Happiness Habit #1: GratitudeJuly 19 , 2012

Last week, I talked about how happiness leads to success (see post here ).  But what if you’re not feeling happy?  Lucky for you, over the next month, I’ll be sharing 5 simple and effective ways for you to increase your happiness.  I’ve written about three of these tactics in the past, but given my recent work with Shawn Achor and his Happiness Advantage work, I thought it would be helpful to summarize all five over the month.

Habit #1  Gratitude

This is one of the most established and well-known happiness habits.  Oprah has been talking about gratitude lists for over a decade and the science behind it is rock solid.  If you are looking for the most straight-forward and proven change to make, gratitude is a great place to start.

How to Do It

For 21 days in a row, record three things you are grateful for and why.  The three gratitudes must be different each day and they must be specific; you cannot say you are grateful for your health or family without saying why.  It’s helpful to choose the same time each day to write these down – many choose to do this right before bed, others like to kick off their work day with it (before checking their email), still others like to set a calendar reminder for a specific time each day.  Find a time that works for you.

It doesn’t matter whether you handwrite your gratitudes or do it in electronic form.  It doesn’t matter if you have a fancy journal or just grab whatever scrap piece of paper you have around.  What does matter is that you spend a few minutes scanning the past 24 hours for things that you can appreciate.  Try not to make it one more thing on your to-do list, but rather slow down and open up to those feelings of appreciation for the luck you’ve had in your life, for the generosity of friends or coworkers, for whatever you are grateful for.  Here are some good examples of the “what and why” of gratitude.

  • I am grateful
    • For the hug my daughter gave me this morning showing me that I am loved.
    • For the thank-you note my boss sent me yesterday.  It made me feel like a valued member of the team.
    • That I had 10 minutes this morning to do whatever I wanted; it’s been a long time since I’ve just flipped through a magazine.
    • That my ankle seems fully healed.  Now I can get back to my regular running schedule which helps me feel good and energized.
    • For the milk in my fridge and the Cheerios in my bowl this morning.  I appreciate that I don’t have to worry about where my next meal comes from.
    • That the sun was shining during my walk into work.  The colors reflecting off the building were gorgeous.

As you get more established at this practice, start looking for other places in your life to bring in gratitude – go around the dinner table and ask what everyone is grateful for; use some of your commute time to review the good things in your life; when you are bored waiting for something, instead of checking your phone, look around for something to appreciate.

How It Helps

Here’s a smattering of what science has shown.

  • Our brain is a single processer.  When you are focused (however briefly) on things to appreciate in your life, there is literally no brain space left for anger, sadness or worry.
  • As the practice continues you strengthen those neuro-pathways that look for what’s good in your life, making it easier and easier for your brain to find things to appreciate.  It’s like weight-lifting; you build your gratitude “muscle” by using it.  (Shawn Achor, in his book The Happiness Advantage, likens this to what happens after you play Tetris for an extended period.  Suddenly, you see those geometric shapes everywhere — in the brick wall, as the city skyline — and you start making them fit together in your mind.)
  • When researchers pick random volunteers and train them to be more grateful over a few weeks, they become happier and more optimistic, feel more socially connected, enjoy better quality sleep and even experience fewer headaches than control groups.
  • Practicing gratitude daily for 21 days can significantly raise your optimism even 6 months later.

My experience

I’ve had a formal gratitude practice off and on for years now.  I type my daily gratitudes on my laptop for a couple minutes just before bed.  Some days the gratitude just flows and I get flooded with happiness at the good things in my life.  I find it is often the little things that can drive my mood higher when I appreciate them – someone opening a door for me, a stranger giving me a smile or some unexpected appreciation from someone else.

Other days writing down my gratitudes can feel like a chore and something I ‘need’ to do before I can go to bed.  When this happens, I push through and try to open up to the positive.  Sometimes I’m successful at feeling good about it and sometimes I’m not.  But what matters is that time I spend looking for what’s good, that’s where the training happens.
Sometimes, when this negative perspective persists for a few nights in a row, I let go of the practice for a while.  When I come back to it a few weeks or months later, I find it reinvigorates my positivity and happiness.

This week’s challenge:  Kick off your gratitude practice right now.  Spend a few minutes (never more than 5) writing down your three gratitudes.  Then lock in a time in your daily routine to do this for at least the next 21 days.   See how it goes.

If you’ve been following this blog over the last year, you’ll note that gratitude is a topic I talk about a LOT.  If you want to dig more into the science of gratitude or want more explicit directions on how to do this practice, check out these other posts:

Eric Karpinski
The Happiness Coach

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