Science shows us that grateful people are happy people.
This seems obvious, but let me reframe it.
How often do you believe that everything you need to be happy you already have? How often do you stop and appreciate that you made it to work safely or that your bed is warm and your tummy is full? Our so-called “problems”- the relentless longing for material possessions we don’t have, the obsession over a negative encounter, and even that guy who cut us off on this morning’s commute- consume our thoughts, our conversations, and alter our perspective on life. The “good” things- as big as a career you love and as small as a sunny afternoon- go unrecognized, undiscussed, and unappreciated. One of my favorite thought leaders Sharon Salzberg says it best when it comes to our strong tendency to highlight the low points: “Did anything ELSE happen today?”
Much of how we experience life is based on our perspective. Research estimates that our outlook on life comprises 40% of our happiness. Perspective is a choice- something we have complete control over. If you can shift your perspective, you can control your experience. If you can control your experience, you can have happiness.
This is why I started a gratitude practice. It reminds me to maintain a positive perspective and therefore cultivates happiness in my life. A friend gifted me a gratitude journal a few years ago. In the introduction, this journal gives a few valuable pieces of advice:
1) When things are at the very worst, it is the most critical time to cherish moments of joy. For example, if someone you love dies, there will be pain and grief. Allow yourself to feel it. But also allow yourself to feel and appreciate the glimmer of happiness that comes from telling stories about this person or a moment of unrelated laughter with a friend in the midst of your grieving period.
2) Always look for the “why” behind your gratitude. This will help identify and reinforce habits that cultivate happiness. (For example, I am grateful for my yoga practice. Why? Because I am making time to care for myself and my wellbeing even on the craziest days. We relentlessly analyze the negative, so why not analyze the positive too?)
You don’t have to be Little Miss Sunshine to practice gratitude. It’s a skill, not a talent, so start training your gratitude muscle.
How To Start a Gratitude Practice
When the going gets tough… count your blessings. During moments of negativity- anger, jealousy, defeat- make it a point to list at least three things you are grateful for. It could be as basic as your morning cup of coffee (sleepless night?) or as complex as a person in your life who pushes you to stretch your bounds (feeling jealous?). Although sometimes it feels good in the moment to stay with our negative thoughts, introducing some positivity will soften the negativity and help you shift to a more constructive perspective of the situation.
Make gratitude a daily habit. Whether you write it in a journal or simply recite it in your head like meditation or prayer, cultivate a daily gratitude habit- no matter your mood. List out three to five things you feel grateful for each day. By forming this habit, you train your brain to look for points of positivity as you go about your everyday life which helps shift your overall perspective.
Enlist a gratitude partner. We started a habit in our house that we call “five things”. During dinner, on our evening walk, or before bed, we take turns listing five things we are grateful for. They can be anything from a delicious apple we ate at lunch to a meaningful moment with a friend. Enlist a willing loved one to text your list to daily or weekly (start your Monday morning on a grateful note!) or even post your list on social media (people post rants, so why not gratitude lists?!).
On some days five will feel hard- not because you lack five things to be grateful for, but because your perspective is blocking your view. These are the days when it’s most critical to practice gratitude. Some days, five won’t seem like enough.
Here’s what I’m grateful for today:
- We just spent a week in Colorado hiking, biking and exploring with friends. I am grateful for the time and space to unplug, think, and recharge.
- I am also grateful for our kind friends who hosted us for the past week (and the kind friends back home who cared for our kitties while we travelled).
- I am grateful for my health.
- I am grateful for work that I am actually excited to return to.
- I am grateful for the very large mug of coffee that helped lure me out of bed this morning.
Today is a day when five isn’t enough.