Gratitude: Fuel for Happiness

2014-11-26-gratitude2If everything had gone according to my plan, you would have read this column before Thanksgiving. I wanted to share some thoughts about the benefits of expressing gratitude in advance of the holiday where we reflect back on the people and events in our lives for which we are so thankful. But the nasty virus that made its way through our household had its own plan for me and the week before Thanksgiving I found myself flat on my back and unable to think clearly (insert joke here).

Luckily the illness passed, and I was able to successfully celebrate Thanksgiving with my family. And the message I hoped to share before Thanksgiving is still relevant as we head into the December holidays, so here goes: Expressing gratitude is good for our bodies, our minds, and our relationships. In short, it can make us happier.

What exactly is gratitude? According to Robert Emmons, psychology professor at UC Davis and the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude, there are two components to gratitude. “First,” he writes in his essay, Why Gratitude is Good, “it’s an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received.” Second, he explains, “we recognize that the sources of this goodness are outside of ourselves. … We acknowledge that other people—or even higher powers, if you’re of a spiritual mindset—gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.”

Armed with that definition I set out to talk with some Northbrook residents to hear what they’re grateful for and how they express gratitude. I interrupted several Starbucks patrons last week and they confirmed that expressing gratitude contributes to their overall well-being.

Kara, a sophomore at GBN, told me how she often writes people letters to express her gratitude. And, following a family vacation she presented her mom with a scrapbook of memories from the trip. Her friend Michaela chimed in to say that personal, heartfelt expressions are more valued by the recipients. “My mom just wants me to show my love, not buy her stuff…anyone can do that.” Both girls shared that doing these things made them happier.

Crestwood Place residents Becky and Burt Ofsaiof moved to Northbrook eight years ago and they are grateful for the myriad ways they can stay active in the community. Married for 53 years, they spoke about the North Shore Senior Center where they exercise their bodies in the workout room and their minds through discussion groups. They attend concerts at the Northbrook Public Library and find ways to give back through the Go Green Northbrook initiative.

But Becky also shared that as a cardiac and cancer survivor, she and Burt express their gratitude through their spirituality. “I pray every day,” she said and she gives thanks for the healthcare facilities and the “earth angels” such as doctors and nurses.

As for me, I’ve found that when you make a conscious effort to count your blessings, you end up seeing goodness in the common aspects of everyday life. Like when someone slows down to let you merge or holds the door for you. Or when a neighbor gets your mail when you’re out of town. Or when the kid who puts your groceries in your car does so with a smile.

How about you? I’d love to hear what you’re grateful for and how you express gratitude. Shoot me your story at david@thehappinesscatalyst.com.