One of the most poignant scenes in season two of NBC’s This Is Us is when Kevin—a former high school star quarterback and homecoming king turned failing actor struggling with addiction—returns to his hometown to receive an honored alumni award. In his acceptance speech, Kevin begins to thank his coach and parents, but, as he considers the effort these mentors invested in him, Kevin realizes just how far he has fallen and how disgraceful his behavior has been. Envisioning his deceased father on stage with him, Kevin realizes he is far from the man his father dreamed he would become. He ultimately delivers a depressing monologue about his own lack of honor, and—spoiler alert—the episode becomes a catalyst for some dangerous, rock-bottom behavior.
How and why could a genuine expression of gratitude transform into something so unpleasant?
The benefits of engaging in “positive activities” to promote happiness are well-documented. Positive activities are deliberate cognitive and behavioral strategies aimed at promoting happiness. Expressing gratitude, performing acts of kindness for others, or spending time savoring the moment are all positive activities that can increase happiness.
Unfortunately, the story is not as straightforward as we would hope. The science behind how positive activities work also yields insights about when striving to become happier may backfire.
Research illustrates that happiness seekers are likely to be unsuccessful when practices like gratitude or kindness elicit negative, rather than positive, emotions, thoughts, and behaviors, or when they reduce, rather than boost, a sense of connectedness, competence, or control.
Published in Greater Good Magazine.
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