“I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” G.K. Chesterton
Many have tried to define happiness, but the definition would vary with each of us. The older I get, however, the more I believe gratitude is at the heart of anyone’s definition of happiness. It’s the “secret sauce” that binds everything else together and makes happiness such a delicious state of mind.
Gratitude must be intentional
In our fast-paced culture, it’s easy to get to the end of a busy day and realize we never stopped to be grateful even once, in spite of the fact that at least one of the following took place:
- We woke up.
- We had food to eat.
- We had a roof over our head.
- We had meaningful work.
- We weren’t afraid to leave our house.
- We had access to clean water.
- We enjoyed the benefits of indoor plumbing.
- We passed a beautiful sight sometime today.
- We heard something that made us smile.
- We received a compliment.
- We received a gift.
The tendency to let these gifts go by without noticing them is why developing some kind of gratitude practice is so important. It makes us more mindful of our many blessings and builds a reservoir of good energy inside us to make us more resilient when times are not so good.
Intentional gratitude can involve action or just reflection. Action might include writing letters to say thank you to people who have made a difference in our life or reciprocating a kindness. It might include keeping a gratitude journal or regularly just making a short list of things for which we’re grateful.
Reflection is being aware of those moments of pleasure throughout our day and giving thanks for them.
Why does gratitude make us happier?
Gratitude, at its core, is about connection—connecting with a gift, a feeling, or an experience. Gratitude creates fellowship with the purveyor of that gift, feeling, or experience, whether it is our higher power or another person. Expressing gratitude creates a loving feeling and guards us against taking anything—or anyone—for granted.
Expressing gratitude to someone is, in a very real sense, giving them a gift too!
But who’s happy all the time?
And the scriptural directive to be thankful in all circumstances is pretty hard to swallow when life throws us a curve, as it has an alarming propensity to do. Yet there is no ambiguity in the directive from St. Paul to the Thessalonians:
“In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.” I Thessalonians 5:18
But I don’t feel grateful!
In an exercise from his book Gratitude Works: a 21-Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity (and presented as an exercise in the November 2014 issue of O Magazine), Robert A. Emmons, PhD. suggests when you don’t feel very grateful, it’s most likely for one or two reasons: malaise (i.e. despondency) or crankiness (irritability, peevishness).
If you’re just feeling down in the dumps, he suggests the next time you enjoy the smallest pleasure, try contemplating what life would be like without it or thinking about how much you would appreciate it if you’d been deprived of it for a long time.
If you’re really feeling cranky, don’t fight it, Emmons says. Everyone has bad days, bad weeks, even bad years. He suggests trying to be grateful for something in the future—something that will bring you beyond—and out of—your current ungrateful feeling. Once psychiatrist Karl A. Menninger was asked what action he would recommend if a person were to feel a nervous breakdown coming on. He said, “Lock up your house, go across the railroad tracks, and find someone in need and do something for him.” Helping someone in need often makes us realize how much we have for which to be thankful.
Celebrate Thanksgiving every day
Thursday of this week is Thanksgiving here in the United States, so it is a great time to count your blessings, but gratitude is beholden to no one’s calendar. Practicing intentional gratitude every day is good for the soul, even if all you can manage right now is a baby step.
Babies keep trying until they’re taking bigger steps.
You can too.
What are you thankful for right now? Take a moment to think about it and give thanks.