What if we aren’t doing the things science teaches us really can bring happiness?
“The problem is not the problem. The problem is your attitude about the problem.” Captain Jack Sparrow, Pirates of the Caribbean
We hear so many stories of people who were rich, gorgeous, talented and beloved who yet committed suicide. Clearly, they had EVERYTHING, but they were not happy.
We have also all read or heard stories of people who “have nothing,” but who are happier than your average billionaire and wondered what their secret is.
We know that lasting, meaningful happiness does not come from getting the things we want. It comes from wanting, savoring, appreciating, the things we get. Remembering that in a time of stress is another matter entirely.
Do you ever feel like this unhappy person?
“Grumble, sigh, groan, my life’s a mess, I hate my job/spouse/school/neighborhood/body/boss/past mistakes___________ (fill in the blank). Gratitude? I have nothing to be grateful for.”
Really? Nothing at all?
“I cried because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet.” Old Sufi Proverb
Gratitude is one of a cocktail of 5-10 secret ingredients that can increase your happiness and wellbeing, sometimes quite dramatically. These ingredients are habits and skills that you can develop and that you have full conscious control over.
First and foremost on the list is the practice of gratitude.
Gratitude is defined in all the dictionaries as a NOUN, the FEELING of being grateful. But that definition leaves a lot out – for instance,
- Acknowledging WHO helped bring the good into our lives,
- Explaining how we are to come by that FEELING when we have just been hit by one of life’s disappointments,
- Teaching us how to nurture it once we can access it again.
Gratitude is not a NOUN, but a VERB, something we must DO.
Many scientific studies have shown that people who foster gratitude are happier and healthier than those who foster grievances.
Dr. Robert Emmons at UC Davis reports the results of multiple studies showing significant benefits of keeping a Gratitude Journal for only THREE WEEKS.
He had people in various research conditions list just FIVE things they were grateful for over a period of 3 weeks. He reported positive results in health (blood pressure, sleep, immune system), in social relationships, and in feelings of optimism, wellbeing, and energy.
One little known fact I recently discovered is that fostering gratitude fosters the release of the neuropeptide oxytocin, the feel-good bonding molecule. It needs a spark of some kind – having a baby, falling in love, etc – to release it and fostering gratitude can be that spark.
It turns out, we are hard-wired to notice the alarming and pass over the charming.
Our “reptile brain” takes over when it senses threat. It shuts everything down, like digestion and higher order thinking, to choose “fight, flee or freeze.” It is automatic. The worst part? It is programmed to remember fear-inducing places and experiences so we can avoid them, and to pass over other things. When we accumulate a whole lifetime full of alarms and problems and focus on those, the reptile brain causes us to habitually look for the bad in everything.
It seems we have to overcome our own survivor- brain centers in order to foster the gratitude. The good news is that we CAN take charge of that reptile and mute its everyday influence if we are willing to train our brain to habitually recognize the good in our lives and the people who helped us get it.
Gratitude journals, gratitude jars and gratitude games are just ways to get the brain to focus on the good in your life and get that oxytocin boost to help anchor the practice in your neural pathways.
I found a free website based on research by leading psychologists and neuroscientists which asks you questions and then provides personalized activities and games designed to help you build skills such as gratitude to improve your life. Or, you could just practice on your own.
Either way, I encourage you to foster more gratitude for your health and happiness.