Can Gratitude Help Alleviate The Sadness In Adapting To A New Culture?

by Brett Parry on January 5, 2015

A different emotional focus can help cultivate happiness

A different emotional focus can help cultivate happiness

There are obviously a number of strategies we teach in the inter-cultural field related to the emotions that come along with living in a new culture. Many of them have been proven highly effective over time.

WGBH Boston’s Innovation Hub program recently interviewed Dr. Jennifer S Lerner, who runs the Harvard Decision Science Lab and is a professor at Harvard Kennedy School. Dr. Lerner was sharing a little about her research into the effect of emotion on our decision making processes. In particular how sadness can lead to rash decisions. In one example she relates how it governs the way in which we handle money. Her study found that when we are sad, we tend to pay higher prices for things, and also sell items for drastically reduced prices. Even those that are stressed by high levels of debt, are given to adding to that debt in order to make purchases that, in the short term at least, may bring emotional satisfaction.

The study also included applying strategies for identifying and ultimately alleviating some of these effects. One in particular I found especially interesting. Dr. Lerner suggests that an effective way is to cultivate an opposite emotion, such as gratitude. Participants were asked to identify things in their life that they were grateful for. The hypothesis being that separating ourselves from the sad feelings by concentrating on the outside things we are grateful for can change the way we are feeling. “When we’re sad, we just keep thinking about ourselves. And when we’re in a grateful state – by contrast – we think about others.” Dr. Lerner went on to argue that emotions are stronger than thoughts, and thus we can learn to use our emotions as motivators. One suggestion given is that when faced with the decision to steer toward the office or the gym, that we tap into the positive emotion we will feel after a workout. The idea being that this will motivate us to take the option of heading to the workout space.

Those that experience the emotional roller coaster that adapting to new culture can bring certainly identify with feelings of sadness, isolation and disconnection. We know that it is during these times that hasty decisions are not recommended. Deciding to give up on an international assignment and head home on the first available flight is one extreme, and this has the potential to have long lasting effects on the well-being of individuals and their families, as well as careers and business success. However, perhaps encouraging people when they feel sad emotions coming on to connect with things they are grateful for, we may be able to help them identify with the more positive aspects of their experience and as such help to avoid making hasty decisions around their circumstances.


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