Aug 20, 2011
The power of appreciation
It’s all too easy to focus on what’s wrong in our lives, and to overlook what’s positive. It seems almost that we’re pre-programmed to respond strongly to the things that threaten us, while things that are of benefit end up being taken for granted. There are certainly people who are continually acknowledging the positive, but they’re comparatively rare, and I’m not one of them!
And yet one thing that’s been demonstrated in studies is that appreciation makes us happy. There’s a well-known article in Yes Magazine, from a few years back, that discusses this. Two pieces of advice they give from the science of happiness are:
Savor Everyday Moments
Pause now and then to smell a rose or watch children at play. Study participants who took time to “savor” ordinary events that they normally hurried through, or to think back on pleasant moments from their day, “showed significant increases in happiness and reductions in depression,” says psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky.
Say Thank You Like You Mean It
People who keep gratitude journals on a weekly basis are healthier, more optimistic, and more likely to make progress toward achieving personal goals, according to author Robert Emmons. Research by Martin Seligman, founder of positive psychology, revealed that people who write “gratitude letters” to someone who made a difference in their lives score higher on happiness, and lower on depression—and the effect lasts for weeks.
That last one is quite extraordinary. the simple act of writing a thank-you letter can leave you feeling happier for weeks. And yet I bet many of us are more likely to write a letter of complaint than a letter of gratitude.
We all want to be happy, and yet we don’t do the things that create happiness. And we all want to escape unhappiness, but we create unhappiness for ourselves by focusing on what’s wrong in our lives.
I’m very aware of this tendency in myself. Often on Facebook or Google+ I’m about to post a link to yet another article about something that annoys me, and I catch myself and think, Do I really want to focus on this? (Often, though, I just hit publish without any self-reflection.)
So this week I’m keeping a gratitude journal. I’ve found it great for enriching my life and for creating more of a sense of joy and ease. I decided not just tto write a simple list of things I feel grateful or appreciative about, but to write about why these things matter to me.
I found myself really appreciating my local Buddhist center, and the people who go there. They give me an opportunity to experience a greater sense of purpose and connection. They give me an opportunity to explore myself and to discover my spiritual path. And they inspire me with the goodness that people can manifest.
I found myself appreciating my health: the fact that I’m not hindered by infirmity or disability. I’m able to flourish.
I even found myself appreciating the political system I live under — and politics is one of the things that drives me crazy. The political system where I live is far from perfect, but when I think of places like Sudan, or Somalia, or Burma, I’m relieved not to be living under a dictatorship, or in a place where armed thugs wage daily terror, or where I’m likely to be dragged away to prison without due cause. I have a relatively high degree of freedom — again the freedom to flourish, to explore a spiritual path, and to express myself as I wish.
I’m not suggesting that it’s a good thing to ignore injustice. We have to look squarely at things that are wrong as well. But it’s a question of balance, and of mental health. Would we be better or worse off if politicians were able to appreciate each other’s positive qualities rather than demonizing each other? I think the answer to that is clear.
I’ve been moved by how much happier I am after even just one day of gratitude journaling. I’m surprised at how easy it has been to change my perspective. Even talking today with someone after meditation about how hot and sticky it was in the meditation room, I found myself realizing that this wasn’t a conversation I wanted to pursue. At least I have the health with which to meditate, people to meditate with, and a room in which to do it!