We need more happiness. All ages, all races, all income levels. All of us, pretty much across the board. In our world of abundance, there’s an overwhelming sense of burden, distress, and anxiety.
I have a bunch of statistics and information to back this up, but I’m going to spare bumming you out by sharing it with you here. (After all, the point is to increase your happiness, not add to your despair.) So I’ll just proceed on the basis that you agree that nearly everyone wants to be a little happier, but if you really want the statistical background that supports my thinking, send me an email and I’ll get it to you. But you should know it paints a very bleak picture.
With that out of the way, let’s get down to it!
In recent years, we’ve discovered a lot about happiness. We’ve learned that experiences make us happier than things (and that this particular type of happiness lasts longer.) We’ve learned that being active, even for just a few minutes a day, has a positive impact on our outlook. But most importantly, we’ve wrapped our heads and hands around the one thing that is the most powerful lever of our happiness dial: gratitude.
The feeling of gratitude, expressions of gratitude, and simple recognition of gratitude within our hearts has emerged as the magic pill of happiness. But how can we authentically ramp up our gratitude? What can we do that will actually make a difference? Happiness researcher Shawn Achor outlines 5 simple steps to strengthen your gratitude muscle and experience greater happiness. They’re all easy and they won’t take a lot of time. But to be effective, you need to turn them into habits, which is going to take some patience and perseverance.
The following list is not necessarily in the order of most important or most effective. Instead, I’ve put them in order of most likely to succeed, requiring very little time or commitment and gradually moving up the scale. Let’s get started:
Train Your Brain: Spend two minutes a day thinking three new things that you’re grateful for and the reason why you’re grateful for them.
Do this while you’re brushing your teeth, either first thing in the morning or right before bed. Start with something easy and be sure to dig into why you’re grateful. It’s not enough to say, “I’m grateful for my wife,” you need to follow it with why she’s so important to you. Then— and here’s the tricky part— each thing each day needs to be NEW. No repeats. Do this exercise every day and work to make it a habit.
(Bonus: shortly after starting, your brain will begin performing this function throughout the day, working to identify possible things to be added to your grateful list. It quickly alters your natural state, even if you’re usually pessimistic.)
The Doubler: Think of one positive, meaningful experience each day and then, for 2 minutes, you write bullet points detailing what you remember. Write them down. The purpose is to scan for meaning.
Another form of practicing gratitude, this one is focusing on one particular item and then chasing it deeply. You still want to identify something you’re grateful for (“having lunch with my daughter today”) and why (“to have unexpected time to spend together before she leaves for college.”) But the next step is intended to strengthen and solidify the memory of the event. You simply record three or four bullet points highlighting things you remember (“we went to Panda Express, we discussed her mild concussion, and she laughed so hard she had trouble breathing. Definitely concussed.”)
Shared Gratitude: Write a two minute email or text message every day praising or thanking a different person.
Another gratitude practice, this is designed to turn your focus outward, by taking the time to offer expressions of gratitude to the people in your life. It doesn’t need to be exceptionally long, but it does need to be heartfelt and authentic. This message has a tendency to activate the people around you and build your social connections, which, according to Achor, are incredibly important. “Social connections—the breadth, depth, meaning of your social relationships—are the greatest predictor of long-term happiness by far,” says Achor. “If you make this practice a habit, your social connection score rises to the top 10% worldwide. Social connection is as good a predictive of longevity as obesity, high blood pressure or smoking.” Be happier, live longer. Not bad.
(Bonus: Many of us feel as if email is out of control and all-consuming. If you send these messages via email, you’re also taking a small step toward conquering the email beast. By spending the first two minutes in your email sending a positive, heartfelt message to someone, you’ll brighten their day and take a step toward improving your own relationship with email.)
Get moving: Spend 15 minutes on fun, mindful cardio activity every day.
We now know that something as simple as a brisk walk can be as effective as an antidepressant. If you keep it up for six months, you reduce the risk of depression relapse by 30%. Get up and get moving. Even better: take someone with you.
Meditate: Unleash your inner yogi.
I’ve saved the best for last, because it’s also the hardest. Hardest to do, hardest to explain, hardest to get people to try. The truth is, only one of those is true. It’s actually very easy to do, once you understand the concept. The explanation is also simple: Our daily lives are so full of distractions that we hardly ever give our minds a rest. We’re engaged all the time, everywhere we go. We check our phones standing in line. Heck, some of us (not you, I’m sure) even pick up our phones at stoplights, unable to sit still for even a minute.
This activity level takes a toll on our mental and physical well-being. It saps our energy and dampens our creativity. It can even hinder our problem-solving. So spending just a few minutes a day in quiet and thoughtless mindfulness can be an incredibly worthwhile habit.
Here’s what works for me: Sit comfortably in a quiet spot. Close your eyes and relax, and take a few deep, cleansing breaths. Begin breathing normally, thinking about each breath. As thoughts creep in (and they surely will) just acknowledge them, put them aside, and go back to your breathing. Try to start with just a couple of minutes a day and gradually expand to whatever serves you: five, ten, fifteen minutes… whatever you like. Lastly, don’t worry about getting it “right,” it’s called practice for a reason.
According to Achor, the opposite of happiness is apathy, which is the loss of joy we feel moving toward our potential. Let’s commit to putting these practices into your life, one at a time, striving to make them a habitual part of your day. You’ll be strengthening your social connections, fortifying yourself against stress, and feeling the joy that comes from moving toward your potential. In a word, you’ll be happier.
I think we can all agree, the world needs a little more of that.