What determines happiness? Together with fellow scientists Ken Sheldon and David Schkade, Sonja Lyubomirsky discovered that the components affecting happiness can be divided up like pieces of a pie:
- A natural “Set Point” that you are born with (50%),
- Life Circumstances (10%), and
- Intentional Activity (40%)
Of these three, the one area that we have the most power to change is the last one: our behavior. Lyubomirsky’s book, The How of Happiness, is all about that 40 percent. In the book she describes twelve activities – shown to be successful through science, rather than conjecture – that can increase our happiness. She describes “why these strategies work and how precisely they should be implemented to maximize their effectiveness using evidence from the latest research. In every grandmotherly bit of advice lies a kernel of truth.” She’s chosen “the biggest kernels, established what the data show, and sought to determine for whom these truths might work best and how and why. Apply these activities to your own life, and you will harness the promise of the 40 percent solution, for such is the amount of wiggle room you have to remake yourself.” The very first Happiness Activity is “Expressing Gratitude.”
Happiness Activity No. 1: Expressing Gratitude
The expression of gratitude is a kind of metastrategy for achieving happiness. Gratitude is many things to many people. It is wonder; it is appreciation; it is looking at the bright side of a setback; it is fathoming abundance; it is thanking someone in your life; it is thanking God; it is “counting blessings.” It is savoring; it is not taking things for granted; it is coping; it is present-oriented. Gratitude is an antidote to negative emotions, a neutralizer of envy, avarice, hostility, worry, and irritation. The average person, however, probably associates gratitude with saying thank you for a gift or benefit received. I invite you to consider a much broader definition.
By definition, the practice of gratitude involves a focus on the present moment, on appreciating your life as it is today and what has made it so.
The world’s most prominent researcher and writer about gratitude, Robert Emmons, defines it as “a felt sense of wonder, thankfulness, and appreciation for life.”(1) You could strive to feel grateful by noticing how fortunate your circumstances are (and how much worse they could be), by calling an old mentor and thanking him for guiding you through one of life’s crossroads, by relishing moments with your child, or by recalling all the good things in your life at present. By definition, the practice of gratitude involves a focus on the present moment, on appreciating your life as it is today and what has made it so.
Expressing gratitude is a lot more than saying thank you. Emerging research has recently started to draw attention to its multiple benefits. People who are consistently grateful have been found to be relatively happier, more energetic, and more hopeful and to report experiencing more frequent positive emotions. They also tend to be more helpful and empathic, more spiritual and religious, more forgiving, and less materialistic than others who are less predisposed to gratefulness. Furthermore, the more a person is inclined to gratitude, the less likely he or she is to be depressed, anxious, lonely, envious, or neurotic.(2) All these research findings, however, are correlational, meaning that we cannot know conclusively whether being grateful actually causes all those good things (or inhibits bad things), or whether possessing traits like hopefulness, helpfulness, and religiosity simply makes people feel grateful. Fortunately, several experimental studies have now been done that solicit expressions of gratitude from unsuspecting individuals and then record the consequences.
In the very first such set of studies, one group of participants was asked to write down five things for which they were thankful – namely, to count their blessings – and to do so once a week for ten weeks in a row.(3) Other groups of participants participated in the control groups – instead of focusing on gratitude every week, these individuals were asked to think about either five daily hassles or five major events that had occurred to them. The findings were exciting. Relative to the control groups, those participants from whom expressions of gratitude were solicited tended to feel more optimistic and more satisfied with their lives. Even their health received a boost; they reported fewer physical symptoms (such as headache, acne, coughing, or nausea) and more time spent exercising.
Other studies have prevailed on both students and adults with chronic illnesses to try the count your blessings strategy, with similar results. These studies have shown that on the days that individuals strive to express their gratitude, they experience more positive emotions (that is, feelings like interest, excitement, joy, and pride) and are more likely to report helping someone, to feel connected with others, and even to catch more hours of quality sleep.
These investigations show for the first time that expressions of gratitude are causally linked to the mental and physical health rewards that we have seen. However, the goal of this research has been to determine the extent of gratitude’s real-timeinfluence on positive affect and health – that is, whether you feel happier on a day that you are trying to be more grateful. My laboratory, by contrast, is interested in the question of how people can become happier over time. When my graduate students and I were deciding what to do for our very first happiness “intervention” (that is, an experiment aimed to make people happier), testing the strategy of counting one’s blessings seemed like the obvious choice. Building on these findings, we conducted a new experiment, in which we measured participants’ happiness levels, then implemented our gratitude intervention, and, once it was over, measured their happiness levels again immediately. The gratitude intervention was very similar to the one I just described. We directed our participants to keep a sort of gratitude journal – that is, to write down and contemplate five things for which they were grateful. Their exact instructions were as follows: “There are many things in our lives, both large and small, that we might be grateful about. Think back over the events of the past week and write down on the lines below up to five things that happened for which you are grateful or thankful.” Five blank lines followed, headed by “This week I am grateful for:”
…those participants who counted their blessings on a regular basis became happier as a result.
The participants engaged in this happiness exercise over the course of six weeks. Half of them were instructed to do it once a week (every Sunday night), and half to do it three times a week (every Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday). The things that our participants recorded covered quite a wide range, from “mom,” “a healthy body,” and “having a Valentine” to “getting tested on only three chapters for my midterm” and “AOL instant messenger.”
As we expected, our simple exercise was effective in producing higher levels of thankfulness and appreciation. More important, those participants who counted their blessings on a regular basis became happier as a result. Compared with a control group (i.e., people who did not practice any kind of exercise), the gratitude group reported significantly bigger increases in their happiness levels from before to after the intervention. Interestingly, this effect was observed only for those who expressed gratitude every Sunday night. The participants who counted their blessings three times a week didn’t obtain any benefit from it. This finding might seem puzzling at first, but we believe there is an explanation: The average person made to express his or her gratitude every Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday appeared to have become bored with the practice, perhaps finding it a chore, whereas the person made to express gratitude only once a week likely continued to find it fresh and meaningful over time. We’ll return to this specific finding later; it has important implications for how to carry out the gratitude activity – or any happiness-increasing activity for that matter – with success.
Excerpted with the author’s kind permission from The How of Happiness (Penguin Press, 2008).
More Articles in this Series:
1. Emmons, R. A., & Shelton, C. M. (2002). Gratitude and the science of positive psychology. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of positive psychology (pp. 459-471). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
2. (1) McCullough, M. E., Emmons, R. A., & Tsang, J. (2002). The grateful disposition: A conceptual and empirical topography. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,82, 112-127. (2) McCullough, M. E., Tsang, J., & Emmons, R. A. (2004). Gratitude in intermediate affective terrain: Links of grateful moods to individual differences and daily emotional experience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86, 295-309. (3) Algoe, S., & Haidt, J. (2006). Witnessing excellence in action: The “other-praising” emotions of elevation,
gratitude, and admiration. Manuscript under review. (4) Bartlett, M. Y., & DeSteno, D. (20042006). Gratitude: Helping when it really costs you. Psychological Science, 17, 319-325. (5) For an accessible review, see Robert Emmons’ recent book: Emmons, R. A. (2007). THANKS! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.
3. Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 377-389.