We all have challenges and issues in our lives to resolve. A difficult colleague at work, a fight with a significant other, there is often a source of stress and frustration. Thinking about those things adds to our stress levels and makes us feel anxious. What if we focused on what’s going right in our life? We suddenly feel calmer and the unresolved issue shrinks mentally.
In the recent book The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky tells us that 50 percent of our inclination towards happiness is based on a genetic set point, something we cannot influence very much, 10 percent is based on life circumstances (such as getting a promotion, finding your life partner, or achieving a creative dream), and 40 percent is “intentional activity” that we can influence with our behavior.
One of the key intentional activities is the practice of gratitude – which can help us become 40 percent happier without changing our circumstances at all.
In one of the studies mentioned in the book, a group of participants was asked to write down five things that generated gratefulness once a week for ten weeks. In the other control groups, participants were asked to list five hassles or major events that occurred that past week. The results illustrated that those who expressed gratitude tended to feel more satisfied and optimistic with their lives. Their health received a boost as well; fewer physical symptoms (such as headaches, acne, coughing or nausea) were reported, and they spent more time exercising.
Research shows that consistently grateful people are happier, more energetic, more hopeful, more empathic, more forgiving, and less materialistic. They also tend to be less depressed, anxious, lonely, envious, neurotic, or sick.
Severely depressed people instructed to list grateful thoughts on a website daily were found to be significantly less depressed by the end of the study when compared to depressed people who weren’t asked to express gratitude. (Depression is known as a significant risk factor for disease.)
Dennis Prager, author of the second book, Happiness is a Serious Problem, discusses gratitude in his book as the secret to being happy. He believes, however, that expectations undermine gratitude and therefore undermine happiness. “The more expectations you have, the less gratitude you will have. If you get what you expect, you will not be grateful for getting it.” He suggests lowering expectations, particularly pertaining to circumstances beyond your control, in order to bring gratitude to fruition.
Here’re some specific steps you can start with today to feel more gratitude and therefore happiness in your life:
1. Think of 3-5 things/people/events you are grateful for in your life when you first wake up in the morning. It can be something as basic as bread on the table or house to health, healthy family, your talents, friends… Try to vary that list each day.
2. At the end of each day, go mentally through your day and remember 3 things that made you feel good or made you smile.
3. Express gratitude directly to people regularly: your colleagues, partner, family members, friends. Write a thank you note, make a phone call, say ‘thank you”.
4. Lower your expectations of your family members and/or your colleagues and boss. We are all humans and we are all doing our best at any given time.
What are your thankful for today? What does your life have that you didn’t have a year ago or 5 years ago?