Emmons’ research was Dr. Jeffrey Froh, a psychology professor at Hofstra University on Long Island. Froh also served as the psychologist for the Half Hollow Hills school district, spending a fair amount of time in the local grammar schools and high schools. Froh had been struck by the rampant materialism and sense of entitlement within the affluent Long Island youth culture.

“At the high school, there were BMWs in the parking lot, and E-Class Mercedes,” Froh said. “And they really wanted to look a certain way. They dressed immaculate. They wore two-hundred-dollar jeans, and hundred-dollar T-shirts. They wanted peers to know they didn’t get these on sale, and they weren’t knockoffs. There was also a lot of focus on where they’d been admitted to college—not for the educational value, but for the status and prestige, for the name brand of certain universities.”

He saw in Emmons’ work a possible antidote to all that.

Froh certainly wasn’t alone in that view. Educational institutes, newspaper columnists, and parenting coaches began advocating that children keep gratitude journals. Many schools started incorporating gratitude exercises into their curricula.

Froh, however, thought these efforts warranted scientific testing and real analysis. So with Emmons’ consultation, Froh began the first randomly assigned, controlled trial of gratitude in schoolchildren.

Hoping to help these kids before they turned into materialistic high schoolers, he went into the Candlewood Middle School in Dix Hills, New York, and enlisted the cooperation of the three teachers who taught “Family and Consumer Science” to sixth and seventh graders. All told, eleven classrooms were involved, amounting to 221 students; this included a cross-section of the whole school, with some gifted children and special education children. Four of the classes were given gratitude journals; daily, for two weeks, the students were asked to “think back over the last day and write down on the lines below up to five things in your life that you are grateful for or thankful for.”

This took just a few minutes at the start of each class. Some responses were quite specific (“I am grateful my mom didn’t go crazy when I accidentally broke a patio table”); some hinted at a specific event but didn’t explain it in detail (“My coach helped me out at baseball practice”); far more were all-encompassing (“My grandma is in good health, my family is still together, my family still loves each other, and we have fun every day”). Froh was particularly excited by how few of the kids’ items had anything to do with their possessions. Very little materialism emerged, and even then, it was eccentric, such as the child who was grateful for all the Star Wars books. The gratitude inventories, it seemed, were recalibrating the kids’ focus.

Before, during, and after the two-week period, teachers also passed out and collected questionnaires that measured students’ life satisfaction, gratitude, and emotions. This was repeated three weeks later, to see if the benefits lasted. The teachers were never told the purpose of the study, so they couldn’t bias the results; for the most part, they stuck to scripts Froh had written.

At the same time, three classrooms were assigned as control groups; all these students did were the questionnaires, with no other writing. The last four classes were instructed to complete the questionnaires, and also to complete their own daily writing assignment: the students in these classes listed five hassles that had occurred each day. Froh considered these four classes as a kind of alternative control group, to check for effects of dwelling on the negative.

So what was the impact of counting blessings?

There was none.
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