As I mentioned in my previous post, I believe happiness builds on three foundations: gratitude, non-attachment, and living in the present moment. Gratitude is a very direct tool that works wonders when it comes to working on a positive attitude, and I’ve never come across anything drug-free in my life that is a faster fix for happy feelings. Therefore, gratitude is where I always recommend my clients to begin.
“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.” ― Cicero
Gratitude is basically an affirmation that (a particular part of) life is good. This way of thinking has the power to reshape your neural pathways. Your brain focuses either on something negative or on something positive, and due to the dopamine-enhanced confirmation bias, what it focuses on most, will be focused on most easily. This is important, because this means that the more you practice positive thinking, the more positive thinking will become your standard mindset.
However, it takes some practice to feel gratitude at first. Not that we’re all terrible people, but it often simply doesn’t come to mind to be grateful for everyday things. You need to make an effort to think: ‘Thank you fridge, for chilling my food’, and ‘thank you tree, for making me oxygen’. Feels rather weird.
“Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson
But it is exactly this gratitude for the everyday things, the things you tend to take for granted, that is most powerful once cultivated. Psychologists have been reporting that people who feel grateful in their daily lives feel more loving, forgiving, happy, and enthusiastic. Results have even been found gratitude is linked to lowered blood pressure and improved immune function.
Gratitude, like happiness in general, is a state of mind. Because of that, people often think it’s all about simply flipping a switch and then you’re done. This is unfortunate, because many people give up after they realize this isn’t working. Excuse me for boring you with the fitness comparison over and over, but it’s so important to understand that this is a practice. You are training you mind, to slowly and steadily become more happy, or in this case, more grateful. Think about this for a second. Just like when you just start working out or pick up a new sport, you will suck at it at first. Please give yourself the freedom to not be perfect right away. That’s how you learn anything new, right? So too with this. Set aside some time each day, show up with willingness and discipline, cut yourself some slack that you’re not getting it right away, and accept in yourself the slow but steady progress you’re making at the beginning of mastering something new. This way, I guarantee you that it will work for you.
“Acknowledging the good that you already have in your life is the foundation for all abundance.” ― Eckhart Tolle
Practicing gratitude goes in three phases. The first is building a foundation and beginning to play around with actively changing your perspective to be more positive. The simplest, easiest, and best way to do this is by keeping a gratitude journal. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, as long as you write down a couple of things that you’re grateful for every single day. This can be anything from your life partner to the delicious breakfast you had that morning. It’s more important that you take a second to truly feel the gratitude for something silly, than that you write down something profound that you feel you should be grateful for. You can see my post on why I keep a gratitude journal here for more information about it. Don’t be deceived by the simplicity of this tool, for the results are incredible.
The next step would be to make gratitude part of the daily mindset. So, whereas by keeping a journal you introduce yourself to feeling grateful for a couple of minutes a day, now it’s time to expand that feeling throughout the day. Actively identify things you’re happy with and grateful for in your life whenever you see/hear/think/feel them. This may sound like a vague exercise, but it will come rather naturally after you’ve been keeping your journal for a while. The key to this gratitude-all-day practice is being mindful a lot. That’s the trick; if the habit of gratitude is formed a little bit due to the journal, all it takes to have that feeling throughout the day is mindfulness. Simply being aware of the world around you will naturally provoke feeling of happiness and gratitude.
For the creatives out there: The best thing I’ve ever learned in any art class was how to look. A great ‘trick’ for mindfulness and seeing the beauty around you is to pretend you’re about to paint (or draw, or photograph, or write about, or simply describe, or whatever it is you do) what you’re looking at. Suddenly you’re really looking. Instead of just the street you live at, you see colors and lights and shadows, and there’ll be feelings about all that. And, after some practice, you’ll be filled with gratitude for what you see. This is what Buddhists mean when they talk about ‘really seeing’.
The more you’re used to contemplating the positive things in life, the more positive things there seem to be. In an advanced state, gratitude will be the foundation on which you live, and it can even be felt in times of crisis or despair. For this phase it is important to also be progressing with living in the present moment, and non-attachment, which I will address in the following weeks.
Remember, reading about practicing gratitude is a great first step, but it’s not getting you anywhere :). Do yourself the pleasure of starting a basic journal today, and see how you feel next week. I’d love to hear about your experiences.
NOTE: This is the second post in the 5-part series on the Foundations of Happiness. Next week I’ll talk about living in the present moment. Make sure you’re subscribed to the newsletter so that you won’t miss out.
Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of personality and social psychology, 84(2), 377.
Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2004). The psychology of gratitude. Oxford University Press.
Sheldon, K. M., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2006). How to increase and sustain positive emotion: The effects of expressing gratitude and visualizing best possible selves. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1(2), 73-82.
Watkins, P. C., Woodward, K., Stone, T., & Kolts, R. L. (2003). Gratitude and happiness: Development of a measure of gratitude, and relationships with subjective well-being. Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal, 31(5), 431-451.