Camerado! I give you my hand!

Camerado! I give you my hand!

Allons! The road is before us!

Friday, October 24, 2014

Want Happiness? Flex Your Gratitude Muscle

“When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”
                                                                                                   ~Max Planck

When was the last time you said “thank you”?

Was it earlier today, when your spouse handed you a bagel as you ran out the door? Was it said to your child because they got dressed on time, or picked up a toy? Did you say it to the barista at your favorite coffee shop, to a customer who shopped with you, or within the confines of your car, sarcastically, of course, when another driver finally hit the gas?

If you had any interaction with other human beings today, you probably said “thank you” at least once.

But I’ll bet you didn’t really mean it.

Okay, I take that back. Maybe you really did. Maybe you weren’t just saying it as a friendly rejoinder, or making small talk. Maybe you really were thankful for your customer, your spouse, your coffee.

If so, you are probably a happier person than most. If you actually write down those incidences where you felt grateful, you’d be even happier.

I am grateful for this tree.

In one study on gratitude (Emmons and McCullough), participants kept weekly journals, and were told to write down five things that made them grateful the previous week. Other participants wrote five things they considered hassles, and the last group wrote about things that had affected them, but were not told to focus on the positive or the negative.

After 10 weeks, the first group reported significantly more happiness than the other two (25%), fewer health complaints, and more desire to exercise.

That’s a positive finding, but a later study by Emmons revealed something even better: different participants were told to write down daily (instead of weekly) what they were grateful for. This activity led to greater increases in gratitude than the weekly journals had, but it got better. These participants also reported offering others more assistance with a personal problem, or emotional support, indicating that the gratitude exercise increased their goodwill towards others.  A third study, conducted on patients with physical disabilities, revealed the same conclusion, and its participants also reported that they slept better, had more optimism in general, more life satisfaction, and more connectivity to people in their lives.

“If you’ve forgotten the language of gratitude, you’ll never be on speaking terms with happiness.” ~Anonymous

Gratitude helps lower depression, and keeps marriages from crumbling, too. Those who practice it consistently and truthfully report higher levels of life satisfaction.

And why not? To be grateful means to acknowledge that you are rich—if not in monetary wealth, in personal happiness wealth. The idea that we are the product of our thoughts and feelings, and that we can steer our own outcomes with those thoughts, is no longer considered "New Age." If you have been fortunate in any way, you increase your wealth by being grateful for what you have. This, in turn, makes you happier.

Expressing real gratitude doesn’t just make your life better, either. It enriches those around you. You know how it feels to be warmly thanked, right? Spread that feeling around. Don’t be stingy with it. It costs you virtually nothing in time or energy, but it gives back multi-fold.

While I was putting myself through graduate school, I worked a series of retail jobs as Cashier Supervisor or Customer Service Manager. I’d always said that if you want to learn to hate people, work in retail—you’ll get a great education in the worst aspects of the human race, and get paid for it. But I was surprised that my own retail experiences did not, in fact, teach me to hate people.

When I started at a large humane society, I just knew that the work there would seal the “people are horrible” deal. I waited for the anger to come, to make me wary, even bitter (the sheltering/rescue field is one of the “top” fields for compassion fatigue). But it didn’t happen as I expected.

Sure, people made me angry, but instead of holding on to that, I tried to see things from their point of view. Much as I do when working with dogs, I decided to assume that resistance and poor behavior were due to a lack of clarity, not a personality flaw. A lack of clarity is a problem that can be rectified! And once I embraced that idea, my anger dissipated. I actually gained an empathy for people that I had never had before. Most were not bad people at all. They were just struggling, trying to cope with limited information, and unable to distance themselves emotionally from their pets.

Not only did I not hate them, I began to thank them for giving me the opportunity to serve them. I started to see what they were presenting as a gift, and when I expressed true gratitude for it, my mindset changed.

Do people still do dumb things when it comes to pets? You bet. Can I reach all of them? No. Do I thank the ones I cannot reach? Not to their faces. But I do thank them. I would not be who I am right this minute if it weren’t for them, and everyone in my life who has helped me in some way.

Gratitude is like a muscle: if you don’t use it, it atrophies. I’ll bet you can think of no fewer than 5 people right now who have helped you, molded you, made you better, or improved your life—just today, or for a while now. Why not reach out and thank them? Write them. Call them. Text them, or thank them on Facebook if you must (the best way to express gratitude is through the means with which your recipient, not you, is most comfortable), but do it sincerely, and with feeling. Don’t allow them to brush it off; push on with it until they’ve truly heard you, and they believe you.

Lather, rinse, repeat—daily, weekly, or monthly, make it a habit to express gratitude.

It just may change your life.