Gain a New Attitude through Gratitude—The Psychology of Giving Thanks

“If we study what is merely average, we will remain merely average.” Shawn Achor

I originally posted about Shawn Achor’s TED talk on gratitude and its link to a positive mental attitude back on June 4th. I tried his journal-based program for 21 days and had good results. In the past almost 6 months now it has become an integral part of the fabric of my life that I thought I would update this post on a day devoted to the giving of thanks.

Shawn Achor is a psychologist who is the CEO of Good Think, Inc. After attending Harvard University and getting a degree in psychology, he helped students at Harvard for the next 8 years as a counselor. He gave a talk about the relationship of an “attitude of gratitude” and positive psychology at a TED talk  in May 2011.   His talk is informative, but also very fast-paced and, incidentally, very funny as well. (As a member of Toastmasters, I appreciated his speech delivery very much.) Here’s the link to his talk.

I outline his talk below which he concludes with a methodology on how to press the “reset” button for your mindset so that you are more optimistic.   The only equipment you need to follow his method is to buy a journal to keep notes in.

At the end of the talk, I will relate the results I had in using his method.

1. Escaping the law of the average

Social scientists make pronouncements about trends based on averages within populations, but people have to realize that when you are dealing with the potential for individual happiness or creativity, you need to escape the “law of the average”. When psychologists strive to make people “normal”, then if they succeed, people will continue to remain merely average.

I can illustrate Shawn Achor’s point with a story.  A friend of mine who was taking economics in graduate school, and I saw him one day in a coffee shop looking a little glum. “What’s wrong?” I asked him. “Oh, it sounds silly, but I’m a little bummed. My statistics professor said that up to 50% of us in the class would end up doing below average on the test.”

Intellectually, he knew that this was of course true because it hinges on the technical definition of the word “average”. However, it was the implication that he had only a 1 out of 2 chance of escaping mediocrity that was a challenge to his self-esteem.

2. Studying outliers

Shawn Achor has studied those individuals who have higher than average potential to find out what their secret is in order to be see if some of those secrets can be passed on to the rest.  Instead of a psychology model that tries to drag everybody down towards being average by making them “normal”, or focuses on bringing the lower than average up towards the average, he wants to have a positive psychology model that brings up  average.

3. Changing the lens

We view the world through the lens of the media, which selectively captures negative events and brings them to our attention, with the news hour occasionally ending in a positive story. This has an effect on us where we start to assume a false picture of the world where that same ratio of negative events to positive events is replicated throughout the world.

4. External circumstance does not determine inner attitude

Shawn Achor related how the students he counseled at Harvard University should have been happy to be at such an elite school, but they sought counseling because they concentrated on the negatives of the workload, peer pressure, etc. He realized that no matter how good the outer circumstances, there were some people who have a negative attitude internally. He found that the external circumstances only account for 10% of a person’s happiness over the long term; the other 90% are determined by the way in which that person views the world.

In the work environment, he found that only 25% of job successes are predicted by a person’s intelligence level. The other 75% are accounted for by your optimism levels, your social support levels, and your ability to see stress as a challenge rather than as a threat.

5. How can you change your mindset?
Here’s the kernel of what Shawn Achor came to talk about. Most schools and workplaces have the mindset “if you work hard, you will be successful. If you are successful, then you will be happier.”  This theory of motivation is backwards.  If you have a success, then the workplace or school simply changes the goalposts and you have to achieve even better success the next time. If happiness is thought to be on the other side of success, your brain never gets there, it pushes happiness over the cognitive horizon.   Just remember that one of the definitions of a horizon is “an imaginary line that gets farther away from you the closer you get to it.”

The problem with this method of motivation is that our brains work in the opposite order:  if you raise a person’s happiness in the presentthen their brain experiences a happiness advantage, meaning that performs better than if it is negative, neutral, or stressed.  Every business outcome improves for an employee who has this happiness advantage: people are 31% more productive, they produce 37% more sales, doctors are 19% more accurate at diagnosis, etc.  So if our brain is more positive in the present, than it becomes more successful.

If people do the following 21 days in a row, it can rewire their brains to be more optimistic and therefore more successful.

Fig. 1 Shawn Achor’s New Attitude through Gratitude program





3 Gratitudes

Write 3 new things you are grateful for each day


Journaling positive experience

… in a journal, along with one positive experience you have had in the last 24 hours.



15-20 minutes of vigorous exercise, 3-6 days a week.



15 minutes of meditation, 1-2 times per day.


Random Acts of Kindness

Write down one random act of kindness you have done in the past 24 hours to someone in your network of friends, family, and/or colleagues, or even better, a total stranger. Think of someone to whom you can send an encouraging e-mail in the next 24 hours.


Lessons Learned

Write down how you will take a negative experience you have had in the past 24 hours and turn it into a learning opportunity for the future.

Here Shawn gives an explanation of these 5 factors; I have added a sixth factor which I explain below.

1. Writing down the 3 gratitudes changes you mind so that it starts scanning the world for the positives rather than the negatives. It doesn’t change the ratio of positives to negatives in the outside world, but it does change which factors you focus on as being the most significant.

2. Writing about a positive experience you’ve had in the past 24 hours allows you relive it.

3. Exercise teaches your brain that behavior matters.

4. Meditation allows you to detach from the cultural pattern of ADHD which we are creating through the constant attempts at multitasking, and increases the ability of the brain to focus on the task at hand.

5. You can write in your journal about a random act of kindness which you performed in the last 24 hours for someone, meaning that you did it without consideration of being paid back by the person whom you helped.  Alternately, perform a conscious act of kindness by sending a note of support to someone in your social support network.

6. To these activities, as a project manager, I have added a sixth of my own to Shawn’s list, which is to write down your “lessons learned”. This means take a negative experience which you had in the past 24 hours, and create some lessons learned from it so that you will experience it in the future not as a threat, but as an opportunity to overcome a challenge.


After five and a half months of using Shawn Achor’s method, I am now close to filling out my third journal. Now I also use my journal to record dreams, jot down ideas for future writing projects for this blog, and to do short-term and long-term planning. I would say about one-third of my journal is devoted towards the “Gratitude Project” as I like to call it. But it is the FIRST thing I do every morning after mild exercise (like yoga) and meditation.

What happens after you do this project for at least the 3 weeks or 21 days Shawn recommends is that your brain scans the world differently. The generic problem with our society’s view of success is that we play the “if only” game. If only I succeed (however that is defined), then I will be happy. But when we achieve a goal, we don’t take time enough to appreciate it, and our restless mind starts pursuing the next goal with the same promise that happiness is “just over the horizon.” The problem with that thought is that one definition of the horizon is “an imaginary line that gets farther away from you the closer you get to it.”

With gratitude changing your attitude, you can be truly happy and positive NOW with whatever you have. This makes your brain learn better because it is more open to new things. I am fluent in several different foreign languages other than English, but since I started Shawn Achor’s program, I decided to buy Rosetta Stone software and learn a new one, Brazilian Portuguese. Before I would have said, “I’m too busy” or “I’ve got enough on my plate” or “I’m having trouble keeping up with the other languages I know.” Now I say, “why not? It would be fun!”

Now I am not saying that you won’t have negative experiences. This program is not “magical thinking.” What will happen, however, is that your mind will not dwell on them. You will either do something about the situation to improve it, or it if is beyond your control, you will let it go and move on.

So on this day devoted to giving thanks, let us not just do it because “it’s the season”; it’s also good psychology!


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