Mature gratitude and COVID-19

Frontiers in Psychology requested manuscripts for a special issue: COVID-19 and Existential Positive Psychology (PP2.0): The New Science of Self-Transcendence. This Research Topic aims to examine the different approaches to Positive Psychology and their influence on individual wellbeing during the COVID-19 era. Dr. Lilian Jans-Beken submitted an abstract , titled A Perspective on Mature Gratitude as a Way of Coping with COVID-19, in which she outlines a proposed perspective and today she got word that the abstract is accepted by the guest editors of this special issue and published March 22, 2021.

One of the exciting development in the positive psychology of wellbeing is the mounting research on the adaptive benefits of negative emotions, such as shame, guilt, and anger, as well as the dialectical process of balancing negative and positive emotions. As an example, based on all the empirical research and Frankl’s self-transcendence model, Wong has developed the existential positive psychology of suffering (PP2.0) as the foundation for flourishing. Here are a few main tenets of PP2.0: (1) Life is suffering and a constant struggle throughout every stage of development, (2) The search for self-transcendence is a primary motive guided by the meaning mindset and mindful mindset. (3) Wellbeing cannot be sustainable without overcoming and transforming suffering.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, we all must adjust to a world that was already been scourged by conflict, natural disasters due to climate change, and other serious adversities. The SARS-CoV-2 virus forces us to physically distance us from others and abstain from important social behavior. We all experienced lockdowns and are still strongly advised to refrain from larger gatherings and unnecessary traveling. Many people have lost their jobs because of the economic decline and face poverty. Above all, there is an existential fear that lingers in our daily life now COVID-19 is threatening the lives of the vulnerable and old. The main question for this perspective is if mature gratitude can be a way to cope with the threats and new boundaries because of the COVID-19 pandemic?

You can read the article here. We congratulate dr. Lilian Jans-Beken with this publication.

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Grateful for the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon

A few days ago, a follower sent me a message through LinkedIn: “Ever since I haveread your book Een zoektocht naar dankbaarheid, I see things all around me that I can be grateful for. I never had that before, what a coincidence!” However, this is no coincidence. Psychologists call this the frequency-illusion or the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. As soon as someone becomes aware of something, the brain tends to notice it more often.

Picture: Monique van Dijck
Verder lezen “Grateful for the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon”

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World Database of Happiness

The World Database of Happiness (WDoH) is an online archive of research findings on subjective enjoyment of one’s life-as-a-whole or subjective well-being. Next to a bibliography of scientific publications on this subject, the WDoH provides standardized abstracts of recent research findings. 

Two kinds of findings are presented at the website:
1) ‘distributional findings’ on how happy people are in particular times and places
2) ‘correlational findings’ on the things that go together with more or less happiness.

The WDoH allows an overview of the otherwise nebulous research literature by limiting to a clearly defined concept of happiness (life satisfaction), presenting the available findings in a standard format and terminology and providing fine-grained classifications by means of which users can find their way in the growing mass of happiness facts.

The WDoH is available free of charge for everybody, all over the world so we encourage readers to go the website and have a look at this great resource!

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Gratitude in times of crisis


Gratitude is an emotion that arises when people realize that they have received something from someone else they needed. In this crisis, we see how hard the health care people, among others, are working to manage the influx of critically ill and contagious people, even at the risk of becoming ill themselves. We now collectively realize that our society urgently needs these people and their expertise in caring for ourselves and our loved ones.

Expressing gratitude

Many people in our society would like to express their gratitude. We want to let the other know that their commitment, their sacrifice, is appreciated. For example, last Tuesday in the Netherlands, we massively clapped for our people in healthcare. That is a very creative way to show gratitude. It is in our nature to show our appreciation in a creative way. This also applies to the gardeners who now have beautiful flowers that are not going to the Vatican and that they would otherwise have to throw away. How nice is it if you can make other people happy to show your appreciation for their efforts?


How come we suddenly see so much gratitude in our society? Gratitude, like all other emotions, is contagious. When we see someone happy or sad, our mirror neurons ensure that we experience the same emotion. Because someone else expresses gratitude for the people in health care, other people also realize that these people give our society something that we really need. As a result, gratitude spreads like ripples in the water in our society.


So, if we feel grateful for someone who has done something for us, we would like to give something back. Gratitude motivates and activates. We want to do something for the person who helped us, but that does not necessarily have to be aimed at this particular person. When we feel gratitude, it is also possible that we want to do something for someone completely different. We see that people in health care work hard and then therefore there are people who want to look after their children. But we also see other initiatives to support people at risk of being ignored, just as the people in health care support our sick.


Let’s continue with these great actions! Let gratitude flow through our society through beautiful initiatives for appreciation and support for those people who need it most now. And once again from me, many thanks to everyone who is helping to keep our society running in this time of crisis. If you find stories about gratitude inspiring, my book (in Dutch) can be ordered until April 6 with a discount AND signature through my website

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Gratitude to God Grant

The John Templeton Foundation granted the Biola University with almost $4,000,000 to further the study of Gratitude to God. The Gratitude to God project intents to employ conceptual and empirical methods to investigate the nature of Gratitude to God and to grasp its differences and relations compared to person-to-person gratitude, and more broadly, to illuminate the nature of a fundamental affective process within the psychology of religion. Dr. Lilian Jans-Beken submitted a letter of intent to this project in collaboration with dr. Paul T.P. Wong, and she received word that she is invited to submit a full proposal to the project. 

The research question that is presented in the proposal Mature gratitude based on the transformation of suffering is threefold. First, with the proposed study we want to look further into two dimensions – horizontal and vertical – of mature gratitude. We propose that the vertical dimension includes Gratitude to God. Second, we want to look into the proximal virtues of mature gratitude to determine other virtues important to mature gratitude to cultivate. Third, we want to conduct an experiment to see whether a writing intervention can contribute to cultivating mature gratitude.

We congratulate dr. Lilian Jans-Beken with this succes and wish her all the best with the next submission!

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“Patience is a virtue”


“Be patient!” or “patience is a virtue”. Who has never heard this? But what is patience exactly? Patience during an adversity means being able to wait calmly for a bigger reward in the future than someone would receive at that moment. A patient person tolerates or can bear an unpleasant situation until better times come. This requires self-control and is also referred to as deferred gratification.

Three forms of patience

Three forms of patience are mentioned within psychology. The first form is interpersonal patience. This is a calm reaction to other people that we actually find difficult, unpleasant or frustrating. The second form is patience in case of adversity. This is the calm response to and tolerating serious setbacks in life. Think of having a chronic or life-threatening illness or serious financial problems. The third form is patience for daily frustrations. This is a calm response to daily frustrations such as traffic jams or the long line at the checkout. All three forms of patience mean that people respond to a situation that they consider a setback.

The narrative

Research shows that just having a character strength is not enough to use it effectively. To be able to use a character strength in daily life, such as patience, it is necessary to form a narrative in which experiencing setback acquires meaning or explanation. This means that people tell a story about themselves and what happened to them to shape their identity. In the case of patience, people tell themselves to stay calm by regulating their emotion and attach meaning to the adversity or person they are dealing with.

What does scientific research say?

Although scientific research into patience is still very scarce, a few things are known about the subject. It appears that having patience is related to psychological well-being in the longer term. It also appears that patient people achieve their goals better than impatient people. Patient people accept setbacks and frustrations on their way to their goal. They continue to make more effort and do not drop out. They do something less often at an incorrect or unfavorable moment but are able to wait until the right moment arrives to act.

Three tips

Being patient can help you deal with life more resiliently. Fortunately, you can practice being more patient:

1. Accept that you are impatient. Tell yourself that you understand that you are impatient, but that if you will wait for a while it will all be okay.

2. Be aware of the things you cannot control. By surrendering to such situations or people you feel much calmer.

3. Take a deep breath. By taking a deep breath, you activate the nervous system to calm down and restore your bodily stress reaction. It gives you room to think clearly again.

Good luck with these tips to become more patient and have faith because it will all be alright in the end.

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Spirituality and gratitude

As an expert in gratitude, people sometimes ask me if you have to be religious or spiritual to be thankful. This assumption is very understandable because all religions and major worldviews regard gratitude as a core virtue. Research shows that religious or spiritual people report higher levels of dispositional gratitude than people who say they are not spiritual or religious. To answer this question, we need to look at what science says about the origin of people’s spirituality. How did spirituality evolve and how is it associated with gratitude?

Cognitive evolutionary science

One component of the scientific study of spirituality is cognitive evolutionary science. It is an approach that assumes that the mind is not just a blank slate that can have anything written on it but that it is shaped by evolution to have a certain structure that expects a specific type of information coming in. When we look at spiritual thought and behavior from a cognitive evolutionary scientific perspective, we can see how spiritual thought and behavior may be a byproduct of tendencies that evolved for other purposes. This is called the byproduct hypothesis.

Byproduct hypothesis

This byproduct hypothesis considers spiritual thought and behavior a mistake. Humans have cognitive tendencies that evolved for other purposes and they just happened to kick off spiritual belief as a side product. It’s an overfiring of certain cognitive tendencies that we have. It doesn’t seem to have any adaptive function, and it is therefore really puzzling in terms of the payoff structure. But the reason it exists is because of the original cognitive function that pays for itself. The cognitive function evolved because it does some important work in, for instance, in danger perception, but it then overfires and produces spiritual beliefs.


An example of this is called apophenia; the human tendency to connect a subjective experience as something recognizable to a specific meaning to them that is incorrect. This stems from the principles of evolutionary psychology that our minds are not built for accuracy or truth or to provide us with an accurate representation of the world, but they are built for survival. Our brain does all kinds of pre-processing of sensory information that comes into our sensory organs before we have a subjective experience, such that by the time we have that experience, let alone the interpretation of that sensory information, it is already been translated into something that best serves our goals of reproduction and survival.

An old tree or rock that looks like an alligator.

Costly errors in perception

For survival it is important to see agents when there are actually none, instead of missing agents that are actually there. Evolution would guide the system that is inclined to make the least costly of those two errors. Imagine there is someone walking through a savannah and hears some grass rustle. Now, what is the more costly of the two errors? To assume that that was a predator when there isn’t one? Or to assume that there’s nothing there when it actually was a predator? Clearly, the less dangerous thing is to make the error of over-detection; assuming that there’s something there when there isn’t. The cost of that is that you just unnecessarily engaged the fear response. But the cost of the error of under-detection, where you’re missing the predator that’s actually there, is that you become diner. This is why humans see random agents with minds in nature. We all have seen faces and animals in clouds, stars, food, or photos.

The “face of Jesus” in this photo is actually a child with a bonnet, and the hair is vegetation in the background. Anonymous Swedish photograph from the late nineteenth century via Wikimedia Commons.

Hyperactive agency detection device

Justin Barrett has called this the hyperactive agency detection device, and he and Stewart Guthrie and others have made the point that this tendency to over-perceive agency likely underlies our tendency to infer gods and spirits in the natural world. Especially in the absence of a scientific explanation for things like the wind and the tides, and the rising of the sun and the moon, the human mind would have immediately inferred supernatural agency behind these natural events. This is, among other theories, why wind spirits and sun gods were born in our pre-history.

Spiritual thinking

Thus, the hyperactive agency detection device is rooted in the byproduct hypothesis. With the byproduct hypothesis, which suggests that spiritual beliefs are the consequences of evolved genetic adaptations that we have for different reasons. They were adaptations that served their own purposes in human survival. But as a byproduct, they lead to spiritual thinking. In other words, our ancestors weren’t selected because they believed in gods. They were selected because they could perceive agency and purpose in an environment that was full of active and plotting minds. The fact that such a system also led them to perceive active and plotting gods was just an accident.

Gratitude for supernatural beings

Now back to gratitude. As we have seen above, humans perceive supernatural gods, spirits, and ancestors in their environment and they mistakenly connect them with the danger or abundance in their life. These gods, spirits, and ancestors are considered to be responsible for adversity or prosperity. Already the prehistoric humans made offers to propitiate gods, spirits, and ancestors. They also made thanks-offerings because they had a good hunt, or they could harvest enough crops to feed their families and tribes. Thanking a supernatural or non-existing being has become part and parcel of the human spiritual dimension, also called the vertical dimension.

Mature gratitude

New research by Jans-Beken and Wong is looking into existential gratitude or mature gratitude. This concept includes both a horizontal and a vertical dimension (see diagram below). The horizontal immanent dimension includes gratitude for prosperity and adversity of the world that is conceived consciously and within earthly borders. It is directed at materialistic and naturalistic things, expected and unexpected events, and the people with whom we interact

Volwassen dankbaarheid of dankbaarheid 2.0

Vertical dimension

The vertical transcendental dimension of gratitude can assist in experiencing the horizontal dimension of gratitude. This transcendental dimension is the experience of gratitude for phenomena that cannot be precisely and mentally located in space and time. Illustrations of this vertical gratitude are cosmic gratitude, gratitude to God, or spiritual gratitude that can be elicited by, for example, gratitude for ancestors or spirits, but also an awareness of being part of something big.

Is spirituality necessary?

When talking to people about gratitude in times of adversity, most of them tell about this vertical dimension. Not everybody mentions God explicitly, but most of the people I interviewed for my book talked about the feeling of being part of something bigger than themselves or something between “heaven and earth” that decided it wasn’t their time yet. It seems to be comforting to direct gratitude to something big and kind to cope with suffering. So, is it necessary to be religious or spiritual to experience gratitude? I assume it is possible to feel grateful for earthly things, but a sense of a vertical dimension can deepen, intensify and strengthen the feeling of gratitude. My future research should shed light on this assumption so keep following me!

With great thanks to the EdX course The Science of Religion by The University of British Columbia. 

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Virtues and character strengths


People in our environment have the tendency to tell us what our weaknesses are, and what we need to improve ourselves. However, often we already know what our faults are, and such a conversation gives us an unpleasant and uneasy feeling. Science says that it is therefore a good idea to talk about our virtues and character strengths instead of our weaknesses.

Virtues and character strengths

Virtues and character strengths are an expression of personal characteristics or personality that are considered moral goodness. This means that virtues and character strengths help people to do what is good and to avoid what is bad. Living a virtuous life and using your character strengths ensure that your own well-being and that of the people around us improves.

The difference

Peterson and Seligman (2004) have done extensive research into these virtues and character strengths and they distinguish six broad categories of virtues: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence. The psychological ingredients of these six virtues are the character strengths. These become visible when someone shows certain behavior that others can recognize. For me, that means that other people can also see that I am a grateful person, consider me wise and know that I appreciate beauty.


If you know what your strengths are, you can use them more often. People who use their character strengths in daily life feel happier. Paying attention to the character strengths at work also bears fruit. Researchers have discovered that you are more likely to have positive experiences at work if you use at least four of your character strengths. And it is very inspiring and useful to work with children on their character strengths. Children say that they feel happier and more resilient, and parents tell that the parent-child relationship has been strengthened because of their awareness of character strengths. 

Get started

You can fill out the Values in Action Strengths Inventory yourself and discover your own character strengths. This questionnaire has 120 statements and at the end you will see your strengths and weaknesses. Are you a coach or do you want to work with character strengths in your own? Then the card game of which you see several cards above, these are in Dutch but also in Englis available, is highly recommended! This card game can be purchased via Amazon. There is also a worldwide Virtues project. This is an international initiative to apply virtues and character strengths, such as honesty, patience and respect, in daily life. Please, leave your character strengths in a comment below and share your experiences with character strengths with us!

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What is mental health?

Clinical psychology

Initially, mental health was presented as a horizontal axis, such as the figure below. Having psychological complaints is completely on the left with the negative numbers. The more problems with psychological complaints, the lower the number. Clinical psychology focuses on therapies and programs to reduce or eliminate psychological symptoms. If there are no more complaints, the person has a score of around zero and the work of the clinical psychologist is done. But a zero is not really good, it is at best average.

Positive psychology

Positive psychology then developed which is concerned with increasing the score from zero to ten. A ten means that there is good mental well-being. There are no psychological symptoms and the person feels happy, joyful and satisfied. To get from zero to ten, positive psychology makes use of all kinds of positive psychological exercises such as the gratitude diary, the three-good-things exercise, the-best-possible-self exercise or mindfulness training. One of the goals is to get as close to ten as possible so that if life is taking a bad turn, someone will not fall directly below zero but will be resilient enough to cope with the setback.

The reality

This way of thinking about mental health was very straightforward and it didn’t seem to fit well into reality. After all, it is possible that someone with depressive symptoms who feels connected to his family attributes himself a better quality-of-life than someone who is lonely in life. Or someone with a psychosis who looks at life optimistically may be better able to deal with the psychological symptoms than someone who is more depressed and pessimistic. Psychological complaints and mental well-being influence each other but are different things.


Two-continua model of mental health

For that reason, the American psychologist Corey Keyes cut the above axis in two and made it into a model with two axes: the two-continua model of mental health. The psychological symptoms, whether or not present, are plotted on the horizontal axis and the mental wellbeing, whether or not present, is displayed on the vertical axis. By psychological complaints we mean disorders such as depression, anxiety, psychoses, compulsive thoughts or post-traumatic stress. Mental well-being includes characteristics such as optimism, positive feelings, sense of purpose, social connectedness and gratitude. For someone with the same degree of psychological symptoms, mental well-being can be crucial for their perception of quality-of-life.



Research has indeed shown that the two-continua model of mental health is well applicable in the world of everyday life. One of my research was into gratitude, mental well-being and psychological complaints over a period of thirty weeks. From this study it became clear that gratitude does not immediately reduce psychological complaints on the long run, but that gratitude is related to better mental well-being. Improved mental well-being was then associated with fewer psychological symptoms over time.



This insight into mental health shows that we need the care and knowledge of clinical psychology to score as well as possible on the axis of psychological complaints; the less psychological complaints the better. Positive psychology, preferably with the approach of positive psychology 2.0, has the knowledge and insights to improve mental well-being. Together they can help find a good balance on the two-continua model of mental health and thus support people in their thriving.



– Jans-Beken, L. G. P. J. (2019). The Dialectic Dynamics Between Trait Gratitude Subjective Well-Being and Psychopathology Across 30 Weeks. Counselling Psychology Quarterly.
– Keyes, C. L. (2005). Mental illness and/or mental health? Investigating axioms of the complete state model of health. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 73(3), 539–548.

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Harry Potter and Positive Psychology 2.0

Positive psychology 2.0 wants to get the best out of people and societies, despite and even because of the dark side of human existence. Well, I don’t think life gets darker than Voldemort – the Dark Lord – who makes Harry’s life extremely miserable. He sows death and destruction and he is unable to feel love. He takes the lives of Harry’s parents James and Lily, his godfather Sirius Black, his elf Dobby and many more loved ones. Mourning for lost loved ones is therefore a recurring theme in the books.

Harry also faces setbacks from a different angle. Hogwarts professors who make his life miserable, humiliate him and prevent him from doing fun things such as playing quidditch and taking a day trip to Hogsmeade with his friends. This makes Harry very sad, but he also finds strength in it. He is determined to achieve his goals, no matter what. He receives help from his friends Ron Weasly and Hermione Granger and from other professors who are well disposed towards Harry. It shows that the people around us are very important when life takes a wrong
turn. They can help us to go on in life.

Harry shows courage in the last book. Courage to face evil with an open mind because it is inevitable what is to come. It is inevitable that we will have dark periods in our lives and if we realize that, we can arm ourselves against it in advance. Gratitude for what has been, optimism about the future and acceptance of the present strengthen our resilience. Setback teaches us new insights that we bring to the rest of our lives. Setbacks make us grow.

Now, my Harry Potter books go back into my bookcase. In the coming months, I am continuing my research on positive psychology 2.0 and gratitude. So, stay tuned for updates on this research and subscribe to our monthly newsletter.

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