And if you have to try so hard to be happy, is that real happiness?
Happiness has become quite the buzz word. You don’t have to look far to find an endless list of things you can do to make yourself happier, like exercise, getting enough sleep, being in nature, helping people, and spending time with family and friends. Some of these activities are obvious, but one in particular — practicing gratitude — is not.
At first glance, it can seem ridiculous. If I have to practice being grateful for something, doesn’t that mean I’m just not grateful for it? Why would I force myself to be grateful when I’m not? Isn’t that like pulling the wool over my own eyes so I can pretend to be happy?
These, I think, are valid concerns. It would be foolish and counterproductive to lie to ourselves. The practice of gratitude, however, isn’t about lying to ourselves. It’s not about hiding from the truth or pretending to be something we’re not. Simply put, gratitude helps us notice what we tend to ignore. It helps us see the world a little more clearly and a little more truthfully.
Because of this, gratitude can have an enormous, positive impact on the quality of our lives. It not only boosts subjective well-being but can improve sleep quality and relationships, as well as decrease stress. There’s even some research suggesting it can lower the symptoms of depressions and lower the risk of heart disease. Interestingly, it can also increase our chances of achieving long-term goals.
Do those benefits sound good to you? This article will explain why practicing gratefulness can help us see the world a little more clearly and what we can do to feel more grateful.
Gratefulness is the antidote to your negativity bias
Our brains are amazing machines but even they have their limits. To deal with the massive amount of information constantly bombarding them, our brains need to take shortcuts and make assumptions. These shortcuts and assumptions result in cognitive biases, which are predictable deviations from rational and logical thinking.
Our negativity bias is one such example. This bias explains why people care more about negative events than positive ones, even when they have the same emotional impact. If you’ve ever received critical feedback on your work, you know that your natural response is to fixate on the negative and ignore the positive. This is your negativity bias in action.
Why do our brains do this? Our brains are designed to protect us, and having a negativity bias helps us more quickly identify dangers in our environment. Back in our hunter-gatherer days, this might have meant the difference between life and death. Today, however, our negativity bias mostly acts as an impediment to noticing the good in our lives.
Because our minds naturally fixate on the negative, this will give us the impression that our lives are worse off than they are. To begin to see our lives more realistically, we need to stop ourselves from ignoring or downplaying the positive.
This is where gratitude comes in — it’s quite literally the antidote to our negativity bias. By consciously noticing the positive in our lives, we are actively working against the negativity bias to see our lives more clearly. This will help balance out our negative thinking with positive thinking.
The key here is that if we don’t do this for ourselves, if we don’t consciously choose to notice the positive, we will always be imbalanced and skewed toward the negative!
So, how do we fix this imbalance?
How to practice gratitude
How we practice gratitude matters. A lot.
Practicing gratitude doesn’t mean we get to ignore the negative events in our lives. There are things to be learned from them — they matter. However, complaining about negative things doesn’t do anything for us. It doesn’t “get it off our chest” like we think it does. But, it doesn’t make us any worse off, either.
On the flip side, practicing gratitude doesn’t mean we get to pretend our lives are all sunshine and rainbows. Interestingly, people who consciously exclude or ignore the negative and fixate on the positive are less motivated to achieve their goals, like losing weight or recovering from an injury. By fixating on positivity, we convince our brains that we’ve already reached our goals and that no more effort is required!
So much of our behavior is either a waste of time or detrimental. This is why it’s critical to achieve a balance between the negative and positive in our lives. And this is exactly what gratitude is meant to do.
There are a couple of ways to practice gratitude. One is by keeping a gratitude journal. Essentially, this means regularly writing down a couple of things you’re grateful for. The frequency of this kind of journaling seems to matter, so you might want to try to do this once a week to start. But, don’t just write down what you think you should be grateful for. Write down what you are actually grateful for.
Maybe you’re grateful to have finally completed a task at work. Maybe you’re grateful that you got a good night’s sleep. Maybe you’re grateful that you got to enjoy the shining sun. We don’t always need to think about the big things — like our children or partner or friends. Sometimes noticing the little things can be life-changing, especially because they happen every day!
Another way to practice gratitude can be a little more daunting. Experts recommend writing a thank you letter to someone you feel gratitude toward and then reading the letter to them in person.
Does that sound horrifying? If it does, know that we tend to overestimate how awkward the situation will be for both ourselves and the recipient. For the recipient, these events can become one of the most meaningful of their entire lives! And for the person delivering it, it can boost their well-being for over a month.
So, you now have two options for bringing more gratitude into your life. Which will you try first?
Thanks for reading!
This article was inspired by an episode of the podcast Happiness Lab with Dr. Laurie Santos called “Grateful Expectations”.