Ancient philosophers and contemporary scientists agree: gratitude is a key ingredient to a happy life.
Research shows that people who cultivate gratitude get a boost in happiness and optimism, feel more connected to other people, are better-liked and have more friends, and are more likely to help others. They even sleep better and have fewer headaches.
Nevertheless, I find it… challenging to cultivate a grateful frame of mind.
I find it all too easy to fail to appreciate all the things I feel grateful for — from pervasive, basic things like electricity and elevators, to personal aspects of my life such as the fact that I get to collaborate with my sister on our podcast, to little passing joys like a funny thing my dog did. I get preoccupied with petty grievances and minor annoyances, and forget just how much happiness I already have.
One thing I forget to be grateful for? My health. For many of us, health — like money — contributes to happiness mostly in the negative; the lack of it brings much more unhappiness than possessing it brings happiness. It’s very easy to take money or health for granted — until it’s gone.
Yesterday my husband had surgery on his knee. Minor surgery, something many people have done, not risky, a very ordinary procedure, didn’t take long. But boy, the experience of setting foot in a hospital made me fervently, passionately, explosively grateful for my health.
Of course, I was also grateful for the good hospital, the insurance, the doctors and nurses, the relief from pain that my husband got, his uncomplicated recovery. So I was also very grateful for all that, too.
But most of all, I was reminded that I should never take good health for granted — my health, or anyone else’s. To be able to take a deep breath, to hear, to see, to walk, to eat, to be free from pain… it’s so precious.
Another positive consequence of gratitude? When we’re grateful, we tend to want to make sure that other people share in whatever we’re feeling grateful for. If I’m feeling grateful for the beauty of Central Park, it makes me think about how much I want other people also to be able to experience the beauty of a park.
Feeling grateful often spurs us to turn outward, to think about the situations of others. The trip to the hospital reminded me of the importance of health — for me, and for everyone. It made me think about insurance, medical care, availability (and of course habits, just about everything makes me think about habits) and what steps I can take in my own life, to help others have these building blocks of good health.
In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous story, “The Adventure of Silver Blaze,” (which includes the now well-known phrase “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time”) Sherlock Holmes perceived a clue in the fact that a dog didn’t bark. I find it hard to be grateful for the problems that aren’t there. Today is a day that I don’t make a visit to the hospital — a happy day.
I’m also reminded of a hilarious scene from one of my favorite movies, The Princess Bride. I’ve watched this scene a hundred times, and it makes me laugh every time. “If you haven’t got your health, you haven’t got anything.” It’s a cliche, because it’s true.
A good gratitude reminder.
Do you find it hard to remember to be grateful? Do you have any strategies to help prompt gratitude? People use gratitude journals, screen-saver reminders, photographs, and giving thanks before meals… what else?
I write about my own gratitude exercise in The Happiness Project.