Remember when you got a raise and bought a new car, and you’ve been happy ever since?
Neither do I.
It doesn’t work that way, does it? We buy things, we achieve goals, we indulge ourselves—but none of it gives us lasting happiness.
So, what does work? According to scientific research, the answer is gratitude.
Unhappiness often boils down to fear in one form or another: fear of not having enough, fear of not being enough.1 For example, you might be miserable at work because you’re afraid you can’t do your job, and you’re afraid you’ll be fired. You might hate doing the bills because you’re afraid you don’t have enough money. If somebody cuts you off in traffic and you get angry they put you in danger, that’s also fear.
But gratitude counteracts fear. If you can train yourself to be in a state of gratitude most of the time, you can reduce your fear and open yourself up to happiness.
It’s not mystical, and it’s not difficult. Each night before you go to bed, make a list of five things you’re grateful for.
It may seem foreign or awkward at first, but anybody can think of five things. You could be grateful for your family, a sunny day, a great meal, your health, your best friend, or a special moment. Even if things are going badly, you could be grateful for ways they aren’t worse.
There’s no need to edit or judge. Whether the things on your list are as profound as a parent’s love for a child, or as frivolous as my love for milkshakes, the important thing is to come up with at least five things you’re grateful for.
It doesn’t take long to have an effect. In one study, participants were 25% happier after doing this for only two weeks.2
Why it WorksBy making a gratitude list every day, you retrain your brain to notice the positive. We encounter so much information every minute of our lives, our brains have to filter out most of it.
Just imagine if we noticed every tick of the clock or every footstep—we’d never get anything done. But when you learn a new word, suddenly you see that word everywhere. That’s because it’s been reclassified as something important, so instead of leaving it in the background, your brain starts pointing it out to you.
You can take advantage of that effect. By making the daily gratitude list, you put your brain on the lookout for things to be grateful for. Before long, you start noticing them everywhere.
More and more, you notice positive experiences as they happen, and you feel grateful in real time. Later, you get to enjoy the same experiences again as you remember them and put them on the list.
Positive EffectsOne study found that after 21 days, participants who made daily gratitude lists were not just more optimistic and satisfied with their lives overall, they slept better and experienced less pain.3
In another study, participants were asked to make daily lists for only a week. Not only did they exhibit more happiness and less depression by the end of the week, they were still feeling the effects six months later. This was especially true for the people who kept making the lists, even though they were only supposed to do it for a week.4
I used this simple technique to help pull myself out of depression, and I use it now to keep feeling good. I hope it will work as well for you as it has for me.
Silly or serious, what’s one thing you’re grateful for right now?
1 What Happy People Know by Dan Baker and Cameron Stauth. Rodale, 2003, p. 24.
2,3 “Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life” by Robert A. Emmons and Michael E. McCullough. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 84, No. 2, 377–389.
4 “Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions.” Martin E. P. Seligman, Tracy A. Steen, Nansook Park, and Christopher Peterson. American Psychologist, Vol. 60, No. 5 (July–August 2005), 410–421.
(Photo credit: Happy Jump via Shutterstock)
Cara Stein is the founder of 17000 Days, a blog about remembering that life is short and making your best days a common occurrence. She's a big believer in self-reinvention and building your ideal life for yourself. She's the author of How to be Happy (No Fairy Dust or Moonbeams Required) and Getting Unstuck. Her latest adventure is Beyond Fear, a workshop on overcoming your fears. Contact Cara on Twitter @cara_stein or Facebook