What is the single thing that has the biggest impact on your happiness?

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“If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.”

Meister Eckhart

Key Assumptions

  • You have the power to change the way your brain interprets the world (reprogramming and neuroplasticity)
  • Gratitude is a habit
  • Habits are changeable in a short period of time

Introduction

Let me just say that I’ve read a lot on this topic, and gratitude (along with acceptance) are the two main ingredients I’ve found. The best book I’ve read on the topic is by illusionist (and in my opinion, genius) Derren Brown.

His book Happy: Why More or Less Everything is Absolutely Fine is an intricate and honest walk through stoicism and the ingredients of contentment. I listened to it on audible while working on a stupidly tedious task. In the end, it wasn’t such a bad day!

I mean that seriously, I love to read. I recommend a lot of books in this blog and I promise to never put you on to a bad one. On that note, check out the Da Vinci code here.

Just joking…

What is gratitude?

Being thankful for the many things we have in life, the fact that you are one of the people on this planet rich enough to own a device on which to read this blog is a start. Then appreciate that you have the leisure to read about self-development and are therefore not in survival mode. And, of course, the million other tiny things in your day, right down to the fact that you’re breathing. Seeing these things as blessings is vital to feeling alive.

We get spoilt by our quality of life and our options. These are delivered to us so automatically we barely notice. When one of those options doesn’t work out, we’re outraged. We ignore the many many other things which did work out.

It seems we have an instinct geared towards acquisition, not contentment. We can be like dogs with treats.

Even during this lockdown, I’m grateful for the opportunity to shave my head and look like a badass for a while (a semi-hidden badass), to write more, to be with my family. But it has taken my freedom to see friends, to swim outdoors, to go to the shops.

All gain signifies loss. Life is a great pendulum. Can you appreciate it in its entirety? Only appreciating the ups means we’re going to spend a lot of life in despair.

Why is gratitude so important?

Become Less Nihilistic

Being thankful for the good things in your life creates a feeling of value, of having something to lose. It can help fight the narrative that says “there’s no point, everything is terrible or meaningless anyway”.

Coping Hypothesis

According to Wood, AM et al. (2010), people who practise gratitude are less likely to use negative ways to cope with frustration, such as substance abuse, preferring to seek support from others in a social group.

The Last Time

Sam Harris, a philosopher and advocate of meditation, says the last time he went skiing was 15 years ago. He never thought that would be the last time, but it was. He may never go again now. Gratitude helps us to savour the moment, to appreciate that when you do absolutely anything it could be the last time you do it. This applies even if you’ve done it a thousand times and it seems dull now, like going to the local shop.

The Big Five

Some studies have found a link between gratitude and each of the Big Five, with grateful people being more extroverted, agreeable, open, and conscientiousness, and less neurotic (Wood et al, 2010).

How can I develop gratitude?

I think of gratitude like a reflex that can be trained. There are three main ways to do this.

Daily lists of things you’re grateful for

This can be as small as having a hot lunch.

Writing a gratitude summary for a period

This could be a holiday, or a period of a few weeks of months. This can help you to keep a positive narrative in your mind. Much of the narrative you tell yourself is false anyway, you might as well make it a nice story!

Actions

I wrote to my favourite teacher in school who always put the effort in, even when I was too busy messing around. I found his email on the school website (I couldn’t believe he was still there after 16 years) and just sent a quick note to say how much he inspired me and what a great job he did. That note made me feel great.

Choose an action, write a letter to your partner, family member, or friend just to let them know how great they are, or how much they helped you.

I’ll leave you with the words of the wonderful thinker and writer Bill Bryson from A Short History of Nearly Everything

“Not only have you been lucky enough to be attached since time immemorial to a favored evolutionary line, but you have also been extremely — make that miraculously — fortunate in your personal ancestry. Consider the fact that for 3.8 billion years, a period of time older than the Earth’s mountains and rivers and oceans, every one of your forebears on both sides has been attractive enough to find a mate, healthy enough to reproduce, and sufficiently blessed by fate and circumstances to live long enough to do so. Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stuck fast, untimely wounded or otherwise deflected from its life’s quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result — eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly — in you.”

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