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Pandemic is also a time to be grateful, says EWU psychologist

UPDATED: Mon., May 11, 2020

Philip Watkins has spent the last two decades studying the psychology behind gratitude and happiness. During the largest public health crisis in decades, Watkins took the time to share advice on how to be grateful for what you do have during a discussion with The Spokesman-Review’s Northwest Passages Book Club on Monday.

After getting his PhD in clinical psychology, Watkins began researching depression.

“Somewhere in the mid-90s I started thinking ‘Well, what about the positive side of things?’” Watkins said.

Now after 30 years as a professor and researcher at Eastern Washington University, Watkins continues to look on the bright side.

“I’m grateful for gratitude in terms of, it’s been a wonderful ride for me, a really fun thing to investigate,” Watkins said.

Being cooped up in the house because of quarantine, losing a job or being separated from loved ones are difficult circumstances, Watkins acknowledged, makes the negative easy to focus on.

“Our psychology mechanisms are sort of oriented to the bads,” Watkins said.

He gave the example of getting class surveys returned: Watkins said he may get 30 compliments but the three criticisms are what he will often dwell on.

With an event on the scale of COVID-19, Watkins said he’s unsure of the effects and hopes to see research come out on the subject. He expects to see a rise in gratitude post-COVID, similar to the rise in gratitude after 9/11.

Gratitude went up for a few months after 9/11 and then eventually returned to normal, Watkins said.

“There are things that difficult experiences actually do for us that help us attend to the good things in our life that we, maybe, took for granted before,” Watkins said.

Watkins teaches a class on the psychology of happiness and in that class has students write down a few things they are grateful for each day.

“The people who need gratitude the most benefit the most from gratitude exercises,” Watkins said.

People who often focus on the negative or who put off reflecting often benefited the most from taking time to count their blessings, Watkins said.

He likened it to working out. Those who are the most unhealthy will have a difficult time working out, but they are often the ones who need it the most, he said.

While people may not want to write down what they’re grateful for, once they start doing it the initial surface-level gratitude is replaced by something more.

“What you’ll find is in writing it you’ll actually start experiencing the genuine article,” Watkins said.

A book club member asked a question about feeling conflicted over spending all their time in front of a screen, since it’s often the only way to connect with loved ones.

“Happy people aren’t glued to their screen all day,” Watkins said.

He suggested the balance method. Be thankful that it’s possible to be physically distant but still connected, Watkins said. But also get outside, be active and get fresh air, Watkins said.

When it comes to individuals struggling to be thankful for their quarantine crew, the people they are stuck with day in and day out, Watkins suggested reflecting on the little things they do to make the household run.

“Take a moment out of your day to thank your partner for the little things they do,” Watkins said. It’s easiest to notice when they do something annoying like forget to replace the toilet paper but hard to appreciate the hundreds of times they do remember.

Watkins said quarantine can be an opportunity to share what you appreciate about your partner, something he tries to do himself with his wife.

“I really need to focus on my relationship and part of that is expressing … to her what I am grateful about what she does for me and how much I appreciate her presence,” Watkins said. “I think actually taking the time to do that is really important.”

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