The Simple Relationship Between Gratitude, Happiness (and Even Fear)
Lately, we've been talking a lot about health, fear and living creatively. The more we look, the more we find evidence that the key to a joyful, happy, creative life is living thankfully. Of course, we're not the only ones (h/t Brené Brown and Liz Gilbert). Today, we'll be sharing some ideas on the subject of gratitude.
You've heard the message a million times: Have an attitude of gratitude. Positivity matters. Happiness is perspective. I'm probably missing some of the most important and popular versions of it, but the point remains. Happiness is in your control - it's an attitude.
At least for me, this idea, and ideas like it, gain a kind of critical mass. They're intuitive, but remain semi-subconscious, until they're repeated, re-encountered or re-internalized enough times. After a while, it starts to click why things are that way, and how it might actually work in daily life.
For me, it clicked when I listened to this TED Radio Hour on NPR, which posits that happiness is directly related to gratitude and inversely related to busyness, lack of focus and too much stuff. Definitely take a listen.
But can it really be that easy to achieve happiness?
Can it really be just a matter of brain training and perspective? Is being genuinely happy really within our control?
Well, the easy answer is no. The easy answer is also yes. The truth is that you can, to a degree. But we'll get to the detailed answer of this particular question later - we've got a bigger one on our plate: what causes happiness?
It starts with being thankful. Even if you can't be thankful for every single thing, you can be thankful for every single moment. Every moment is a gift, and an opportunity, says Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast.
"How can we live gratefully? By experiencing, by becoming aware that every moment is a given moment, as we say. It's a gift. You haven't earned it. You haven't brought it about in any way. You have no way of assuring that there will be another moment given to you, and yet, that's the most valuable thing that can ever be given to us, this moment, with all the opportunity that it contains. If we didn't have this present moment, we wouldn't have any opportunity to do anything or experience anything, and this moment is a gift. It's a given moment, as we say.
"So how can we find a method that will harness this?...It's a very simple method. It's so simple that it's actually what we were told as children when we learned to cross the street. Stop. Look. Go. That's all."
-David Steindl-Rast, Benedictine monk in a moving TED Talk
Gratitude is essential to creativity, overcoming fear and spreading joy.
Steindl-Rast goes on to say that gratefulness is actually related to much more than just happiness, it's essential to a creative, loving life:
"If you're grateful, you're not fearful, and if you're not fearful, you're not violent. If you're grateful, you act out of a sense of enough and not of a sense of scarcity, and you are willing to share. If you are grateful, you are enjoying the differences between people, and you are respectful to everybody, and that changes this power pyramid under which we live...
"A grateful world is a world of joyful people. Grateful people are joyful people, and joyful people -- the more and more joyful people there are, the more and more we'll have a joyful world."
It's a small change in perspective, but a difficult one to remember. Like a workout routine, I imagine that attempting to be grateful in every moment would likely get lost in the business and clutter of everyday life. So start small, and say thank you at least once every day! Then see if you feel happier.
So how much can we control our happiness?
There's no exact scientific number, but researchers have said that it's the little things you sow every day that will allow you to reap big rewards, in this case, a sense of genuine happiness. Activities like playing with pets or children, or having a nice solo dinner, or reading a great book in the sun can all help you feel happy when you look back on them. These kinds of happy memories provide a kind of reserve tank of good vibes.
This is something that I think one of our earliest Muses, Abby Bouchon, does incredibly well. When you meet her, she glows. Now that I've spent some time thinking about it, she glows with gratitude, and thus, optimism and joy.
In addition to being thankful, we can invest in what matters: relationships and experiences, not stress and accumulating stuff.
But it's not exactly easy, it's intentional.
"Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it. You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings. And once you have achieved a state of happiness, you must never become lax about maintaining it. You must make a mighty effort to keep swimming upward into that happiness forever, to stay afloat on top of it.”
-Elizabeth Gilbert, "Eat, Pray, Love"
Elizabeth Gilbert is such an incredible thinker and voice of wisdom. I'm currently reading Big Magic, and recommend it to anyone pursuing a creative life. She has a simple practice for being happy and practicing gratitude: she writes down the happiest moment of her day on a small scrap of paper, and puts it in her Happiness Jar.
If you want to be happy, you can be happy. (Barring mental illness, of course.)
When asked about what they want, most people say happiness. The glorious reality, according to scientists, poets, artists and researchers, is that we can all have it. It's within our reach.
One thing that I had to do was actually consider what happiness was to me. Is it laughing and smiling all the time? Being well-liked and socially active? Happiness doesn't mean rainbows and butterflies to me, or a constant smile. I'm happiest when I'm learning, and so I make a point to find time to learn and explore every day.
(If you're dealing with depression, then happiness is something different and harder to achieve, and I hope you have the ability to get the help you need.)
Here's the simple relationship between Gratitude, Happiness, Creativity and Fear:
Gratitude = Happiness + Creativity - Fear
For those of us who are struggling to find happiness, we can take some time to evaluate and consider, and to make room for that which will make us more fulfilled. But by being thankful for each moment, we can generate a simple but radical change in mentality that will allow us to be genuinely happier, healthier and more fulfilled.
I'm going to try to think and say thank you more, and just start there. What about you?