Using Gratitude To Rethink The Nature Of Happiness

Gratitude shows us that happiness has a lot more to do with little habits than with overall victory and fulfillment.

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Every year around Thanksgiving a wonderful thing happens. We all take time to appreciate how fortunate we are and count the luxuries around us. I don’t know about other people, but it’s a time of year when I feel genuinely lucky to be me and to have my life. 

I find myself asking, “What keeps me from thinking like this and feeling like this all the time?” Unfortunately, I don’t have anything better than a weak excuse to answer that question. I imagine that many other people are in the same boat. 

I think the truth is that sometimes we deny ourselves from feeling happy or thankful simply because we don’t feel like we’ve earned it. We’re not comparing ourselves to another version of ourselves from 1901 that would have been shoveling coal for 10 hours a day and suffering from a never ending toothache and severe back pain – a time before cushy eight hour work days, before modern dentistry, and before improved methods of back treatment and convenient spinal decompression. We’re comparing ourselves to that fictional person who has a perfect body, a perfect romantic partner, a perfect job, etc. Or maybe we’re just comparing ourselves to a fictional version of ourselves that has things the real version of us does not. Whatever we’re doing, we’re putting ourselves into a story where the punchline is “I’m lacking”.

The Hedonic Treadmill

According to the theory of the hedonic treadmill, each of us has a baseline level of happiness where we live. In spite of the dramatic ups and downs of life, we eventually return to the same baseline level of happiness. Even when you get the promotion, the success, or the recognition you seek, you will end up adapting to your new conditions and find yourself just as happy as you were before. It sounds a little sad here, but this principle works in our favor sometimes, too. 

To give an example, let’s say that you’re a twin. And say that tomorrow you get in a tragic car accident that leaves you terribly injured with impediments that will last a lifetime. By contrast, tomorrow is your twin’s lucky day, because they win the lottery. Who had a better day? The answer to that question is easy. 

But consider, who of the two of you will be happier in three months? According to a study performed in 1978, science says that just like the hedonic treadmill postulates, you will be just as happy as your lottery-winning twin. It will be as if nothing ever happened.

This study examined a group of individuals who had just won the Illinois State Lottery with another group of individuals from Illinois who had just become quadriplegic or paraplegic as a result of a terrible accident. The groups were asked to rate themselves on a scale of 1 to 5 on how happy they were and how happy certain things made them. Although there were differences in some of their ratings, researchers found that after a little while, by and large, the lottery winners were just as happy as their crippled counterparts.

Happiness Is A Brain Chemical

If the long sought after victory and the awful mishap will end up having the exact same effect on our future happiness, what then, should we actually be doing to be happy? That’s where adopting healthy habits like expressing gratitude come in. Just like maintaining your immune system or keeping your muscles toned, the mind’s happiness and well-being can be nourished by consistent, healthy habits. Frequently expressing thanks is one of the most powerful daily habits to elevate your spirits. 

A Harvard experiment tested the effects of expressing gratitude and how it correlates to feeling happy. One group of subjects were asked to spend time every day recording things they were grateful for, while the other group spent time every day recording things that aggravated them.

After 10 weeks, not only were those who wrote about gratitude much happier and optimistic in their lives, but they also exercised more and got sick less than those who focused on their problems. Numerous other similar studies confirm the fact that consciously and consistently making an effort to reflect on one’s blessings and good fortune make a person less prone to feelings of sadness and despair. 

So, next week, when the turkey and the family is gone and life is back to normal as we get ready for Christmas, let’s try to hang on to that feeling of gratitude from Thanksgiving. Perhaps we would be wise to follow the example of the test subjects in the Harvard test and take time every day to write down things that we’re grateful for. For me, praying is a daily activity that helps me to reflect on what makes me happy and thank God for what he has given me. Whatever you do, just make sure you’re consciously setting time aside to reflect on all the things that could have gone wrong in your life but didn’t.

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