Gratitude makes you Happy
Research shows that grateful people are happier. In the growing field of Positive Psychology – the scientific study of what makes humans flourish, it has been shown in various studies that gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.
Gratitude is a thankful appreciation for the gifts one receives – it is a felt experience, not just an intellectual concept. It can encompass thankfulness for tangible things such as a warm bed, able hands, a roof over your head or enough money in the bank, or intangible such as for the kindness of a loved one or a stranger, talents you may possess, or merely being alive. It is a warm-hearted feeling, often accompanied by a feeling of kindness and soft contentment. The word gratitude is derived from the Latin word gratia, which means grace, graciousness, or gratefulness and even a sense of something being pleasing or agreeable to you. In mediaeval Latin it also included the concept of goodwill. In some ways, gratitude as we think of it today encompasses all of these meanings.
It is so easy to get stuck in scarcity thinking by focussing on what is not there in our lives, what is (still) missing, what is wrong. We all do it, and it is probably part of our survival instincts that keep us striving to be safer, happier, more fulfilled. It is rather ironic therefore that focussing on what is not there makes us feel exactly the opposite – unfulfilled, unhappy, and ultimately unsafe.
Think for a moment of any aspect of your life – perhaps your job or your loved one. Feel how it feels inside of you when you focus on what is wrong. Are you feeling perhaps a tad disgruntled, uneasy, a bit frustrated, unhappy?
Now ask yourself if what you focussed on is really worth you feeling this way. If yes, conceivably it can motivate you to change things.
Suppose you did the same exercise but focussed on feeling blessed, on the enough-ness of it all, seeking for and acknowledging the good, and actively cultivating a sense of gratitude for what is truly good. Feeling happier?
This is not a ‘be happy no matter what’ exercise. In fact, feelings are important in providing us with information. However, if you find that you are perhaps a bit pessimistic in your outlook, a glass always half full kind of person, perhaps the type of person that just can’t seem to feel settled and content in a relationship, place or job, maybe steering yourself to an attitude of gratitude might just be the thing
How to do it
Start with food – yes, that wonderful opportunity for joy we all have a few times a day. How blessed are we to have enough? How fortunate to not just have enough, but to have good, fresh, varied food every day! When you have a plate of food before you, take some time to savour the sights, colours, smells of the delicious goodies on your plate. Remember for a moment that what you have is the culmination of many hands working, planting tilling, caring for, harvesting, packing, transporting, selling. The food we eat grew somewhere, starting life as alive as we are. It grew in sunlight and on soil, breathed and used water. If you can, connect with the wonder of it all, and the interconnectness of life which we are part of. If that’s not your thing, perhaps you can marvel at the science of molecules that your body can taste, see, smell, and ultimately utilise to repair cells, grow fingernails and hair, and allow the life inside of you to continue this adventure we call life.
Try nature – Nature? How can one feel grateful for nature you may ask? Well, suppose you sit by a stream in a beautiful place, taking in the sound of the water gurgling over pebbles, maybe you notice glimmering little fish, the birds in the trees singing, the sunlight on your back, the smell of water and the herby grass – feeling good yet? How about noticing the miracle of being able to see, smell, feel the water between your fingers or the sunlight on your back… Ever thought about how many neurons need to fire correctly for you to experience this? How marvellous our bodies are at sensing and enjoying all these things? Okay, so maybe it’s gratitude for your body. The same body we tend to look at with such critical eyes because on some level we believe it needs to conform to some arbitrary norm current society holds as the ideal. When really, it’s a marvel in its own right just as it is!
Move on to relationships – several large studies have proved the positive effect of gratitude on relationships – from managers expressing gratitude to their team, to couples where expressing gratitude did not just help couples feel closer and more positive about each other, but even helped them feel more comfortable expressing concerns about their relationship. So, express your gratitude sincerely for chores done, little gestures of thoughtfulness, traits you really appreciate, and reap the fruits. You might just be amazed.
Keep a gratitude journal – we all know how easy it is to forget about our good intentions, unless we make it a daily habit. A journal kept at the same time every day, like early morning or just before bedtime, has been shown in numerous studies to foster happiness, optimism, greater contentment, and even better exercise habits! In your journal (and make it a pretty one with your favourite pen), remember to write down about specific experiences, gifts or events, rather than generic things, and write down how it felt when you experienced them.
Prayer and Meditation – both practices can foster a sense of calm and safety by allowing yourself to count your blessings and the feelings they illicit. Making time for contemplative practices such as these allow us to take a step back from the busyness of life, breathe deeply, and truly feel the gratitude in our hearts for the abundance of gifts we are all blessed with.
In case you’re not fully convinced yet, did you know that gratitude and a positive attitude make you healthier? (check out https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/a-positive-mindset-can-help-your-heart-2019021415999). Researchers in the UK looked at psychological characteristics of over 8,000 people and found that those who scored high on optimism and a sense of well-being enjoyed a 30% lower risk of developing heart disease. Other studies reported similar findings: in a study of over 70,000 women followed for over 10 years, those who scored highest on an optimism questionnaire had a significantly lower risk of death from heart attacks (38%) and strokes (39%).
Similarly, in the large US Health and Retirement study, participants with known stable heart disease who had positive psychological traits had significantly lower risks of having a heart attack.
So gratitude really does make humans happier, but also healthier, better connected in relationships and more content. Worth a try?
Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. * Melody Beattie