The Power of Gratitude

Want to be happier? Learn to see the cup half full, rather than half empty. Count your blessings. Appreciate the positive. Retrain your brain to focus on the good. And for heaven’s sake, stop worrying.

Sounds easy right?

In a sense, it is. Oodles of research conducted over the past several years has shown that being grateful unlocks an almost magical path to happiness. In a well-documented research study titled Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life, professors Robert A. Emmons and Michael E. McCullough found that the participants who focused on the things for which they were grateful were happier, got more exercise and made greater progress toward their goals than those who did not.

So why don’t we just, well, why don’t we just do that?

First, we are hard-wired to identify risks. If our ancient ancestors chose to wander into the sunshine, appreciating the warmth on their face and not considering the saber tooth tiger stalking them from the woods, well, you can imagine how that could end. Recognizing danger and remaining vigilant of risk has been critical to our survival as a species. We are hard-wired with a negativity bias.

Second, we are superstitious. I was traveling to Europe with a friend who has a profound fear of flying. As we boarded, she patted the outside of the plane, much the way you would pat a beloved child on the head. Once onboard, she peeked into the cockpit and introduced herself to the pilot. Minutes later, as the plane took off, she closed her eyes and furrowed her brow.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“Yes. I’m trying to keep the plane in the air with my mind,” she replied.

We believe that we can keep bad things from happening if we follow our routines, rub our rabbit’s feet or think really, really hard about them. We are afraid to “tempt fate” by counting our blessings or making changes.

Third, we have some perverse draw towards the terrible. Apparently, we are drawn to negative news and, since networks and newspapers want to give us what we want, the vast majority (90% by some estimates) of the news we are fed is negative. Watch the news, listen to the radio or read a news feed online and you would be reasonable to believe that nothing good happens in the world.

Finally, as people, we are always striving for forward movement: the next promotion or the bigger house. We want our kids to bring home better grades, our partners to bring home more money and pretty much every single one of us wants to be thinner, stronger, taller -- something-er.

That is not a bad thing. But it is tricky to be grateful for what you have while simultaneously striving for more. On some level, we are afraid that if we are really, truly, deeply appreciative of what we have right now, it will tamp down our ambition and our drive. We fear that thinking “wow, where I am is awesome, right now. I love my house and my partner and my kids and everything is great,” you will settle. The kids will keep fighting, your husband will continue to leave his laundry in the middle of the floor and you will never lose the extra twenty pounds of “baby weight” you still carry. For those of us with type-A tendencies and big dreams, practicing gratefulness can feel like a recipe for settling.

Despite all of this, apparently, it is possible to retrain your brain to focus on the positive and by doing so, literally change the way you navigate the world on a day to day, real-life basis.

Ready for the secret?

Many years ago, my husband, who is a competitive CrossFit athlete, was trying to master doubleunders. A pretty tricky skill where, while jumping rope, the rope passes twice beneath your feet each time you jump. So it is jump, spin the rope twice underfoot before you land and jump again. It requires timing and speed and control and endurance. Doubleunders are also incredibly frustrating because for most of us, they come and they go. Eric was in LA working out at his favorite LA CrossFit box (that’s CrossFit speak for gym) when his fledgling mastery of doubleunders deserted him. He asked the coach for some advice. The coach said, “do you want the easy way or the hard way?”

“I’ll take the easy way, thanks” Eric replied.

“Pretend there’s a gun to your head and do the doubleunders.”

Apparently, learning to be more grateful and therefore learning to be happier is largely a function of just doing it. The more you do it, the more you will create the habit of looking at the glass half full and begin to retrain your brain to create new pathways to gratefulness.

How?

The simplest way -- that research shows is very effective -- is simply to maintain a gratitude journal in which you record something for which you are grateful for every day. There is no one right way to do this: you can go old school and use any kind of notebook, buy a printed “gratitude journal” with daily prompts, start a new note on your phone or download one of the many gratitude journal apps.

But here’s the key. The only thing that will make this work. The part that is hard. For this to have a meaningful impact, for this practice to really begin to change your neural pathways, for practicing gratitude to really impact your life and begin to make you happier, you must do this every day. For months. Better yet, forever.

If you are not serious about making the commitment to becoming more grateful, more appreciative and happier, the prettiest new gratitude journal or most intuitive app will not make a difference.

But if you want to change the way you perceive the world in a manner that compelling research shows is pretty much guaranteed to make you happier, start writing down one thing you are grateful for and do it every, single day.

Starting today.