Practicing Gratitude Increases Happiness in Oakland CA
"I'm thankful for chocolate chip cookies!" my daughter squealed as we went around our Thanksgiving table and said what we're most thankful for. She's four and I get it, I'm thankful for baked goods also. We coaxed her into the usual, "I'm thankful for my family and friends..." She was into it. She added our two dogs, Kuma and Clancy, and our neighbor's cat, Izzy to the list of things she's thankful for. As we went around the table, I noticed myself shifting from feeling stressed about getting everything on the table in a timely manner to relaxing and really noticing how lucky I am. I looked around the room and at my smiling family and thought to myself, "I really do have a lot to be grateful for." I felt the happiness bubbling up inside of me.
For some people though, gratitude is difficult because their lives are difficult. It may be due to lack of community, a problem with their jobs, or just crummy circumstances. Studies show though, that no matter what the circumstances, if we make an effort to focus on what is good in our lives instead of the negative, it does improve our happiness. For example, researchers in one 2003 study randomly assigned one group of study participants to keep a short weekly list of the things they were grateful for, while other groups listed difficult or neutral events. Ten weeks later, the first group enjoyed significantly greater life satisfaction than the the group who focused on their hassles.
Sure, it's science. But it's also just common sense. Choosing to focus on good things makes you feel better than focusing on bad things. One explanation is that acting happy, regardless of feelings, persuades one’s brain into processing positive emotions. In one famous 1993 experiment, researchers asked human subjects to smile forcibly for 20 seconds while tensing facial muscles, particularly the muscles around the eyes called the orbicularis oculi. They found that this stimulated brain activity associated with positive emotions. Basically, make yourself act happy and you will feel happier.
Dr. Robert Emmons of University of California at Davis and Dr. Michael McCollough of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas ran an experiment looking at three different groups:
“The first group kept a diary of the events that occurred during the day… the second group recorded their unpleasant experiences, [and] the last group made a daily list of things for which they were grateful.
The results of the study indicated that daily gratitude exercises resulted in higher reported levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, optimism and energy. Additionally, the gratitude group experienced less depression and stress, was more likely to help others, exercised more regularly and made more progress toward personal goals. According to the findings, people who feel grateful are also more likely to feel loved.
McCollough and Emmons also noted that gratitude encouraged a positive cycle of reciprocal kindness among people since one act of gratitude encourages another… McCullough suggests that anyone can increase their sense of well-being and create positive social effects just from counting their blessings.”
There are some simple concrete ways to best express gratitude. The first is "interior gratitude", the process of giving thanks inwardly. I've found the best way to do this is to make a practice of writing down, every day, three things you are grateful for. It only takes a few minutes but can make a big difference. You can use a pad of paper by your bed or one of the many gratitude journals that are commercially available.
The second step is to move to “exterior gratitude,” which focuses on public expression. This can be in the form of a letter or email to colleagues, friends and/or family thanking them for what they do or a practice around the dinner table of giving thanks to your family. I talk to my kids every night at bedtime about the best things that happened that day and what we are thankful for.
Finally, find a way to be grateful for the little things. It's fairly easy to be thankful for the big things in life, a happy marriage, a healthy family, a good job... but the happiest people find ways to find happiness in the small details in life. Notice the wind in the leaves, the scent of the flowers, be thankful for chocolate chip cookies!
Still having trouble feeling thankful due to pain? I can help you with that. Call me at 510-922-1579 to schedule an appointment.
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