Why is it that some people seem to have everything you could ask for, all the ingredients for happiness, and yet they are not happy? And then, on the other hand, some people have very little or have lost everything, and yet they are deeply happy?
One answer is gratitude. Some people that haven't discovered this secret of life will sometimes say that people are grateful because they are happy, “If I had everything I wanted I would be happy too!”. But in Truth, it is the other way around.
We may not be able to control some aspects of our lives, although I would argue you have the power to control much more than you think, but what we do have control over is our perspective and how we react to the events and circumstances of our lives.
Let's look at a couple examples. A year and a half ago my mother was diagnosed with stage IVb cholangiocarcinoma, which is a very rare and aggressive form of cancer that originates in the bile ducts. For those of you who aren't familiar, stage IVb is the final stage, where cancer has metastasized throughout the body. Generally there is not a lot you can do at this point: chances of living for much longer are very low and generally, you are inoperable.
By December, my mother was confined to a wheelchair, weighed less than 90 lbs, and was experiencing cognitive difficulties; she was knocking on death's door. Thankfully, her situation improved dramatically, although it has recently taken a turn for the worse1. Each day is up and down. While she is still in a dire and painful situation, she is still with us and we had a full year with her where she was able to do most of what she wanted.
Reflecting on all this, it's strange to say, but in some ways, I am actually grateful for my mother's cancer. Our family has come together and grown close in a way I don't think would have happened otherwise. Both of my parents (and each of us) are practically new people with a fresh outlook on life. Now, I really believe we all cherish each moment we get together and recognize each day as a gift. Somehow, I think we are happier (although we are of course sadder at times, as well).
Now it's easy to say “well, of course, you're grateful! Your mom is doing better!”, but I don't think it's as obvious or as easy as that. I could just as easily be depressed about the whole situation, and that is exactly what I did at first. It still creeps up at times. Don't get me wrong - it took a lot of work and reflection to get to where I'm at. But I'm glad I'm here.
It's also easy to say “oh this is all just some overly positive hippy Bolognese”, but I think that misses the mark as well. Your perspective not only has the power to change your own response to a situation, but the power to transform the situation itself. Now I'm not saying being grateful is necessarily going to cure my mother's cancer, but it has the power to elevate the situation to something of beauty instead of the depth of despair. And after all, as Elon Musk says, “I'd rather be optimistic and wrong than pessimistic and right.”
Let's take a moment and see if we can experience gratitude and what effect that has on us. Let's close our eyes, take a few deep breaths, and contemplate the things we're grateful for. These could be small things like the weather, the smell of coffee in the morning or the way sunlight is playing off the countertop, or they could be bigger things like your family, the fact that you have a safe place to sleep or that, against all odds, you're even alive at all. Try to root your gratitude in your immediate experience, see if you can cause a state change in your mind and body, and aim for at least three deep, full breaths. For bonus points, you can tack on positive thoughts for someone beyond yourself at the end.
These are simple, practical steps you can take to create a noticeably happier life anytime, anywhere, in very little time. These actions have been scientifically proven to have positive effects on your mood, biology, and brain2.
The key, as usual, is consistency. The more often you practice gratitude, the more reasons you will find to be grateful, even given the same input. On a neurochemical level, what you are doing is training your brain to look for reasons to be grateful, and thus happy!
Our brains are in large part pattern-recognizing computers, and every time we recognize a pattern successfully, we get a little hit of dopamine and other chemicals, which are sort of like little dog treats for your brain. When this happens, our brain learns that this behavior is “good” and it reinforces the neural pathways that led to that response, allocating more resources to this sort of pattern recognition, which makes this task easier in the future.
Over time, this leads to a shift towards a happier, healthier life, and it becomes easier and easier to recognize causes for gratitude in your life. What's more, you will subconsciously shift to creating more causes for gratitude in your life. You will literally change your reality through your perception.
A practice in Gratitude has many other benefits that are beyond the scope of this article. It can reduce cortisol and stress levels2, reduce your heart rate and blood pressure2, and serve as a portal into love.
If you want to start a practice in Gratitude, I would suggest picking a particular time and location and writing down your commitment. Be specific! For example, “At 6 am when I wake up, I will take one minute to think of things I'm grateful for while my teapot boils.”
- Circumstances and happiness are only loosely correlated
- You can't always control your circumstances, but you can control your perspective
- Gratitude is a key to happiness
- Practicing gratitude on a regular basis can have profound effects on your outlook on life, your biology, and your brain
- The more often you practice gratitude, the easier it is to be both grateful and happy
- To start a practice in gratitude, write down your commitment to practice daily in a specific time and place
1. Between recording the video and publishing this article, I found out that my mother's health had declined quite a bit recently.