What’s the one thing that all humans have in common? The desire to be happy.
For many, a funny thing happened on the way to being happy. It's a little thing we call life, with all its ups and downs. We reason that maybe if we had more of this or that, we'd be happy. But then we recall those folks who "have it all" yet don't seem to "have" happiness. Therefore, we conclude that happiness must not be a result of what we have or experience. So what are we be missing on successfully navigating the road to happiness?
Thanks to the research of many dedicated psychologists and researchers, we now know that how happy you are is related to how much gratitude you have.
Isn’t it good to know that happiness is within our grasp, no matter what’s going on? But what if you’re not a natural-born Pollyanna or you think that positive psychology is bunk?
When you consider that gratitude’s powerful effect can: make you more satisfied with your life, improve your relationships, give you more of a high than material things, and can protect you from depression, illness and envy, it's tough not to want to learn more.
Keep reading for scientifically proven gratitude strategies and for a very easy way to instantly increase your happiness by up to 19%. If you combine that tip with the other strategies, you should see an even larger increase in your happiness quotient.
Why and How drives our work and communities
Confession. Being consistently grateful is not my strongest natural attribute. But thankfully, I have a husband who "owns" gratitude and has mastered its disciplines and daily reaps its rewards. David's example has been a massive influence in my life and I've learned a mountainload from him. He's also my co-founder here at Tracky, where we talk a lot about productivity, collaboration and community.
Our goal at Tracky is to produce tools that not only help people work well together but also to help us all become better communicators, producers and contributors to our teams, families, social circles and communities. Yet we realize that HOW we accomplish our goals and WHO we are contributes more to the success of collaboration than any software application ever can.
Thus, whether you’re truly seeking happiness or just want to be a better friend, spouse, coworker or citizen, the pursuit of happiness via gratitude is one of the most profoundly impactful disciplines that you can learn in life.
The happiness and gratitude connection
Almost everyone I know is going through uncertainties and unpleasantries of some form or another. But if we rely on our circumstances to mold our moods, we’ll keep riding our emotional roller coasters, unable to grasp the very contentedness of happiness that we all crave.
Thankfully, the prevailing scientific conclusion is that you don’t have to “work” at happiness as much as you’d think if you’re focused on gratitude. Happiness spontaneously rises from gratitude and becomes a continuous feedback loop. I like to sum it up as a “gratitude attitude” and it has some major benefits.
In fact, in the book, "Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier," Dr. Richard Emmons concludes that gratitude increases happiness by 25% - or more, depending on what additional positive practices you bring online during your gratitude journey.
Research conducted by a bevy of scientists reveals that people who are grateful are more likely to be happy, hopeful, healthy, energetic, better problem solvers, and are less likely to engage in self-destructive behaviors, whilst experiencing more positive emotions and faster recovery from disappointments. Grateful people also are more forgiving, empathetic, helpful, spiritual or religious while tending to be less depressed, envious or neurotic.
Sounds like the making of a pretty decent life, doesn’t it? Since just knowing that we should be more grateful isn’t enough, let’s talk strategy. There are literally reams of self-help books, spiritual literature, educational courses and strategies that outline steps to happiness. The following three points are just a few of the proven therapies, but I personally believe that they’re some of the most important.
Three simple steps to become a more grateful (and happy) person
- Think positively.
- Value the moment as a gift
- Speak uplifting words.
Now onto the practical application.
To put it simply, what we think, we become. The gratitude journey begins with our thoughts because you can’t truly value time or consistently express positive words if you’re not practicing positive psychology. It would be like buying new clothes for your would-be thinner self without getting on a diet and exercise regime; its just wishful thinking.
A myriad of studies and social experiments show that the diet you feed your mind – whether negative or positive – will greatly determine how you perform in life and how you perceive your circumstances. A little scary, right? But it’s also incredibly invigorating when you consider that you have the power to choose what you will meditate on, believe in and ultimately, become.
Alas, gratitude doesn’t come naturally to humans. In fact, we have a “negativity bias” – the natural inclination to dwell on injustices, annoyances and problems rather than positive events. (“Thank You. No, Thank You,” Melinda Beck, The Wall Street Journal).
Thus, to become grateful, we must first commit to altering our negativity bias. Some people have it easier, it’s true. About 50% of our temperament comes from our DNA, but the rest is learned. If you’ve always been a happy person, you’re more likely to grasp the gratitude quotient quickly. But the rest of us can, with a little mental elbow grease, become just as adept at gratitude – and thus happiness – than the natural-born sunshines.
Here are a few examples on how to reshape your inner dialogue:
Regarding the good things in life:
Actively take note of them and recount them (daily and weekly).
People who list their blessings have better health, exercise more regularly and feel better about their lives than those who keep track of annoyances or don’t dwell on either (landmark study by Dr. Emmons and University of Miami psychologist Michael McCullough, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology).
A few strategies include:
- Keep a simple gratitude journal.
Take this task seriously and you’ll see great benefits, but keep in mind that you’ll need to list specifics, not just broad blessings, like “my friends, my spouse, my job,” etc. Writing down “the barista remembered my usual order” trains your mind to look for the less obvious events that you’ve previously taken for granted.
- Involve self-reflection.
While gratitude is a simple theory, it is actually a complex emotion that requires "self-reflection, the ability to admit that one is dependent upon the help of others, and the humility to realize one's own limitations," says Dr. Emmons, a psychologist at the University of Miami.
To avoid gratitude fatigue, examine your own part in society by asking questions like: “What have I given to…? What trouble have I caused? What have I received from…?” Doing this helps you realize that there are a whole bunch of people involved in your routine that you’re grateful for - even that grumpy cab driver who got you from point A to point B.
- Try the “It’s a Wonderful Life” approach and imagine life without a major blessing. Then, specifically list why that gift is so impactful.
When college students in a 2008 study were asked to write essays where they mentally subtracted a positive event from their lives, they became more grateful for that gift than those who just focused on the blessing.
Regarding the mundane and repetitive processes that we have to do:
Fall in love with the daily practice of life, not just the destinations.
For example, if you want to run a marathon, you’ll have to commit to a training plan that will include diet, exercise and race education. Many of your training runs will be painful, and in less-than-ideal weather or when you’re under-the-weather. To make it to the finish line, you better learn to love the training process and practice runs.
Regarding difficult situations and painful experiences:
Reframe your perception of life’s displeasures by seeing pain as an opportunity to grow.
The people that we admire the most are generally the ones who use difficult circumstances as opportunities for growth.
In her breakthrough book, "The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want," Sonya Lyubomirsky Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside posits that gratitude makes it easier to cope with stress and trauma. “Expressing gratefulness during personal adversity like loss or chronic illness, as hard as that might be, can help you adjust, move on, and perhaps begin anew,” Lyubomirsky says.
Some examples include:
- The next time you’re wronged, practice forgiveness, or stand up for your convictions.
- When a behavior keeps getting you into trouble, grow in discipline so that you master a new, positive pattern.
- When you see others in need, step out to help them.
- When you’re suffering and it’s not going to change soon, develop more perseverance.
These qualities might not seem joyful to cultivate, but their hard-won fruit means that you’ve become stronger in character. That in turn, allows you to both handle life’s future disappointments as well as make us more thankful when things are good.
Value time as a gift
I like the way that David Steindl-Rast, a monk and interfaith scholar, shared this worldview in this Ted talk. In it, he distilled the pursuit of happiness into the singular step of becoming aware that each of our life’s “moments” are gifts that we didn’t earn and can’t guarantee but inherently contain opportunity. If you avail yourself to the opportunity of this moment, you’re on your way to utilizing your time well. This, he says, is a key to happiness.
It begins with slowing down. Steindl-Rast advises building “stop signs” into our lives with the simple ditty taught to children about how to safely cross the street: Stop, look and go.
- Stop to appreciate the moment.
- Think about how to best respond.
- Go forward in an appropriate, enriching behavior for your own good and others.
For those who are depressed, overworked, out of work, in poor health or suffering in other ways, moments can seem like prisons, not something to be grateful for. But by focusing on being grateful for the moment, you regain power over the challenge. By choosing to grow, you reframe your perception of reality, right now.
Speak uplifting words
If you've implemented the two tactics above, you should be progressing in your personal gratitude journey. But maybe the proposition of translating thought into words doesn't sit quite right. and you’re thinking, “Why do I need to be a gratitude evangelist?” Because it’s scientifically proven to make you happier.
In an experiment by Soul Pancake, participants were asked to think of someone that positively influenced their life in a big way. After writing down all the reasons why this person means a lot to them, the researchers asked them to actually call the person and tell them what they’d written. Seems simple enough, right?
Participants were asked to take a happiness test at the beginning and the end of the exercise. Those who couldn’t call their influencers for one reason or another saw an increase in happiness of 2-4%. Those who did make the call and were able to verbally express gratitude saw happiness increase by 4-19%. What’s more, the biggest jump in happiness was experienced by the least happy person who walked in to the experiment.
So, if you’re having a really tough go, you may need the power of positive verbal expression more than anyone. It will be tough, but it will be worth it. You’ll be rewarded when you lay aside excuses and just speak kindly for yourself and for others.
Sharing your upgraded outlook with others is the natural progression from keeping those good thoughts to yourself. Try it for a week at work and with your loved ones and see if people respond to you and to stressful situations a little better. Happiness is contagious, after all.
The #GratitudeAttitude Journey
I'm excited about gratitude because it's so much more than how happy I feel. It's about becoming a more optimistic, reflective and thankful person and letting that positivity spill into other's lives. I hope that you'll join me in your own #gratitudeattitude journey to happiness. If you'd like to share your lessons, challenges or funny memes on your way to gratitude attitude, use #gratitudeattitude in a tweet, pin or Instagram post, or tell someone you care #infivewords on Twitter. You can also save these gratitude attitude reminders via this track or this pinboard.
If you’d like more information on happiness, organizations like the Pursuit of Happiness have training programs for individuals and educators. Their 7 steps of happiness include: relationships, caring, exercise, flow, spiritual engagement and meaning, strengths and virtues and a positive mindset (optimism and gratitude). You can track your happiness with their happiness quiz and learn more from their free resources.