Five Ways to Use Gratitude to Feel Happier
“He who receives a benefit with gratitude repays the first installment on his debt.” (Seneca, n.d.)
Post-holiday mid-winter bad humor
Throughout this first month of the new year, I have met with a steady stream of clients suffering from post-holiday mid-winter bad humor. I have been hearing a lot about “forced cheerfulness”, “rich foods” and “materialism”. The outlook for the year newly underway is as grim as the grey winter skies, with depression darkening the horizon. How can we feel better? What makes happiness anyway?
A happiness model
Lyubomirsky, Sheldon and Schkade proposed a happiness model that rests on three main pillars for well-being: a person’s genetic happiness set-point (accounting for 50% of individual differences in well-being); life circumstances such as being married or not, comfortably-off or not, religious or not (accounting for about 10% in individual differences); and activities undertaken to positively affect how we think and act (accounting for about 40% of individual differences) (Lyubomirsky et al., 2005).
So while happiness seems unattainable to many in this particular time of year, they concluded that a sunnier outlook can be both cultivated and maintained. You need only mix a cocktail of motivation, method and momentum; in other words, want your happiness, go about achieving it the right way, and stick to it (Lyubomirsky et al., 2011).
A sense of gratitude
Assuming you want things to change and are willing to do the necessary, just what is the best way of going about it? One of the secrets is nurturing a sense of gratitude.
Gratitude has been getting a lot of researcher attention since the years 2000 with the advent of the positive psychology movement, which qualified it as a human strength and even virtue, permitting us to live well and happily (Emmons et al., 2004). For just one example, in a study asking college students to write three letters of gratitude over an eight-week period, it was found that this simple act was sufficient to significantly increase their sense of happiness, life satisfaction and gratitude as compared with those who did not (Toepfer and Walker, 2009).
This type of study has inspired the gratitude journaling trend, but just jotting a few grateful thoughts a day will not be enough to bring actual change; rather there are several points that Robert Emmons sets out that will make all the difference (Emmons et al., 2004):
- Make up your mind that you want things to be different. It’s the conviction you want to be happier that counts.
- Go for quality over quantity. Taking the time to really write in depth and detail about one thing has more meaning and impact than a quick, thoughtless list; and writing less often but more seriously counts more.
- People count more than things. Writing about what others have done for you is more significant than impersonal objects.
- Think about what your life would be like without what you are grateful for. If you ever watched Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life you’ll understand this one; the hero he plays relives his life with all he loves gone from it.
- Cherish the unexpected. Life’s happy surprises bring a higher degree of gratitude (Marsh, 2011).
- Emmons, R.A., McCullough, M.E., PhD, A.P. of P. and R.S.M.E.M., 2004. The Psychology of Gratitude. Oxford University Press, USA.
- Seneca, n.d. L. Annaeus Seneca, on Benefits.
- Lyubomirsky, S., Dickerhoof, R., Boehm, J.K., Sheldon, K.M., 2011. Becoming Happier Takes Both a Will and a Proper Way: An Experimental Longitudinal Intervention to Boost Well-Being. Emotion 11, 391–402. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0022575
- Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K.M., Schkade, D., 2005. Pursuing happiness: The architecture of sustainable change. Review of General Psychology 9, 111–131. https://doi.org/10.1037/1089-26220.127.116.11
- Marsh, J., 2011. Tips for Keeping a Gratitude Journal [WWW Document]. Greater Good. URL https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/tips_for_keeping_a_gratitude_journal (accessed 1.29.19).
- Toepfer, S.M., Walker, K., 2009. Letters of Gratitude: Improving Well-Being through Expressive Writing. Journal of Writing Research I, 181–198.