by Christine Carter, Ph.D.
Three happiness exercises to try today.
“Abundance can be had simply by consciously receiving what has already been given.” — Sufi Saying
Everywhere I go, people ask me this one question: “If you had to pick just one thing that could make me happier right now, what would it be?” I’m always tempted to make jokes about sex and yoga — or maybe a glass of wine.
Glib responses aside, I believe an authentic moment of gratitude is the simplest way to boost our happiness — especially when we’re feeling stressed or wishing for more of something…like more time, or more money.
When we aren’t seeing what we appreciate in our lives in a given moment, often it is because we are stewing about unfulfilled expectations, or because we believe that don’t have what we “should” have. We are uncomfortable in some way, and we feel entitled to our comfort. Entitlement makes us more likely to feel disappointed when we don’t get what we think we want, rather than grateful for what we already have.
Disappointment is not a happiness habit. Gratitude is. According to the Harvard Mental Health Letter,
“In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.”
Gratitude studies report long laundry lists of the benefits of gratitude. For example, people who jotted down something they were grateful for online everyday for just two weeks showed higher stress resilience and greater satisfaction with life. In addition, they reported fewer headaches and a reduction in stomach pain, coughs and sore throats!
People practicing gratitude even report sleeping better and getting more exercise. “The list of potential benefits is almost endless,” wrote Liz Gullford at the University of Birmingham. Gratitude is associated with “fewer intellectual biases, more effective learning strategies, more helpfulness towards others, raised self-confidence, better work attitude, strengthened resiliency, less physical pain, improved health, and longevity.”
What if you lean more towards the grouchy or cynical rather that the grateful? I have some good news for you. Gratitude is a SKILL, like learning to speak a new language or swing a bat. It can be taught, and it needs to be practiced consciously and deliberately. Yet, unlike learning a new language, practicing gratitude can be blissfully simple: just count the things in your life that you feel thankful for. Here are three of my favorite gratitude practices:
- Atspecial dinners, we appreciate each other by writing on our dinner table place cards. The kids make giant construction paper place cards for each guest, and as people arrive and mingle, we each take some time to sit down at the table and write on the inside of each place card something that we love or appreciate about them. On birthdays, we usually skip the place cards but while we eat, we go around the table and say what we love or appreciate about the person who is having the birthday.
- Several times a week, I take a photograph of something I find beautiful or inspiring, or something for which I feel grateful. I was inspired to do this by Hailey Bartholomew’s Often, I just take the photo with my phone and it lives in the gratitude appthat I use.
- ) Everyday, I ask my family about three good things.They might share good things that happened to them that day, or good things they did themselves, or even something good that hasn’t happened yet that they are anticipating.
We do this practice in all different circumstances. Sometimes it’s while snuggled in bed. Often it’s at dinner time. Sometimes, when I have a speaking engagement at night, my kids will text me what they feel grateful for. Sometimes it’s over the phone if they’re at their dad’s house. But no matter the situation, their first good thing is always “right now.” This reminds me to be present and recognize that this particular “right now” is worthy of great gratitude. In addition to stirring up feelings of gratitude (while curbing a sense of entitlement), all of these practices evoke the positive emotions that make us feel deeply satisfied with our lives.
- The first practice makes us feel loved and helps us express the love we have for others.
- The second makes me feel awe and elevation because I’m usually photographing something beautiful in nature. I will also often also feel love if there is, say, a child in the picture. And sometimes I just feel awash in contentment and peace—or creativity and inspiration—as I take the photograph.
- The third practice can evoke a full range of positive emotions: anticipation and excitement (about something coming up); kindness and compassion (for someone they did a “good thing” for); straight-up relived happiness (recounting a fun time at school or work).
All of these practices evoke the abundance that is all around us, even in these challenging times. As the Sufi saying above acknowledges, they help us receive the many gifts that are already out there.
Christine Carter, Ph.D.*, is a sociologist and happiness expert at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. She is the author of “RAISING HAPPINESS: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents.” She teaches online happiness classes that help parents bring more joy into their own lives and the lives of their children, and she writes an award-winning blog for *Greater Good* (www.greatergoodparents.org).