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Daniel J. Tomasulo

The Virtual Gratitude Visit (VGV): Role-Playing, Storytelling and Narrative Enactment

Daniel J. Tomasulo
Core Faculty, Spirituality Mind Body Institute,
Teachers College, Columbia University

Core faculty for the Spirituality Mind Body Institute (SMBI), Teachers College, Columbia University. Assistant Instructor, Master of Applied Positive Psychology, University of Pennsylvania. Director New York Certification in Applied Positive Psychology. Honored by Sharecare* as top ten online influencers on the topic of depression.


Gratitude has been called the “queen of virtues” by Robert Emmons (2012) and for a good reason. As an intervention, it has been at the core of the positive psychology movement.  One of the first positive interventions studied was the gratitude visit, where participants wrote and delivered letters of gratitude to people they feel they have not adequately thanked (Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005). When compared to other interventions, those who performed the gratitude visit were found to be the least depressed and the happiest of all the participants. As discussed by Tomasulo (2014), gratitude has also been found to enhance self-esteem (McCullough, Emmons, & Tsang, 2002), life satisfaction (Kashdan, Uswatte, & Julian, 2006), prosocial behavior (Wood, Joseph, & Maltby, 2008), and interpersonal relationships (Algoe, Haidt, & Gable, 2008; Tsang, 2007). It was also found to directly influence the capacity to broaden and build positive emotions (Fredrickson, 2004, 2009) and was noted by Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, and Schkade (2005) as one of the leading interventions that can lead to sustainable happiness.

There are essential differences in gratitude research that highlight not only what the intervention is, but also how it is delivered. Boehm and Lyubomirsky (2009) studied participants who savored positive events by writing in a gratitude journal five things they were grateful for either once a week or three times a week, and then compared them with a control group that did not keep journals. Pre- and post measures of well-being revealed gratitude journaling worked better once a week rather than three times a week or in the control group; the once a week approach was the only condition in which improvement in well-being was noted.

The difference in how gratitude is expressed and delivered is where the VGV finds applicability. New research by O’Connell, O’Shea, and Gallagher (2017) focused on the enhanced power of expressing gratitude to others. They compared a gratitude journal group to a similar group that, also, verbally expressed their gratitude. The researchers found the expressive group did better than gratitude journaling alone or the control group. In the expressing-to-others group, negative emotions and depression decreased, which provided greater emotional balance.  The authors concluded that other-oriented gratitude is enhanced when it is outwardly expressed.  This research moves away from written expression to a powerful form of verbal expression to another. To extrapolate, the VGV employs this essence of verbal expression to others by using an empty chair in the way of a psychodramatic role-play.

There are three ways the traditional methods and research of a gratitude letter and visit can be re-envisioned and restyled with the VGV. First, most evidence-based interventions concerning gratitude involve writing and reading through the use of journals, letters, and sharing of the same. As O’Connell et al.’s (2017) article highlights, expressive writing is only one means by which a therapeutic improvement can happen. Since the VGV uses an enactment of feelings of gratitude in role-plays with an empty chair, it liberates the technique from a written procedure.  This unscripted enactment has the potential to reap the benefits of expressing gratitude toward others, yet can be accomplished without them present. Drama therapy (Tomasulo & Szucs, 2016), psychodrama (Fong, 2006; Yazdekhasti, Syed, & Arizi, 2013), and role-playing (Nikzadeh & Soudani, 2016) are all methodologies that have shown to offer therapeutic gains (Kipper & Ritchie, 2003). Additionally, the usefulness of the VGV as a non-reading and non-writing intervention could have tremendous value for the more than 775 million adults in the world who are illiterate (list of countries by literacy rate, 2017). Interventions that can address the need to deliver the advantages of expressing gratitude to these typically under-represented individuals deserve research and application attention.

Second, the delivery of a gratitude letter as initially intended involves the availability of a live recipient. As the VGV uses role-playing with an empty chair to enact a gratitude visit, the intervention can include others who are unavailable. This significantly broadens the applicability of the technique. More specifically, using this empty chair approach may be helpful in four ways:

  1. The person one has gratitude for may no longer be living, and an enactment would be one way to activate the positive effects of the relationship.
  2. The person may be alive, yet unavailable. As an example, it may be a person from childhood who has moved or a friend with whom one has lost contact.
  3. As internal family systems have shown, there may be “parts” of ourselves that we have gratitude toward (such as a time when we had more resilience, grit, or joy in our lives). An enactment with these parts may be helpful in activating strength from another memory point in time. Role-playing allows this type of intra-psychic exploration of gratitude to take place.
  4. Expressing gratitude toward a higher power or entity through an enactment may be particularly helpful.

Research by Rosmarin and colleagues (2011) has shown (as others have) that gratitude is significantly correlated with religious commitment. However, their research also found that the relationship between these two variables is fully mediated when gratitude is directed toward this higher entity. With the VGV, using an unscripted monologue of directed gratitude toward an empty chair highlights this specific intention. It has also been demonstrated that when there is spiritual content in an enactment, mental health, happiness, and joy can be positively affected (Foroushani, Ahmadi, Yazdekhasti, Syed, & Arizi, 2013).

Accordingly, research by Shahar, Bar-Kalifa, and Alon (2017) has explicitly shown that the use of empty chair role-playing will help the client to be inspired to continue the work with more traditional positive clinical interventions beyond the session.

VGV Technique

(This description is taken mostly from the article by Tomasulo, 2014). For this technique, two chairs are arranged, one for the protagonist and the second the (auxiliary) empty chair for the unavailable/other. The protagonist arranges the chairs in a way that symbolically depicts the relationship; that is, are the chairs close? Far apart? Side by side? One behind the other? The chairs’ arrangement sets the emotional tone for the encounter. The protagonist then sits in his or her chair and expresses gratitude toward the imagined unavailable/other in the empty chair.  Following this, the protagonist reverses roles and becomes the auxiliary. In doing so, the protagonist responds as if the gratitude had just been expressed to him or her. This auxiliary role is then relinquished, and the protagonist returns to the original chair, saying a closing remark to the empty chair. This ends the enactment. While space limitations do not allow for a detailed discussion on the power of a role-reversal in this technique, the understanding accrued by reversing to the other role employs elements of empathy and learning of the other through the theory of mind (Goldstein & Winner, 2012). This role-reversal also allows for an amplification of the positivity of gratitude and integration as it is experienced as both sender and receiver.  This learning helps to facilitate what J. L. Moreno (The founder of Group Psychotherapy and Psychodrama) referred to as a catharsis of integration: “Mental catharsis is here defined as a process which accompanies every type of learning, not only release and relief but also a catharsis of integration” (Moreno, 1953/1993, p. 206). The VGV extends the method of expression and in doing so allows for both alleviation and integration. It is a natural extension of the ways gratitude can be efficiently used in a clinical setting.

Inspire to Rewire: Use of the VGV in Group Therapy

A group setting using a VGV offers another worthwhile application for therapeutic gain. A member can not only enact his or her gratitude but also witness the expression of gratitude by others. Thus, even in an audience or participant/observer role, a client may derive benefit. Group therapy has traditionally provided a dynamic, low-cost treatment opportunity. By adding the VGV to the toolbox for group therapists, the collective well-being of the group can be enhanced.  There are several reasons this approach is a fruitful avenue for future research. First, psychodramatic role-playing has been shown to be effective within a wide variety of clinical conditions (Hurley, Tomasulo, & Pfadt, 1998; Kipper & Ritchie, 2003). Second, at its core, the VGV is a narrative, which is one of the most pervasive and promising elements of positive interventions. As discussed by Tomasulo and Pawelski (2012), stories play a significant role both in psychological research and application. The expression of gratitude as a narrative enactment of the benefits of the relationship will help the protagonist integrate their feelings as they are expressed. Those witnessing this unfolding story in a group will also be similarly affected.  Think of great plays or movies that move and inspire an audience. Paul Bloom (2010) and Jonathan Haidt (2006) believe there is power in the use of story as a vehicle to extend empathic understanding. They believe the development of empathy using story may be part of the core dynamic inherent in why stories (and by extension psychodramas) work.

Finally, a positive emotional enactment, as would be demonstrated by a VGV, has the power to activate elevation as defined by Haidt (2003): emotion elicited by witnessing virtuous acts of human goodness. Watching others express their gratitude is a virtuous act of human goodness, which can uplift depressed clients (Erickson & Abelson, 2012). Through the established elements of elevation and clinical role-playing in groups, a VGV may elicit a positive emotional response by watching others express their gratitude. It is elevation that makes the expression of a positive emotional experience in a group setting a vital feature for psychodramatists to amplify in enactments.

The research on elevation shows that we are wired to notice human goodness. Haidt (2006, 2003) notes there are three main features of elevation: First, we are drawn to those scenes and stories that are elicitors, such as acts of courage, kindness, loyalty, or any other act of human goodness. Second, there is often a phenomenological and physiological reaction, such as a calm/relaxed, a warm/open/pleasant feeling in the chest, sometimes referred to as getting “choked up.” Finally, we are motivated by the elicitors to emulate and self-improve. Haidt (2003) noted that the motivational tendencies that elevation produces include merging with, opening to, and helping others. Using the VGV in a group, using methods of enactment, may elicit the benefits of elevation.  In Haidt’s words, we “inspire to rewire.”

To summarize:

  • A VGV uses an unscripted enactment with an empty chair to express gratitude.
  • It uses a role–reversal with the empty chair to integrate the emotional experience.
  • It extends the method by which the positive intervention of a gratitude visit is delivered.
  • Since an empty chair is used, gratitude can be expressed to individuals no longer alive.
  • The empty chair also allows for an encounter with other stronger parts of the self.
  • It can be used with people with low or no literacy.
  • It can be used for spiritual growth by expressing gratitude toward a higher power or entity.
  • In a group, it can benefit the protagonist and members due to the phenomenon of elevation.
  • A VGV is a narrative intervention, a storytelling approach, amplified through role-playing.

The history of positive psychology used in a clinical setting has a very hopeful future (Rashid, 2015). It is an exciting time for psychotherapists, as the range of tools available to use, and the need for research for new positive interventions, creates a powerful opportunity to practice a method that helps to prevent relapse and offer greater hope. As practitioners, our future and our client’s are limited only by our imagination, and, as Albert Einstein has suggested: “Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions.”

(Here is a brief video showing its use with Tal Ben-Shahar on Happier TV.)



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