For Happiness In Tough Times, Be More Grateful
When my two sons were in elementary school, my wife and I created a supper time ritual called The Grateful Game. Every evening, Sophie, the boys, and I would take turns to briefly describe one aspect of our day for which we were thankful.
It’s strange to think I now conduct similar gratitude exercises with senior executives on my leadership programs at London Business School. In the intervening years, scientists have revealed the remarkable psychological, physical, and social benefits of building gratitude into our lives.
Studies show that practicing gratitude for just 5-minutes each day can make you 25% happier. Appreciative people feel more joy, pleasure, and optimism in their existence. This leads them to become more generous, compassionate, and forgiving towards others.
Fascinatingly, the pioneering work of psychologists Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough goes further. It shows people who are more grateful build stronger immune systems, experience less pain, and have lower blood pressure. They’re better at taking daily exercise and looking after their health. They even tend to get a better night’s sleep and are more relaxed when they wake up. On a social level, they feel less isolated. Particularly relevant now as more people have suffered from loneliness during the pandemic.
These uplifting findings offer routes to business success, as well as individual wellbeing. If we accept gratitude increases happiness, we also know joyful people are more curious, creative, and resilient. Great qualities to possess in a challenging and disrupted post-pandemic world.
Turning Up The Happiness Dial
The evidence is relatively new. However, great thinkers have long identified gratitude as a desirable trait of an emotionally mature mind. The Roman statesman Marcus Cicero described it as the greatest virtue – and a parent to all the other beneficial qualities. The eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume called ingratitude “the most horrible and unnatural crime that a person is capable of committing”.
In King Lear, Shakespeare has his eponymous hero angrily accuse his ungrateful daughter Goneril of being a “marble-hearted fiend”. No surprise that most of us have parents who insisted on “thank yous” like marine corps drill instructors.
Psychologists call your personal level of day-to-day happiness your “set point”. We all inherit an individual benchmark for cheerfulness rooted in our genes and upbringing. It’s long been argued that this setting is stubbornly stable over time. Research shows, whether you win the lottery, or are paralyzed from the neck down, you tend to gravitate back to your set point after three to six months.
If you doubt this, next time you board a flight (those times are returning), glance at the faces of people sitting in the comfy business class seats. Do they look any more contented? Mostly, you’ll find their faces reveal the same level of happiness as the less fortunate trudging towards coach.
Positive Psychology researchers now suggest certain habits can shift your happiness set point in the right direction. There’s a healthy debate about how big the effect can be. However, one point has been agreed upon. Gratitude is one of the few intentional human emotions which has a sustainable impact. Here are three simple, but powerful ways, to move your happiness dial upwards, and keep it there.
1. Count Your Blessings
Writing down three new things that you’re grateful for starts to change the physical structure of your brain. Researchers have shown the impact builds after about three weeks of this daily activity. American psychologist Sean Anchor, the author of The Happiness Advantage, said: “…at the end of that, their brain starts to retain a pattern of scanning the world not for the negative, but for the positive first.”
2. Send A Grateful Email
Another route is to consciously express gratitude to the people in your life. In my leadership programs, we ask participants to pick three people and write a short story about them in the form of an email. The idea is to describe a time when that person helped.
Professor Dan Cable, the author of Exceptional: Build Your Personal Highlight Reel and Unlock Your Potential, advises: “It’s important that the email story has a beginning, middle, and an end. I encourage people to include gritty, specific elements of the event which helps the person receiving the email to relive the memory when they read it.”
When senior executives pluck up the courage to write their emails, Dan and I find a wonderfully rewarding dynamic plays out. Within hours or days, the managers often get an email back. They receive a similarly grateful story in return from their delighted friend, colleague, or family member.
If you are nervous about sharing a grateful story, there is a fascinating facet of the research that is encouraging. It turns out it’s worth writing the story even if you don’t subsequently press send on the email. The evidence shows that people who create the narratives but decide to keep them to themselves, still enjoy the uplifting benefits. Although, of course, their friends do not.
This habit of being more explicitly grateful in writing or face-to-face has a snowball effect. Researchers found the improvements in mental health increase after 12 weeks of the habit. This is exciting because the mental health benefits of other positive activities often decrease over time.
3. Meditate Graefully
Coronavirus has transformed mindfulness – the ability to focus on the present moment without judgment – from a management fad into an essential business tool. It’s possible to inject gratitude into this powerful approach by concentrating on what you are currently thankful for: the warmth of the sun, a great book you’re reading, or a special person in your life.
Happiness has come into sharp focus in the teeth of the pandemic. The results in a recent global Gallup survey were counterintuitive. Average happiness across 95 countries has crept up when compared to three years before Coronavirus struck. Even more surprising, Covid-19 has increased the happiness of older people more than any other group. This despite the risk of death being far higher. On average, the elderly are more cheerful while the young are more miserable.
The explanation is gratitude. Last month, The Economist put it this way: “Old people probably are not actually healthier. Rather, Covid-19 has changed the yardstick. They feel healthier because they have dodged a disease that could kill them.”
The scientific research into gratitude now supports the diversionary tactics my wife and I used with our young sons. For two tired, working parents, The Grateful Game started dinner on a positive footing and crowded out bad behavior. We found it easier to divert their attention to something positive, rather than endlessly saying “no” to negative behavior.
The same trick works for all of us. Being grateful shifts your attention away from toxic emotions and towards something more uplifting. Do it for long enough, and it permanently rewires your brain to be a happier person. And, for that, we can all be very grateful.
This blog originally appeared in my regular Forbes column.
Please feel free to share with your connections.
To explore my work further, check out my latest book The Human Edge: How curiosity and creativity are your superpowers in the digital economy (Pearson) which won the Business Book of The Year 2020.
All right reserved Copyright © 2022 Greg Orme
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