Think of someone with whom you have shared happy moments or someone who has supported you and been there for you. Write them a thank you letter and deliver it to them. In your letter describe to the receiver why you are grateful to have them in your life and explain how their presence has given you growth and happiness. In a 2009 study, when researchers asked participants to do a similar exercise, they found that those who wrote thank you letters and delivered them reported an increase in their level of happiness that lasted for up to two months. Expressing gratitude significantly improved their well being.1
If you prefer to experience gratitude without having to express it to others, you can keep a gratitude journal. Every day before going to bed, write down three things that you are grateful for. A 2005 study found that research participants who wrote about three good things in their lives every night for one week reported an increase in happiness that lasted for six months.2
Gratitude: Its Power and Its Limitations
The practice of gratitude sharpens our attention for the good and the positive in our lives, which helps us appreciate things that we tend to take for granted. Yet, despite the significant power of gratitude to improve our well being, gratitude has its limitations. It can help us notice the positive, but it cannot eliminate negative events from our lives. No matter how much we practice gratitude we are still bound to experience negative emotions like disappointment, guilt, vulnerability, and grief.
When someone suddenly loses a loved one, they cannot be grateful for their loss. Gratitude can help them focus on the beautiful memories they shared with their loved one and appreciate the past. But gratitude cannot eliminate the grief that they feel every day as they are having to live in a world where their loved one is not present.
Given the limitations of gratitude, the quest for well-being must not stop at this practice. We need to look into practices that allow us to react graciously and with acceptance to the many negative events and negative emotions that we are bound to experience in our lives. The practice of mindfulness meditation is promising in this respect.
Mindfulness: Finding Peace in the Midst of Misfortune
Mindfulness is based on the act of nonjudgmental awareness. It invites us to accept and observe our mental state and our external reality with compassionate and nonjudgmental attitude no matter how harsh it is. We cannot stop reacting to negative events with sadness or with pain, but we can stop reacting to pain and sadness with frustration and irritation. We can compassionately accept our moments of vulnerability and watch them gradually and naturally fade away.
As Williams and Penman (2012) have argued, it is not pain or sadness that are detrimental to our mental health, rather, the detrimental part is the frustration with which we react to pain and to sadness: sadness generates frustration which generates more sadness which generates more frustration and the mind slips into an infinite spiral of negative emotions. To end this negative spiral, we need to stop reacting to negative emotions with irritation and practice acceptance and humility: “Once you’ve felt [negative emotions], acknowledge their existence and let go of the tendency to explain or get rid of them, they are much more likely to vanish naturally, like the mist on a spring morning” (Williams and Penman, 2012). Just like moments of pleasure cannot last forever, moments of sadness and weariness cannot last forever either as long as we are not constantly feeding them.
A happy life is not a life that is free of negativity and irritation, a happy life is a life where negativity and irritation are not fed and strengthened rather they are graciously acknowledged and humbly accepted: “You can’t stop the triggering of unhappy memories, negative self-talk and judgmental ways of thinking -but what you can stop is what happens next. You can stop the vicious circle from feeding off itself and triggering the next spiral of negative thoughts” (Williams and Penman, 2012). The next time you feel an inner tension, a moment of vulnerability or desperation, do not get frustrated at yourself, do not wonder why you are experiencing this negativity, just take a deep breath and patiently acknowledge the experience and observe it as it naturally vanishes.
Gratitude allows us to notice the many blessings we have and distracts us from the many misfortunes that we face. Mindfulness helps us react to our misfortunes with grace, acceptance, and meditation. Together these two practices nurture the happier self within us.
- Froh, J. J., Kashdan, T. B., Ozimkowski, K. M., & Miller, N. (2009). Who benefits the most from a gratitude intervention in children and adolescents? Examining positive affect as a moderator. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 4(5), 408-422.
- Seligman, M. E., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: empirical validation of interventions. American psychologist, 60(5), 410.
- Williams, M., & Penman, D. (2012). Mindfulness: a practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world. Hachette UK.