We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures. -Thornton Wilder
Recently, at a conference for families affected by Huntington’s Disease (a devastating neurodegenerative illness), I heard a speech by a researcher on the “Science of Happiness”. Dr. Mark Holder discussed how our society – including the fields of psychology, medicine, neuroscience and psychiatry – focuses far too much on the “fix-it” mentality of what is wrong with us. Rather, Dr. Holder focuses on Positive Psychology and what is right with us. Holder found, through extensive research, that the things we strive for to make us happy (money, white picket fenced-houses, beauty), often do not do the trick. Dr. Holder recommended a book by his happiness colleague, Sonja Lyumbormirsky entitled “The How of Happiness” which, unlike many self-help books, takes a hard look at happiness research and the quantifiable facts. Sonja utilizes a Happiness Pie Chart, to show the basic components of happiness:
Our life circumstance and situations (marriages, high-powered executive jobs, pricey suburban homes, luxury SUVs) only account for 10% of our happiness. Via a process known as hedonic adaptation, we as humans adapt to these favorable changes to the point that they no longer produce happiness for us and we wind up wanting more. We thus cannot succumb to the power of the “if, then” mentality of happiness (If I just get married, then I will be happy; If I land that big promotion at work, then I’ll be happy). Fifty percent of our happiness on the pie chart is accounted for by our genetic predisposition to happiness or unhappiness. Our brains and genes are not all created equally, thus we are partly genetically predisposed to perceive the world in various ways. With 10% attributed to life circumstances and 50% attributed to genetic make-up, we still have a whole whopping 40% that is in our control – that which we can intentionally and regularly do to increase our happiness. It is in our power to change, by the things we do in our lives, the ways that we think and act daily.
There are various ways in which one can boost his/her happiness and it is important to identify what strategy works for you. One potential happiness activity is practicing gratitude. Though this may seem like a corny platitude, practicing gratitude has been shown through persuasive scientific research and evidence to boost happiness. Practicing gratitude can mean different things to different people, but in a broad sense, gratitude means thankfully focusing on the present moment and appreciating life as it is today despite difficulties, stressors or hardships. Individuals who practice gratitude on a regular basis are found to be happier, more hopeful, energetic, spiritual, forgiving, and humble. Furthermore, practicing gratitude has shown to result in decreased likelihood of depression, anxiety, envy and loneliness. The “How of Happiness” discusses eight reasons for why gratitude enhances happiness:
1) Grateful thinking promotes savoring of positive life experiences.
2) Expressing gratitude bolsters self-worth and self-esteem.
3) Gratitude helps people cope with stress, chronic illness, grief/loss, and trauma.
4) The expression of gratitude encourages moral behavior, increases likelihood of helping others and decreases materialistic thinking.
5) Gratitude helps build social bonds, strengthening existing relationships and nurturing new ones.
6) Expressing gratitude decreases envy and inhibits continuous social comparisons.
7) The practice of gratitude is incompatible with negative emotions and may actually diminish or deter such feelings as anger, fear, defensiveness, bitterness and greed.
8) Gratitude helps us thwart hedonic adaptation, which is the term used for our ability to adjust rapidly to new experiences or events such that our happiness only boosts for a short, limited amount of time. The thrill does not last.
So, now that we know why gratitude is so important – the next question is how do we practice gratitude successfully so that we can get the full benefits described above?
Here are a few ideas from the Ms. Lyubomirsky’s book:
1) Begin Writing a Gratitude Journal: Write down 3-5 things for which you are grateful, small (the bus arrived right as I entered the bus stop) to grand (my father’s surgery went off without any problems). How often you do this depends on your own preference and schedule, but often doing this only once or twice weekly will help maintain this as a novel activity, in which it does not turn into one more “to do” on your chore list.
2) Introduce someone to your passion: This can be a certain magical place by the lake you like to go, pottery, your new dog, etc. Introducing these things can help you see the ordinary details of our life through another person’s eyes – giving you an exciting and fresh perspective.
3) Intentionally Contemplate and Reflect: Contemplate the objects of your gratitude and reflect on how they have enhanced and enriched your world. This will decrease your propensity for taking those small wonders for granted.
4) Express Gratitude to Another in a Direct Manner: Writer a letter or call up someone from your distant past, recent past or present who has positively influenced your life. For example, write a letter to your old band teacher in middle school for inspiring you to continue attempts at learning to play the guitar, despite your tiny stump-like fingers.
5) Vary Your Expressions of Gratitude: To inhibit this practice from becoming chore-like and boring, continue to vary the ways in which you express gratitude. Perhaps keep a gratitude journal for one month, and then write a letter to a family member who has inspired you the next month. This way, practicing gratitude will continue to enhance your happiness, rather than becoming a commonplace chore on your never-ending to-do list. Complaining and focusing on what is going wrong in our lives is oftentimes easier than directing our focus to gratitude and appreciation. So be sure to commit to the practice of gratitude daily.
To read about other positive living activities to boost happiness, access Sonja Lyubomirsky’s book: http://thehowofhappiness.com/
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Lyubomirsky, S. Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The how of happiness: A scientific approach to getting the life you want. New York: Penguin Press.
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