As I wrote last time, it’s a truism that if we want to be happy today we have to find some acceptance and peace with the pain and disappointments of the past; and that two powerful methods for achieving that acceptance are practicing forgiveness and cultivating gratitude. Last time I talked about forgiveness. This time the focus is on gratitude.
I sometimes find it odd that in my profession, which is supposed to be about achieving happiness, so many seem to think that we can find it by focusing on the pain, failures, disappointments, abuse, and traumas of the past. It’s true that there can be powerful healing in talking about the wrongs that were done to us, especially if we’ve kept them secret, denied that they happened, or blamed ourselves for them. But if we lose sight of the fact that the ultimate goal of this work is to let go and move on – if we get stuck in victimization, rage and vengefulness – then we foreclose on the possibility of finding peace. That’s because intense negative thoughts about the past tend to block feelings of contentment and satisfaction.
The great philosopher, Lily Tomlin, once observed, “Humanity invented language out of a deep need to complain.” Human beings are wired in a way that inclines us to focus more on struggle and unhappiness than on happiness and peace. Our complex brains evolved as tools for anticipating and overcoming dangers, for avoiding pain, and for solving problems; so dangers, pain, and problems are what capture our attention. What’s unproblematic, pleasant and harmonious tends to slip into the background. Having enjoyed good health most of my life, for instance, I generally take it for granted. But a few years ago I was laid up with an illness that lasted six weeks. As it passed and I felt my strength returning I experienced intense gratitude. But within a short few days, awareness of health receded, and I once again started taking it for granted. Most of us are like that: we overlook the unproblematic aspects of our lives.
This suggests that if we want more positive emotions like gratitude in our lives we have to cultivate them deliberately. A few years back, two psychologists, Michael McCullough and Robert Emmons, began a series of experiments which they called The Research Project on Gratitude and Thanksgiving. The purpose was to see if deliberately focusing on gratitude improved well-being. The studies involved over 2,000 subjects. In one experiment, several hundred people in three different groups kept daily diaries. The first group kept a record of the events that occurred during the day; the second recorded their unpleasant experiences; and the third made a daily list of things for which they were grateful.
The researchers were astonished at the sizable effects they observed. Those who did the daily gratitude exercises reported higher levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, optimism, and energy. McCullough reported “In just two to three weeks they reported being happier. People close to them could see the difference, too.” They experienced less depression and stress, and better sleep duration and sleep quality. They were more likely to help others, exercised more regularly, and made more progress toward personal goals. They were also more likely to feel loved, perhaps because gratitude encouraged a positive cycle of reciprocal kindness. Emmons commented “If you want a strategy to increase your happiness, there’s a lot out there that will help. You can take pharmaceuticals like Prozac. But gratitude is something that doesn’t have side effects.”
As a result of this and similar research projects, Positive Psychologists, who focus on increasing positive emotions like joy and happiness, regularly prescribe gratitude practice to their clients. In his book Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman, one of the leaders in the Positive Psychology movement, recommends two gratitude exercises. In the first, the instructions are to set aside five free minutes each night, preferably right before bedtime. Think back over the previous twenty-four hours and write down, on separate lines, up to five things in your life for which you’re grateful. Do this daily for two weeks, and if you find it helpful, incorporate the practice into your daily routine. In the second exercise, the instructions are to choose a person for whom you feel gratitude. Spend some time writing this person a gratitude testimonial that is short enough to fit on one page. Have the page laminated, and in a face-to-face meeting with the person, present it to him or her and read it aloud. Seligman reports that his clients regularly report great benefits from these practices.
Religion and philosophy have long embraced gratitude as an indispensable element of virtue, and an important component of health, wholeness and well-being. Today, psychological research is confirming that ancient wisdom. Our well-being depends far more on our attitude toward our circumstances than on the circumstances themselves. Happiness is an inside job.