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How to Find Happiness in Today’s Not-So-Happy World (Gratitude Edition)

Whether it's to combat the stress of a pandemic, election, or upcoming holiday season, gratitude works. Big time. Here's how you can make it work for you.

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This article was originally published on www.thehappinessdoctor.com

It’s safe to say that 2020 has been anything but average and certainly anything but easy. If the typical stresses of work, home, and managing relationships and emotions isn’t enough, we’ve also all been faced with the psychological, physical, and emotional impacts of a pandemic, election, social injustice and unrest, and upcoming holiday season. Left with the realization that a once not-so-bad or pretty-okay world has become a not-so-happy world and that we can’t really do much in the way of controlling what’s happening, what are we to do? Is there a way to acknowledge the hardship and discomfort of what’s happening without letting it take us over? And is there a way to embrace the ups, downs, twists, and turns without getting caught in the cycle of rumination and despair, emotions running wild?

The Superpower We’ve All Got When It Comes to Being Happier, Especially During Difficult Times

Thankfully, you are not alone when it comes to experiencing hardship whether right now or at any point in your life. We all go through difficult times periodically and one thing that we all share is that we all need support to be reminded of the gifts and tools we have inside of us that can help during rough times. Without a doubt, one of the most important factors to being able to make it through difficulty, whether once in a blue moon or quite often, is an ancient virtue and lost art called gratitude. Gratitude isn’t simply a principle quoted in spiritual and religious texts, and it also isn’t just a word uttered once a year at the Thanksgiving holiday table. It is truly a transformative practice, and an inherent superpower that each of us– including you– have at your disposal.

And, its psychological, social, and physical benefits are unparalleled. If you want to be happier, guess what? All you have to do is be more grateful. If you want to be more optimistic (think seeing the glass as half full rather than half empty), all you have to do is be more grateful.

If you want to be more satisfied with life, more resilient, more helpful and compassionate, all you have to do is be more grateful. If you want to feel less anxious, less fatigued, and less lonely and isolated, all you have to do is be more grateful. If you want to prevent problems in your relationships, sleep longer, and have a stronger immune system, all you have to do is be more grateful.

Catch my drift? If you want to … [insert some aspect of your life that you want to improve here], all you have to do is be more grateful. Whether you ask the multitudes of researchers who’ve studied it or the multitudes of people who’ve practiced it, the consensus is that gratitude works! Big time.

What Makes Gratitude a Superpower

Why is it that gratitude has all of these psychological, social, and physical benefits? And how is it that gratitude can be an antidote to everything from stress to relationship issues to physical symptoms and pain? Well, it’s because gratitude has some very unique qualities that set it apart from other personal development practices. First of all, gratitude drops you straight into the present moment. It’s like meditation on steroids, just as natural and deeply rewarding yet more enlivening, connective, and fun.

When bringing your awareness into the here and now, you get to acknowledge and honor the not-so-happy situations, moments, and events in your life while not simply letting your not-so-happy thoughts and not-so-happy emotions run wild, leading you to remember that even though everything may not appear perfect, everything actually is okay. By reminding us of this fact, gratitude generates safety, it creates a sense of ease, and it relinquishes straggling concerns that you might have about the not too distant past and looming concerns about the foreseeable future. This creates the kind of physiology (e.g., increased serotonin levels) and psychology (e.g, better mood regulation and sleep) that just can’t help but influence your state of mind, the quality of your relationships, and the status of your health. It’s no wonder that gratitude works wonders for our body, mind, and heart too!

“It isn’t happiness, health, and love that make us grateful; it’s gratitude that makes us capable of having a happy, healthy, and loving life.”

3 Key Components to Practicing Gratitude So That It Works!

For it to work its wonders, gratitude needs to be practiced in a full-on, heartfelt way. More specifically, there are three components to practicing gratitude that make it really work! Here they are below.

1. Find Gratitude Everywhere.

The first aspect of gratitude that makes it work is when we’re able to expand our awareness of gratitude and find things to be grateful for both externally and internally. Many of us could use help in remembering to be grateful. Period. But once we’ve caught the gratitude bug and it’s starting to become a part of our daily way of thinking, it comes down to recognizing all the wonderful things that there are to be grateful for that you may not have noticed and/or stopped to give thanks for ever before.

Pause for a moment now, and ask yourself, “What am I grateful for in this moment?”

Need some ideas for inspiration? Are you grateful for this day? a cup of coffee? a good night of sleep? family? Friends? a compliment you received? a delicious meal made by someone in your life? a good book? a call from an old friend? a warm blanket? fresh running water? the sunrise? a movie? a cold drink on a hot day? mother earth? the fresh morning breeze? a heart-to-heart conversation?

Whatever came to you, take a moment to savor and be with it.

Next, my question for you when practicing gratitude is, “Are you only finding things to be grateful for ‘out there’?” Or are you also finding things to be grateful for ‘in here’? As I mentioned, you want to really expand your awareness of gratitude and one of the best ways to do so is to find many different sources of gratitude– all the things ‘out there’ and the many wonderful things ‘in here’ too. What I say ‘in here’, what I am referring to is self-gratitude, or gratitude for yourself. We can find lots to be grateful for in the outside world and that often helps shift our mindset and emotional state a great deal, but the great thing about gratitude that is sourced from the inside (i.e., that is about me) is that it is ever-present. It never goes away.

Pause for a moment now, and ask yourself, “In this moment, what can I be grateful for ‘in here’?”

Need some ideas for inspiration? Perhaps you’re grateful for your patience? Your determination? being able to speak for yourself? your inner strength? your love for learning new things? that you make your health a priority? that you accept people for who they are? that you embrace vulnerability? that you make positive changes in yourself? that you forgive people when they make mistakes? that you look out for others? that you’re a good listener?

Now, take a moment to savor these qualities.

And as you do, I want to share with you a little tip: When it comes to gratitude, the joy is in the detail. So, once that thing for which you are grateful comes to you, be specific about it. Really hone in on the details. Why? You’ll have a more genuine and pronounced experience of gratitude when you consciously bring to mind the specifics of what your friend did for you and means to you than when you simply say or write down that you’re grateful for your friend.

Consider these two examples:

Add a bit of detail and “I’m grateful for my best friend” becomes “I am grateful that my best friend listened with such acceptance when I shared my work challenges with her yesterday”

Add a bit of detail and “I’m grateful for the barista at Starbucks” becomes “I am grateful how the barista at Starbucks remembers my name and the particular way that I like my coffee”.

Can you feel the difference?

2. Your Gratitude Is Only As Limited As Your Mind Will Allow.

Have you ever noticed how it’s quite easy to appreciate the good moments and somewhat less easy to appreciate the moments when things don’t go as we hoped?

Developing the skill of being appreciative for the difficult times, like those that many of us are currently in, is invaluable. Academic researchers, scholars, and Buddhist teachers refer to the foundation of this principle as acceptance. Its essence? To accept what life has given you and stop pushing away or resisting what’s uncomfortable. (For more on this idea, read my article ‪’What you resist, persists. What you accept, changes you’).

I often say it’s the challenging moments in our lives that carry the most wisdom and insight and it’s these moments that really deserve our gratitude. Amidst the pain and discomfort of change and sorrow, however, this truth can often be difficult to see. So, I ask you: Are your sources of gratitude all right in front of you or did you have to really look to find (at least some of) them? And are you acknowledging just the obvious blessings in your life or burdens too? 

Knowing that it can be incredibly difficult for us to see the blessing in the seeming burdens of our lives, I devoted a special place in The 5-Minute GRATITUDE JOURNAL: Give Thanks, Practice Positivity, Find Joy to helping us uncover these often hidden gifts life offers us.

Try it out by filling in this statement:

A challenging experience that helped me grow into a better version of myself is:

________________________________________________________________________

________________________________________________________________________

Now take a moment to savor the hidden blessing in whatever the experience was that came up for you.

The more you look for the blessing in the burden, the more you will begin to see that in each ‘negative’ there typically lies a ‘positive’. We just need to be open-minded and -hearted enough to notice it.

To help you do just that, try filling in this statement with something you’ve experienced recently:

“I don’t like that __________________________________________________________

but the fact that __________________________________________________________

isn’t all that bad”.

Know that you can do this any time whatsoever. The more you do it, the more you will retrain your brain to dig beyond the obvious and positive to recognize the hidden and seemingly negative too.

3. Fully Feel It.

As with most transformative practices, the most important thing about gratitude is not what you do, but how you do it. When I utter the word ‘gratitude’ in a course or coaching session, my clients tell me that they envision a list. And it’s true– gratitude can be practiced by developing a list. Yet, in and of itself, gratitude isn’t simply something we want to document via a superficial list titled “5 things I am grateful for”. Gratitude is a feeling. So arguably the most important component to making gratitude work is to really, sincerely, and fully feel the emotion. You might not be used to doing it this way, but give it a try. Pause and see if you can find the feeling beneath the words and sentences that denote your gratitude. Positive and Health Psychology researchers refer to this process as an affective experience and much more than the words “I am grateful”, it’s this feeling or affective experience of gratitude that influences our ability to experience a happy, healthy, and loving life.

“Gratitude isn’t something you document via a superficial list titled “5 things I am grateful for”. Gratitude is a feeling.”

A tip to help you step into the feeling of gratitude: Express Yo’self. That’s right. Gratitude, as a feeling, is all about self-expression. So, if words are your jam, write a thank you letter or note and actually tell someone “I’m really thankful for you”; or if art is your thing, draw to or about someone who’s made a positive and lasting influence in your life that you haven’t had a chance to thank; and if you’re finding you need a dose of inspiration to step into the feeling gratitude, grab a journal with prompts to inspire you to dig deep (It’s exactly for this purpose that I created The 5-Minute GRATITUDE JOURNAL). Above all– don’t forget to make it fun!!! There is no reason for gratitude to be a stale and boring practice. Make it yours! And make it fun. Whatever that means to you.

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