Secrets of a Happy Life: The Gift of Gratitude

Gratitude is not only the greatest of all virtues, but the parent of all the others.”

- Marcus Tullius Cicero, ancient Roman philosopher and orator

I was recently involved in a Facebook-based challenge that had participants sharing 3 gratitudes on different topics for 21 days.  We were asked to consider people, places, objects, moments, and memories.  From time of day (the peacefulness of morning) to our high school years (ummm — grateful they are over) to our own faces (my expressive eyes) and physical belongings (yes, I confess, my iphone!), it was wonderful to reflect on the innumerable things I am grateful for.  I also enjoyed witnessing others express their gratitude, and frequently found myself smiling quietly throughout the challenge.

Fortunately, I am not alone in my experience.  While the importance of gratitude as a virtue has been recognized for millenia, there is a growing body of research to suggest that gratefulness makes us happy.  And no, it’s not the other way around.  We can actually induce happiness by noticing and acknowledging what we are grateful for.  As an extra bonus, the good feelings build momentum that launch us into a joy-generating feedback loop.  In fact, as positive psychology continues to gain mainstream popularity, we are learning more and more about the strong correlation between gratitude and well-being.   

Creating Your Own Happiness: Adopt an Attitude of Gratitude

We can all express episodic thanks and appreciation.  However, gratitude harnesses its real power when it becomes integrated with mindfulness as an ongoing practice.  In this way, it is more of an overall attitude or approach to life that encourages us to truly see and feel the positive in the present moment.

While gratefulness may look and feel a little different in different people, researchers have identified a few common components.  For one, grateful individuals operate with a sense of abundance not deprivation.  This actually makes a lot of sense.  When we make a habit of pausing to recognize what we are thankful for, we naturally become less fixated on all the stuff we don’t have.  Similarly, a spirit of gratitude empowers us to treasure the simple pleasures of life.  It overrides our inherent tendency to focus on the negative or look for the next “big thing” to make us happy.  The final common component of gratitude is an appreciation of the contribution of others.  This is important for many reasons.  It often enables us to see those around us in a more positive light, to provide encouragement and motivation, and to be more open to difficult conversations.    

Feel Good, Do Good: Embrace Gratitude to Strengthen Human Connection & Build a Healthy Family Life

The benefits of seeing the upside of both our lives — past, present, and future — and the people in them are undeniable.  Gratitude is positively correlated with resilience, adaptability, and tolerance to stress and adversity.  When people feel good, they also tend to do good.  Grateful people have been found to exercise and make favourable lifestyle choices more often.  They experience fewer negative physical and psychological symptoms and have better sleep and health overall.  They develop stronger relationships with family, friends and colleagues, which can have benefits for their personal, social and professional lives.

One of the most meaningful questions in the Facebook challenge had us reflect on 3 things we need to be more grateful for.  This served to remind me how easy it can be to overlook what's truly important and take for granted the people we are closest to.  We become aware of how wonderful it is to be healthy when infirmary hits; we appreciate how strong and capable our bodies were when we confront disability and old age; and we become so accustomed to our partners that we neglect to see and communicate their true value.  How transformative it can be to instead stop, notice and cherish all that we have, all that we are, and all that we can be.  

Dr. Tara’s Sunshine Reflections: The Journey to Self-Acceptance, Joy & Inner Peace

Reflecting on this exercise and my own gratefulness practice, I know that it is a work-in-progress.  However, as with many things, gratitude is perhaps better thought of as a journey than a destination.  I also know that being mindfully grateful has already helped me to become less materialistic and discover a greater sense of self-acceptance and contentment.  I am less likely to opt for the all-too-fleeting-joy from an unnecessary purchase or start planning the next trip while I am still on vacation.  Instead, I find myself cherishing the little day-to-day pleasures — the taste of that first sip of morning coffee, the sunlight streaming through the window, the sound of my children laughing.  Seemingly simple experiences are no longer overlooked, but can now exceed my expectations and bring me a sense of happiness and peace that previously seemed unattainable.  Gratitude is one of those gifts that just keeps on giving.



Dr. Tara's Sunshine Sidebar: The Practice of Gratitude

Gratitude is like a muscle that gets strengthened through use.  Please check-out the accompanying Practice of Gratitude Resource to see how you can start or reinvigorate your own gratitude practice!