Welcome to our limited series on The Science of Happiness. Introduction: here | Week One: here | Week Two: here | Week Three: here | Week Four: here | Week Five: here | Week Six: here | Week Seven: here
This week’s lesson focuses on Gratitude. Most of us have memories of childhood, being told by a well-meaning parent or grandparent to say “please” and “thank you.” For generations of us, those phrases were the markers of a well-raised human person, and woe to any of us–especially Southerners like me–who did not show the appropriate appreciation for gifts or services.
Not Your Mama’s Gratitude
Far from the perfunctory thank you‘s forced on us by manners-obsessed authority figures, studies indicate that true gratitude is a complex emotion with strong social and psychological functions. According to researcher Bob Emmons (2003), “Gratitude stems from the perception of a positive personal outcome, not necessarily deserved or earned, that is really due to the actions of another person.”
When we experience true gratitude, we are affirming the goodness in the universe. There are good things in life, benefits, gifts, that we don’t have to earn or even deserve. And we accept that this goodness has nothing to do with our own efforts. Somebody else did the good thing, somebody who deserves credit and appreciation.
It’s Nicer on the Sunny Side of the Street
While our ego may enjoy thinking that we can do it our own self, having a grateful disposition actually makes us happier. According to research, a grateful disposition predicts:
- Increased happiness and life satisfaction
- Increased optimism
- Healthier thought patterns (reduced toxic thinking)
- Reductions in anxiety and depression
- Reductions in PTSD symptoms
- Increased pro-social behavior
- Increased cooperation
- More charitable giving
Really, Really Nicer…
Not only does gratitude increase our happiness, it increases our ability to be happy. On the psychological front, gratitude enhances how often and how much we enjoy the pleasant experiences in life. It amplifies the good we experience, making us more apt to savor positive experience, more inclined to notice the good things in life, and less likely to take things for granted. Consistent gratitude also lowers the bar for what we experience as positive or pleasant, expanding the amount of awesome we have to choose from.
Another positive side affect of the grateful lifestyle comes in terms of stress reduction. After a stressful event, grateful people are more likely to find the good in the situation, reinterpret it in a positive light and use it as an opportunity to grow. Grateful people also are less likely to blame themselves or suffer enduring or persistent stress. And they’re more likely to face the situation head on, rather than disengage mentally and emotionally.
Bring On The Sun
There are many ways to cultivate gratitude in your life, relationships, schools, and workplaces. Some of the most common suggestions for building up your gratitude muscles include:
- Keep a gratitude journal. It may seem cliché, but according to psychologists such as Sonja Lyubomirsky at the University of California-Riverside, keeping such a journal can boost your energy as well as decreasing your pain.
- Focus on your words. Be mindful of the words you use, because they can literally change your brain. According to researchers, “Positive words, such as peace and love, can alter the expression of genes, strengthening areas in our frontal lobes and promoting the brain’s cognitive functioning.”
- Remember. Taking a walk down memory lane, especially if you focus on the good things others have done for you over the years, can help cultivate gratitude in your life.
- Write thank you letters. Writing a sincere gratitude letter, especially to someone you haven’t actually thanked properly, can be a wonderful thing. Unlike the obligatory “bread and butter letters” we used to send, writing a heartfelt gratitude letter to someone who has had a positive and lasting effect on your life can be a profound experience.
- Hang out with positive people. Your mom and your grandma were right–the company you keep is important. Whether it’s psychological hoodoo or just plain old-fashioned peer pressure, studies show that you will rise (or decline) to match the behavior level of the people you hang out with. So choose people who will elevate you!
- Give back. You wanna feel good? Real good? Give back. Not to even the score or prove how honorable you are, but because giving back can be awesome. There are people in this world you will never be able to repay, people who have gone so far over the call of friendship that you think you can never pay them back. If that’s the case, pull a Haley Joel and pay it forward.
Thanks for joining us this week. Coming up in Week Nine: Laughter, awe, and play!
If you’d like to audit The Science of Happiness for free, sign up at the Greater Good Science Center here. You can also listen to the excellent podcast of the same name from Public Radio International.