No matter your background, it’s likely that you’ve experienced a mixture of triumph and hardship in your life. Life is sprinkled with joyous occasions such as weddings and births, as well as heartaches like divorces and deaths. In between the highs and lows, much of the human daily experience is full of the mundane: commuting to and from work, doing the dishes, and shopping for groceries. All of these experiences elicit emotions that range from joy to sorrow to boredom.
However, regardless of the emotions that accompany your life experiences, you’re more likely to live fully and successfully if you can face each of your days with gratitude. Contrary to popular belief, gratitude is not synonymous with happiness, so it’s possible to be grateful even when times are tough.
The Relationship Between Happiness and Gratitude
Undoubtedly, happiness and gratitude are related to one another, but they certainly don’t share the same definition. Happiness is a feeling of pleasure related to a situation or experience. For example, you can feel very happy when your spouse buys you a new piece of jewelry. It’s quite possible that you’ll also feel grateful for the gift.
In this way, happiness and gratitude are interrelated. You can feel happy about something you’re experiencing while also being internally grateful for the people or circumstances that caused it to transpire.
However, happiness and gratitude don’t always go hand in hand. Consider, for instance, the shattering tragedy of parents living through the death of a child. The parents will go through devastating feelings of sorrow, grief, and even anger as they face their loss. These feelings are appropriate, and anything less would be out of touch with reality.
But these parents may also experience gratefulness for the love they receive from friends and family members, the kindness of doctors and nurses, and even the memories they were able to share with their child. It’s quite possible to feel both grateful and sorrowful at the same time.
In the end, it’s more important to choose gratefulness than it is to put on a perennially cheerful smile. Cheerfulness and happiness are often at the whims of external circumstances. Gratefulness, though, is an internal disposition that you can choose. It is a commitment to give thanks no matter the circumstances.
One definition of gratitude comes from Robert Emmons, a researcher and expert on gratitude with the University of California, Berkley. According to Emmons, gratitude is “an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we have received. We recognize that the sources of this goodness are outside of ourselves…we acknowledge that other people – or even higher powers, if you’re of a spiritual mindset – gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.”
Gratitude is a state of appreciation for what we have – even if it’s as simple as a sunrise or the air we breathe. It’s the antithesis to taking things for granted.
Benefits of Gratitude
The good news is that grateful people tend to be the happiest people long-term – not necessarily the cheeriest or most excited, but the most satisfied with life. Once you make the internal shift towards gratefulness, the emotions of joy and contentment often follow. As you embrace gratefulness, you’ll likely experience a range of other benefits as well:
1. Gratitude Improves Likability
A 2002 study published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences researched the overall value of human personality traits as perceived by survey respondents. This particular study found that “grateful” was consistently rated as one of the most valued personality traits in human beings, and contributed significantly to whether a person was perceived as likeable.
On the flip side, “ungrateful” was perceived as highly undesirable and unlikable. It should come as little surprise, then, that additional research published on WebMD via the journal “Personal Relationships” indicates that grateful people tend to have richer and more satisfying relationships with family, friends, and the broader community than people who struggle to be grateful.
2. Gratitude Enhances a Sense of Well-Being
Regardless of life circumstances, UC-Berkley research indicates that grateful people are more satisfied with their lives than their peers, and experience more feelings of satisfaction and well-being than those who aren’t grateful. It’s hard to parse out whether gratitude creates satisfaction or satisfaction creates gratitude, but the two dispositions certainly interact with one another to create a sense of overall well-being.
3. Gratitude Reduces Resentment and Depression
According to researchers at Eastern Washington University, people who are grateful are less likely than others to experience resentment over past slights or present circumstances. They’re less likely to feel jealous of the circumstances of others as well. After all, there’s little room for jealousy over others’ possessions or success when your heart is full of gratitude for your own life story. Given that letting go of the past and forgiving others is a key indicator of overall mental health, it’s not surprising that grateful people are also less likely to experience depression than their peers.
4. Gratitude Improves Physical Health
While the mental health benefits of gratitude are impressive, physical health also stands to benefit. According to a paper released by the John Templeton Foundation, grateful people have 10% fewer stress-related illnesses and 12% lower blood pressure than those who aren’t grateful. They’re also more likely to be physically active than their peers. Not surprisingly, the same paper indicates that grateful people also tend to live longer than average – up to seven years longer, in fact.
5. Gratitude Correlates to Higher Income
It’s hard to decipher why exactly grateful people make more money than their peers, but they do. In fact, according to Robert Emmons, grateful people earn an average of 7% more than their peers. It could be that the many other benefits of gratitude – such as increased likability and lowered rates of depression – contribute to career success over time, thus explaining the increased income. Regardless, being grateful for what you have may actually end up increasing what you have over time.
How to Cultivate Gratitude
Don’t panic if gratitude doesn’t come naturally to you. There are ways that you can exercise your gratitude muscle so it becomes easier and more natural over time. Consider making a habit of these exercises to cultivate your sense of gratitude:
1. Acknowledge Your Good Fortune
Aim to recall and record three positive things from every single day. This is especially useful if you’re having a hard time breaking out of criticism for your job, your kids, or your spouse. Instead of dwelling on your dissatisfaction, try to re-frame your thinking so you focus on the positive attributes of your life and relationships. Record the good things in your life by journaling about them on a regular basis. When you write, try to focus on the details of the event or person you’re grateful for, and focus more on loved ones than on material things. The journal both builds your gratitude in the present and gives you written words to remember when you’re having a hard day. If the written word isn’t your thing, you can make voice recordings or even catalog your life through pictures, images, and other reminders of what you’re grateful for. When you’re feeling down, you can revisit these recordings and reminders to lift yourself up.
2. Perform Random Acts of Kindness
Return the kindness you’ve received by turning it into random acts of kindness. For instance, thank someone you love by writing a heartfelt, handwritten letter. Instead of just thanking that person for an item he or she gave to you, thank him or her for the gift of their presence, love, guidance, or camaraderie. If you’re feeling thankful for your kids, repay your gratitude by putting away your phone or tablet computer to really focus on them. If you’re thankful for your parents, make a point to call or visit to tell them how you feel. Bring donuts or bagels to your coworkers for no good reason, and don’t hesitate to offer compliments. Finally, if you wake up in the morning feeling thankful for the universe and life, find a way to treat a stranger to a random act of kindness so you can pay your gratitude forward.
3. Learn to Savor
Pause to soak in small delights as they come to you. Taste your food as you eat it. Feel the warmth of the sun on your skin, or take deep breaths, especially when you smell something good. If something surprises you in a positive way, take a moment to be thankful for it. Don’t rush through life, but revel in the moments you enjoy because those moments are priceless.
4. Focus on Intentions
When you receive a gift, consider and value the intention behind the gift as opposed to merely the gift itself. In many ways, we’ve been taught to value things over intentions and sentiment. Focusing on a gift-giver’s intention is a way to retrain your mind to prioritize things that can’t be bought like friendship, loyalty, and love.
Everyone’s personality is different, which makes some people more likely than others to favor pessimism or cynicism over gratitude and optimism. If you tend towards cynicism – such as feeling skeptical of others or the universe’s intentions – it’s important to remember that gratitude does not require a suspension of reality. In fact, gratitude is especially potent when you’re able to acknowledge losses, suffering, and pain while still remembering that there are things to be thankful for. Indeed, lasting gratitude is able to approach suffering realistically by saying, “this circumstance is very painful and may not get better, but I’m thankful for my life, the time that I have, and the people who surround me.”
Have you noticed the benefits of gratitude in your personal life?