The science of happiness: How to practice gratitude, including for yourself

Happiness may seem like a weird word to look up, but I looked it up. Merriam-Webster defines it as “a state of well-being and contentment.” Happy is defined as “enjoying or characterized by well-being and contentment.”

No wonder we can’t find a common thing that points to happiness. It’s clearly different for everyone, right? What brings you contentment is probably not going to be what brings me contentment. Or is it? Maybe gratitude rings all the same bells for all of us.

The power of gratitude

Studies have found that one of the greatest contributing factors to overall happiness is how much gratitude we show. Soul Pancake put together a short video of that research along with documentation of their own experiment, where they asked volunteers to think about someone who was important to them and then write about why. To their surprise, the volunteers were asked to share their thoughts with the person they wrote about. On tests given before and after, all their volunteers increased their happiness after completing this simple act of gratitude.

Maybe gratitude rings all the same bells for all of us.

There’s also John Israel, who started the Mr. Thank You project in 2016 (you can watch his TEDx Talk about it on YouTube). This is a global movement designed to elevate the level of gratitude on the planet. His challenge is for all of us to write five thank-you cards each day for a year. Interestingly enough, John found that the best thing about this experiment wasn’t the writing of these cards; it was the conversations around giving the cards and inviting others to participate to learn how they, too, can show gratitude.

Practice—and patience—makes perfect

I know how hard it is for busy working professionals to find the time to express gratitude. Maybe you’re like me: you often think about how grateful you are, but you don’t always act on it. What little things could you try to express your gratitude to others?

I’ve recently started John’s practice—it’s the last thing I do each day—before shutting down my computer. I email one person a quick thank-you. I can’t take on five a day yet (that seems like a mountain too big to climb right now), but one little two-sentence email I can handle. I’ve been doing this for about two months and you would not believe how amazing it feels to know that at some point, the person I wrote is going to read my message and feel good about themselves. I’ve received messages back like, “Wow, I didn’t think you noticed that. Thanks for seeing me” and “You just made me cry. I don’t think anyone has ever thanked me!”

I’m now ready to start handwriting cards. There are just too many people I don’t have email addresses for, like my mail carrier, the coffee lady who sees my car and gets my order ready before I walk in the door, and, of course, the neighbor who is always picking up trash on our road. I see them now, better than I did before.

What little things could you try to express your gratitude to others?

I believe just thinking about what I am grateful for has made me aware of whom I should be thanking. I’m going to start with little cards, maybe like the size of a business card. Just a quick note to say how grateful I am. Filling this small space will be easy and quick but still powerful. By this time next year, I hope to be sending at least five a day, even if they are just mini versions!

Now you go

I want you to try this. Challenge yourself for one week to send one email or mini note a day showing your gratitude. You will be happier and others will be happier, too. It’s a win-win for all of us, and soon this world will be a happier place if enough of us start with that one little thank-you. Building this habit is not hard to do! I hope you find that it feeds your soul and fills you with happiness.

Before you say, “Oh, I don’t have time for this—I don’t even know who to write to!” let me make a gentle suggestion: start with yourself. That’s right. Thank yourself. What’s something you did today, yesterday, a month ago that you’re really grateful for? You went to the gym this morning and now your afternoon back isn’t hurting so much? Say thank you. You put that laundry away yesterday so you’d have an extra few minutes to read a book today? Yup. Say thank you.

If you need a laugh to get you on this road to happiness and in the right frame of mind for writing thank- you notes (yes, I know it’s a road filled with potholes), here’s a joke from one of our fourth graders: Why do cupcakes carry umbrellas? Because there’s always a chance of sprinkles! (Jokes really have been game changers at my school.)

Be well. Live with a grateful heart. Laugh and be happy whenever you can. And when things are hard, try to be grateful for what those challenges teach you.

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