December 5 2017
A new study shows that focusing on our strengths is just as important as improving our weaknesses.
I was struggling up the fifth and final hill of a cold winter half marathon when a man in his driveway called out to me, “Just around this corner is less than a quarter mile to the finish. You look strong!” His words seemed to lift me up and attach tiny wings to my running shoes. He knew just what to say, and I was so grateful to him. That’s not the first time I have been grateful for random spectators at races, picking me up and giving me a boost–but it was the first time I have ever thought to ask, Why?
Neuroscientist and psychologist Maureen Gillespie found some answers after finishing last in a 50-mile trail race this past spring that took her more than 14 hours to complete. During her epic trek she was thinking about the commencement speech she was to deliver to the graduating class at her alma mater, the University of New Hampshire.
It had been 11 years since her own graduation, and Maureen reflected on those years during her Wapack and Back 50-miler. “I’m better off and happier now than I was 11 years ago, but why?” Her answer ultimately came down not to what she had accomplished (a lot) but the gratitude she felt for those accomplishments.
As a psychologist, she wanted to know why. What does psychology have to say about the relationship between gratitude and happiness? Here’s what she found:
“What research and my personal experiences have taught me is that it’s the attitude toward the successes and failures that you’re sure to experience along the way that makes for a happier and more fulfilling life.”
Maureen also found a study by Seligman and colleagues that showed how participants’ experiences of well-being could be enhanced for up to six months if they wrote down three things they were grateful for each day, for one week, in a gratitude journal.
We reached out to Maureen to see if she journals, as the research suggests, and if she is still grateful to be running and racing:
“I definitely feel very grateful in all my running endeavors–racing or training,” Maureen said. “I actually use my running time to kind of keep a mental gratitude journal. Because I haven’t raced anything shorter than a 20-miler in over a year, and a lot of them are ultras which tend to spread out the field and have far fewer spectators, I have a lot of time to think when I’m racing. I always find myself getting choked up at some point during my race because I’m so happy and thankful that my lifestyle and health allows me to pursue these goals.”
Maureen now has her sights set on running 100 miles and is approaching the opportunity “feeling strong, positive, and grateful for the chance to push my body and mind to the limit!”
Maureen also explained that, as a member of the largest running club in New Hampshire, SIX03 Endurance (the name references the local area code), she enjoys the camaraderie of having a variety of runners, from those training for their very first 5-kilometer all the way to accomplished 100 milers. She encourages anyone looking for more gratitude in running to seek similar groups for the “amazingly supportive community and friendship” and as a reminder that we get to run, we get to be healthy and we get to move our bodies and minds in the way we love.
Thank you, running!