Up Your Happiness Quotient

At this point in our discussion of gratitude, I expect there are questions about being grateful when everything has gone to hell in a handbasket, as my dad used to say. These are often the most difficult moments of our lives, the times when all we see is what’s broken, all we feel is the sorrow for the pile of shards that was once our whole, happier lives.

From my studies over the years, I learned that by saying thank you for the unknown and unseen, the yet-to-be, I will speed up the revelation of the gift a negative experience or situation holds, and ensure that the outcome will be even more desirable than anything I could presently imagine. This is hard stuff, very hard stuff, I don’t deny it. But, it works. Saying thank you in these moments of pain and crisis is deeply healing. This single act of gratitude, even uttered through clenched teeth, moves you back into your heart and opens the channels for you to understand, now, or at some point in the future, why this event has happened to you. It comforts you with some peace. 

Doc Childre and Howard Martin in The HeartMath Solution, found this to be true from their years of research.  “Just feel grateful for something, anything, in that moment. Your heart will respond accordingly. Injecting just a hint of appreciation into your system in a moment of crisis will be enough.” 

Even if being grateful is the least likely of the emotions you are experiencing, remember this:  with time and practice, gratitude begets gratitude.  As someone once said, “Fake it ‘til you make it.”  When adversity blows in like a tsunami, keep identifying and inventing things for which you “should” feel grateful, until you actually start to feel the gratitude that is your aspiration.  As you “fake it,” notice how you feel and make a quick entry in your journal.  Keep “faking it” until you actually “make it” by tapping into the deep underground springs of gratitude that flow through us all. 

Extensive research finds being thankful can help relieve depression and stress. Developing or maintaining an outlook that appreciates the positive differs from being optimistic, which is simply expecting good things. Gratitude requires us to recognize and acknowledge that happy outcomes are not only the result of our own hard work or moral decency, but also those results are dependent upon the efforts and actions of others. One of my heroes, Dr. Martin Seligman, the father of the Positive Psychology movement, along with his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania discovered a powerful tool for improving well-being, elevating depression, and increasing optimism and happiness. He calls this powerful tool, “The Gratitude Visit.”

Thanking people strengthens our connection to them. This exercise gives you the opportunity to properly thank someone for a gift they gave you. It could be a material gift, but I mean gift in the broader sense, something that changed your life for the better. Our thank yous are often automatic responses with little genuine energy behind them. This exercise gives you a chance to offer a heartfelt thank you in a unique and satisfying way.

Gather a pen and some paper. Handwriting the letter is an important and integral part of the exercise.  Find a quiet place, get settled, and close your eyes. In Dr. Seligman’s book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being,  instructs us, “ To bring to mind the face of someone still living, who years ago, or more recently, said or did something that changed your life for the better; This would be someone who you never properly thanked.” This exercise works best if it is a person you can meet face-to-face in the next week or so. Think about what this gift did for you, how it altered your life in some way for the good. Write about the gift and what it meant at the time, or what it came to mean over time as it revealed its benefits. Let her know what you are doing now, and include how often you think of what she did for you. Be specific, and keep it to no more than a page or two, roughly three hundred words.

Once you have completed the letter, contact the person to arrange a visit. Be vague about the purpose of the visit, as it will be much more exciting if your objective is a surprise. Take time to read the complete letter aloud. Gently stop her if she interrupts, and say you really want her to hear it in its entirety. Notice her reaction and notice how you feel while you are reading it. After you have read the entire letter, it is your chance to discuss the contents and how you feel about each other. As you get in your car, the bus, the train, or simple walk home, pay attention to how you feel and over the next few days, check in with your heart to see how you are doing.

Beginning with Dr. Seligman and his team’s efforts in 2003, there is lots of research on the benefits of writing a gratitude letter and making a gratitude visit. It’s all great news! To cite just one point: Kent State University conducted a large in-depth study, and found that writing three letters of gratitude markedly increased the writer’s sense of well-being, his level of happiness, and his feelings of gratitude. (The May 28-June 10, 2018 issue of New York Magazine’s cover article on becoming happier also mentions this exercise.) Even if you are in the “fake it” stage, science shows that these positive feelings and the elevating effects of writing and reading just three letters stay with the writer for three months after the last letter is presented and read. That’s pretty powerful, but then we all know the words of novelist and playwright Edward Bulwer-Lytton, “The pen is mightier than the sword.”

I wish everyone a very safe and happy 4th of July!

Until next time…..Be Vibrant!