Can Critical People Turn Positive? A Reflection of Self-Change

June 21, 2010 / General /

By Robert E. Quinn

I was at a meeting with some professional colleagues.  One of my colleagues is a highly accomplished woman.  She told us that she kept a gratitude journal for 18 months.  We were impressed.  Then she told us that she stopped.  We were surprised and we implicitly communicated a feeling of disappointment.  She picked up the implicit message and told us she quit because she no longer needed to keep the journal.  She did not need to write because she was living in a continuous state of gratitude.

Becoming Grateful

I was so impressed that I later asked her to tell me more.  She indicated that her father was a very critical man and she grew up acquiring this same trait.  If she heard a wonderful concert, but the soloist missed a note, she remembered the mistake, not the beautiful music that surrounded it. She related to people in a similar fashion. Rather than celebrating their gifts and the things they did right, she looked for their flaws (and with loved ones, constantly tried to help them correct them!).  The quality of her life reflected her focus.  Because she focused on the negative, what she saw inside herself and all around her were the flaws and the problems.

Doing the gratitude journal was very difficult at first and she struggled to find three things every day that were positive.  But as she continued she experienced intrinsic rewards.  The more she lived in the state of gratitude more desire she had to live in gratitude and the easier it became to do so.  She extended her efforts and, in addition to continuing to write in her gratitude journal, involved her family in sharing three expressions of gratitude with each other at dinner every night.  Her life became increasingly happy and her whole family became more focused on the gifts of the day and each other, than their flaws.

The Science of Gratitude

Science suggests that grateful people tend to be agreeable, emotionally stable, self-confident, non-materialistic, spiritual and happier [1].  There are five reasons why they might be happier. Gratitude:

  • enhances the enjoyment of life benefits,
  • prevents unpleasant moods associated with upward social comparison and envy,
  • enhances social relationships,
  • improves adaptive life coping, and
  • increases accessibility to positive memories.

Happiness and gratitude may reinforce each other, resulting in a virtuous cycle.   That is, as a person experiences gratitude they feel happier and this increases gratitude which then increases happiness.  They ride upward on a self-reinforcing dynamic.

Reflecting on the Story

In using the positive framework, researchers often seem to identity virtuous cycles and resulting transformations.  In the above story a woman conditioned to be negative engages in conscious self-change.  Instead of letting her thoughts flow naturally and negatively, she chose to focus her attention to the positives elements in her life.  This unnatural act brought enough rewards (such as increased happiness) that she kept it up.  This initiated the virtuous cycle and lived in its lifting power.  A transformation followed.

After 18 months, she had a new way of being.  When something happened, good or bad, her new framework led her to see and appreciate the good, even in the bad experiences.  This means an extraordinary transformation had occurred.  Her bad experiences were transformed. Because of her orientation, her bad experiences were instructive.  They increased her adaptive capacity.  This means all her experiences, good and bad, were accumulating for her good.  By committing to self-change, she reprogrammed her old self into a better self, and she was living a more positive life for herself and others.  In this story there is hope for all of us.



[1] Watkins, P.C., Van Gelder, M. and Frias, A.  Furthering the Science of Gratitude.  In Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology, Lopez, S. and Synder, C.R. (eds).  New York: Oxford University Press, 2010 p. 437-445.