Thank You l January 2016

Small gestures can sometimes deliver big results.

Researchers at the University of Georgia studied nearly 500 married couples to investigate the connection between financial well being and the quality of the relationshipi. They wondered what the impact would be on a marriage when a couple faces tough economic times. While it was expected that financial distress would inevitably challenge any relationship and perhaps reduce the spouses’ level of marital satisfaction, the research found one thing that served as a kind of buffer, minimizing the negative impact: the expression of gratitude. Couples who made it a habit to regularly say thank you to one another were less harmed by any number of conventional marital stressors, including financial problems.

“Spousal gratitude,” wrote the authors, “promotes and protects marital quality.”

Other studies have found a similar effect. Some researchers have speculated about “a cycle of generosity” that enables relationships to thrive: spouses who report feeling more appreciated by their partners — hearing thank you on a regular basis — report being more appreciative of those partners, and in turn more inclined to be sensitive and responsive to those partners’ needs. ii

Once relationships pass through the early honeymoon and romance phase, it’s easy for us to take for granted the qualities in a partner that we appreciated early on. We can forget what once seemed special, focusing instead on traits and behaviors we now find annoying and unattractive. One way to check the inevitability of acclimating to (and taking for granted) our partner’s positive traits is by cultivating the habit of voicing appreciation, especially for the small things he or she does, like putting away the groceries, shoveling the walk, folding the laundry, checking the air in the tires, bringing in the morning paper. Expressing gratitude by offering a sincere and heartfelt thank you seem too small to matter, but small gestures can indeed deliver big results.

i Barton, A.W., Futris, T. G. and Nielsen, R. B. (2015), “Linking financial distress to marital quality: The intermediary roles of demand/withdraw and spousal gratitude expressions.” Personal Relationships, 22: 536–549. doi: 10.1111/pere.12094

ii Gordon, A. M., Impett, E. A., Kogan, A., Oveis, C., & Keltner, D. (2012, May 28). “To Have and to Hold: Gratitude Promotes Relationship Maintenance in Intimate Bonds.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. doi: 10.1037/a0028723

Healthy Together l November/December 2015

When it comes to couples’ health, the adage seems to be true that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Partners teaming up are more likely to reach certain health goals than when one partner pursues those goals alone.

A large British study published earlier this yeari found that when one partner seeks to make a positive health-related change — giving up smoking, increasing physical activity, or losing weight — the odds for success increase significantly if the other partner signs on to work toward the same change. When it came to smoking cessation, 48% of men whose partner also attempted to give up cigarettes were successful in reaching their goal, compared to only 8% of men who attempted it on their own. A similarly large difference was found for women: 50% success rate in the partnership approach versus 8% success rate as a solo endeavor.

When it came to increasing physical activity, 67% of men reached their goal when their partners joined with them, compared to 26% of men who attempted it on their own. For the women, the percentages were 66% versus 24%.

And when it came to losing weight, 26% of men lost five percent or more of their body weight when their partner also attempted weight loss, compared to 10% of the men who attempted it on their own. For women, the percentages were 36% versus 15%.

Interestingly, the partnership approach — we’re working on this together — proved even more effective than when the second partner was already living a more healthy lifestyle and might have served as a “good example.” In other words, when a less-active spouse wants to increase her activity level to more closely approximate the level of her already-active partner, the likelihood of her success isn’t as high as it would be if both partners started out less active and teamed together to reach the shared goal. Perhaps there’s something intrinsically more difficult about “catching up” to match a level already attained by one’s partner, than when both strive together toward the same end.

Might we extrapolate from this research that any number of health-related goals are more attainable when partners team up for the task: reducing alcohol intake, cutting back on sugary sodas, bringing down cholesterol? When it comes to living healthfully, teamwork seems the way to go.


The Mind's Traffic* l September/October 2015

It’s our fast reactions that get us into trouble: “I can’t believe you did such a stupid thing!” or “What the hell were you thinking?” or “You’re a real ____!” When words erupt quickly, it’s the emotional brain reacting, not the logical brain responding. How can we learn to slow ourselves down — and keep emotions in check — so that the logical brain has a chance to guide us toward our best selves?

One way is by developing the ability to non-judgmentally observe our thoughts and emotions as they stir. Consider this metaphor: imagine yourself sitting on a bench at the side of a busy highway. The highway is your active mind with its endless traffic — its constant flow of thoughts and feelings (emotions). Sitting atop each passing car is a sign representing your every thought and feeling. One car carries a sign indicating “Angry,” another carries “Sad,” another “Contented.” Other cars’ signs indicate “What to purchase at the grocery” and “Remember to phone the in-laws” and “Assembling the holiday gift list.” The mind’s traffic never stops — not for you, not for any of us.

Most of us spend our days as a passenger bouncing from one car to the next amid the mind’s constant traffic.

How much better we’d feel — calmer, more content — if, even occasionally, we'd step out of the traffic and move to the bench at the side of the road where we just observe the traffic. “There’s my anger … there’s my fear … there’s worrying about bills … there’s fretting over that work deadline.” It’s a very different experience to sit on the side of the highway and just be aware of the traffic rather than being stuck in it.

Sitting on the bench with awareness — it’s called mindfulness,i, the ability to observe the steady flow of thoughts and feelings passing through the mind. As we develop the mindfulness skill, we learn to observe and accept our emotions without expressing them and without judging them good or bad, right or wrong. As we learn to slow down and refrain from being in the grip of our emotions, we create the necessary space for the logical brain to step in.

After a lifetime caught up in the mind’s constant traffic, it’s hard to move to the side of the road. It takes regular mindfulness practice. Books and apps and workshops can show you the way. The smartphone app Headspace is a good place to start.

This month’s Tip addresses the question posed at the end of the last Tip: How do we slow ourselves down, so as to not react too quickly to what we hear or see?
Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Mindfulness for Beginners. (Sounds True, Inc: Boulder, CO). 2012.