Gratitude and Other Keys to Happiness

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  • September 2, 2014

Let’s start with what does not lead to happiness: complaints, possessions and wanting to get more possessions. Complaining is kind of like going out, starting a car, letting it run for an hour, then turning it off. It doesn’t really get you anywhere.  Now if that same one hour of a car’s motor running was put into some form of positive action, you could actually get somewhere and accomplish something.  While awareness of our feelings is important, dwelling on them is often not helpful unless it leads to a plan of action.  Similarly, gaining possessions or wanting to gain possessions does not produce long lasting results.  Those who measure happiness with possessions find that it becomes an addiction and the happiness becomes shorter with each new acquisition.  A refreshing attitude was seen on a bumper sticker on a well worn car that stated “whoever dies with the most toys … is still dead.”  An interesting study on happiness had groups of university student’s complete pre and post tests of happiness. Half the group completed 20 sentences that all started “I wish…”.  They were seen to be less happy after the activity.  The other half completed 20 sentences that started “I’m glad I’m not…”.  They were seen to be happier after the activity.

Those who have had life changing experiences – winning lotteries, major medical recoveries and the like definitely have a burst of elation, but it tends to fade over time, become “normal” and happiness can reduce. This can lead to getting on a self-serving treadmill, looking for more and more “peak” experiences. Despite this, the quest for life-long happiness is not futile; it can be accomplished through conscious actions such as taking time to count your blessings and performing acts of kindness. One study found that even pausing three times per week to think about, or write down, the things you are grateful for increases a person’s happiness. It was explained that it is hard to feel envy, greed or bitterness when you are grateful.

Performing acts of kindness as small as watching to let another driver cut in while in busy traffic, holding a door for someone, saying hello to a person we see daily but do not usually talk to or verbally expressing appreciation also increases happiness. A key feature of this kind of behaviour is that it encourages other people, who are just like you, to do positive things in return.

Reframing is another method for building happiness. This means looking at a situation in a deliberately positive manner. For example, those of you with children or teenagers at home (who by definition are messy) often find it frustrating to have to pick up the same dishes, clothes, etc. over and over. Next time you have to pick up after someone and feel frustrated, take a moment to think about if some thing tragic happened to that loved one how much you would cherish the opportunity to have to be able to pick up that item one more time instead of having an empty spot in your life.

We have become a complaint driven society. Next time, before criticizing or complaining
Ask yourself “20 years from now how important will it be that I have raised this complaint now?” If the answer is that it will not be, let it go and focus on the positives instead. We are all the architects of our own lives. The problem is that we build with tiny pieces, Lego not large bricks, greed or new possessions. But the little pieces do add up.

Stephen Carter, Ph. D