Counting your Blessings: 5 Ways to Increase Happiness

 

We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures – Thornton Wilder

Gratitude makes us happier. That’s what many spiritual traditions maintain. Now scientific research backs such claims. And that’s what we can easily observe in our own life and that of others.

Here’s an example: I recently caught up with a friend of mine, Petra M., a young woman in her late twenties. I was surprised to find her in a buoyant mood, even though she was experiencing some challenges in her life. (In the past, I knew her to be easily defeated and deflated by life problems).
“You seem a lot happier. What’s happened?” I asked.
“I realised I was always focusing on the negative things.”
“And now?”
“I’ve realised that I can change mind channels.”
“You sound like a TV remote!”
“It’s a bit like that. I can switch from negative thoughts to positive ones.”
“And what kind of thoughts do you switch to?”
“Thoughts about being grateful for the good things in my life. That’s made me happier.”

It’s not only Petra who finds herself happier through gratitude practice. Scientist have found that grateful people

  • Show higher levels of positive emotions, life satisfaction, vitality, and optimism
  • Experience lower levels of depression and stress
  • Have more capacity for compassion
  • Are rated as more generous and helpful by other people
  • Are more likely to have a spiritual practice
  • Place less importance on materialism.
  • Are more likely to make progress towards important personal goals
  • Exercise more regularly, report fewer physical symptoms, and feel heathier.

Here are 5 powerful gratitude exercises:

1. Keep a gratitude journal

Write down everything you are grateful for at least once a week. According to research by Professor Robert A. Emmons, University of California, those who kept gratitude journals on a weekly basis exercise more regularly, report fewer physical symptoms, feel better about their lives as a whole, and are more optimistic about the upcoming week compared to those who record hassles or neutral life events. They are also more likely to make progress toward important personal goals.


2. Count your blessings

Before you fall asleep, reflect on the day and identify 5 things you are grateful for.
According to Prof. Emmons, a group of young adults who did a daily gratitude exercise, such as the one above, showed higher levels of positive states of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness and energy compared to those participants who focussed on hassles or negative comparisons.

3. Tell your friends and others that you are grateful to them

In his book ‘Authentic Happiness’, Prof. Martin Seligman suggests a powerful way of practising gratitude:

  • Choose an important person in your past to whom you have never fully expressed your thanks.
  • Write a testimonial of 1 page and laminate it.
  • Meet with the person face to face and read out the testimonial.

When reflecting on this exercise it occurred to me that some people to whom I am grateful to are dead. So, what I did was to write the testimonial page, go to a secluded bend in the river, read the page aloud and then offer it to the waters. That was very powerful for me!

4. See adversity as an opportunity to learn and grow

We knew all about this when we were toddlers! We would fall and get up, fall and get up – and it was all part of learning to walk. It’s important to remind ourselves that failing is and integral part of learning.

5. Change from negative to positive thoughts

I saw an interesting suggestion by Aynsley Smith, director of the sports-medicine research center at the Mayo Clinic. She has a very simple method of training her sports students to dwell on positive thoughts, instead of on negative issues. She asks her students to carry a clicker pen around with them. Whenever they notice they are dwelling on negative issues, they are asked to click the pen. This acts as a trigger to change one’s ‘thought channel’.

I tried it and it works! For sure it’s a great skill to be able to change our thoughts. At the same time, I sometimes wonder whether the relentless emphasis on ‘positive’ thoughts impoverishes our life. After all, to yearn, to grieve, or to doubt – that too means to be human. What do you think?

If you want to see whether these ‘gratitude interventions’ make you happier, you can take a test here to see how happy you are before trying them out. (This is the General Happiness Scale according to Prof. Martin Seligman). Then repeat the test two weeks later and see if there is any change.

What is your experience of gratitude?

***

This is Part 5 of the ‘Secrets of Wellbeing’ Series.

© Mary Jaksch 2008

2. photo by Manuel Alfonso Arpa
Related links:
Read about gratitude research results.
Article on gratitude interventions.

Don’t miss Mary Jaksch’s earlier articles in the ‘Secrets of Wellbeing’ series:
Secrets of Wellbeing Series — Part 1: Authentic Happiness
Secrets of Wellbeing Series — Part 2: How to Use Your Signature Strengths
Secrets of Wellbeing Series — Part 3: Future happiness? Why we get it so wrong
Secrets of Wellbeing Series — Part 4: Does More Choice Make us Happier?

About the author

Mary Jaksch

Mary is passionate about helping people create a happy, purposeful, and fulfilling life. She is the founder of GoodlifeZEN and also the brains behind WritetoDone.com, one of the biggest blogs for writers on the Net. Mary is also a Zen Master, a mother, and a 5th Degree Black Belt.

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