The power of gratitude

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Happiness is the single most repressed emotion. If that surprises you, just consider what happens in meditation: we simply notice whenever the mind has started wandering down the pathways of rumination (and sometimes it gets quite far before we realize what it’s doing), and then we let go of the thinking we’re doing and come back to our breathing, or to our other immediate sensory experience. After just a few minutes of this we feel calmer and happier — or at least less troubled and less unhappy, which amounts to the same thing.

There’s nothing magical about the breathing that makes us happier. What’s going on here is just that much of our thinking makes us unhappy. It causes us stress or anxiety, or makes us irritated or discontented in one way or another. If we let go of this thinking we stop making ourselves unhappy. Our unchecked, unmonitored rumination represses our sense of wellbeing.

But there are other ways that we repress a natural sense of wellbeing, one of which is that we discount and ignore the positive. We tend to place our focus on things that are going wrong in our lives, or that we think are going wrong, and ignore things that are going right. This is a form of cognitive distortion.

When we start to notice, acknowledge, and appreciate what’s going right in our lives we feel much happier. In fact psychologists say that being grateful and appreciative is one of the main things we can do to be happier in life. I read about one study in which participants were asked to spend 30 minutes writing a letter of appreciation to someone who had benefited them. The scientists conducting the study found that people who did this exercise were measurably happier a month later. It’s quite astonishing that a 30 minute exercise can elevate your mood for a month. Other studies have found that a daily practice of writing down a list of things we’re grateful for has effects on our happiness and on our health — for example promoting better sleep.

A few months ago when I was feeling down about how my life was going my girlfriend of the time pointed out some of the things that were going right: that I live in a beautiful apartment, have two wonderful kids, have good friends, that lots of people are grateful to me for what I do, that I’m generally healthy, and so on. Considering this lifted my mood considerably.

One practice I recommend is simply sitting down and saying “thank you” for the things that are going right in your life. And when I talk about saying thank you I mean either saying the words out loud or articulating them clearly in your mind.

If you’re puzzling over what on earth you have that’s going right in your life, remember the cognitive distortion I mentioned above. We take for granted, ignore, and thus fail to appreciate many things that are going right. So here are a few things that are likely to be going right for you. Really take in any of these that are true for you and remember to say thank you:

You’re sheltered from the elements. You have access to the internet. You probably possess some kind of electronic device that allows you to store massive amounts of information and to get on the internet to access even more information. You have electricity. You have water. There are sewers to dispose of your waste hygienically. You have food in the house. You’re surrounded by furniture (any one piece of which makes you unimaginably rich in the eyes of around a billion of the world’s poorest people). You have relatively clean air to breathe. There are paved roads nearby. You live in a relatively lawful part of the world. There are emergency services poised to help if your house catches fire or if you have serious medical problems. You’re breathing. Your heart is beating. Mostly your body is functional. If you have illnesses or injuries, your body is trying to heal itself. Your senses are functioning well enough for you to get by. You are conscious. You are aware of the world around you and of your inner world. You have self-awareness. You have the capacity to learn. You have the capacity to cultivate gratitude.

If you’ve sincerely done this exercise, notice how you feel. Has your mood shifted, even a little? Probably the answer is yes, and if so you’ve just experienced the benefits of turning your attention from what is wrong in life to what’s going right.

Gratitude turns what we have into abundance.

I’m not, of course, suggesting a naive approach of ignoring difficulties. There are things in our lives that are difficult. But these are made more difficult to bear when we focus only on them and not on our abundant blessings. There are also things happening in the world that are terrible. But if we’re depressed and despondent we’re less able to do anything constructive in the face of these challenges.

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