Gratitude can be a fast-track to happiness.
If you haven’t heard it from me, you’ve probably heard it from some higher profile people (read: Oprah or Deepak Chopra). And with good reason.
There have been tons (yes, that’s a technical term) of studies conducted and books written on the how and why gratitude increases happiness, optimism and prosocial tendencies.
The “how” is by keeping a gratitude journal, writing thank you letters to influential people in your life and -- if you’re really looking for a big boost -- reading your thank you note to such a person face to face.
So if simply writing down a few things for which you’re thankful can make a marked improvement in your well-being, why don’t more people keep a gratitude journal? And why do some people skip out on writing thank you notes or heartfelt letters of gratitude to important mentors?
Why then is it so freaking difficult to express gratitude?!
Two Myths About Gratitude
1. Gratitude Is Nothing More Than Good Manners
You learned at an early age that saying “thank you” is the polite thing to do. Your parents and teachers likely drilled that into you. And it kind of felt like a chore.
So instead of joyfully expressing your gratitude for something someone did for you, you either spit out a cursory “thank you” or just left it out entirely. Because you’re dangerous like that.
You’re also probably a victim of the “self-serving bias”. Which basically means we take credit for the good things that happen to us and blame others when bad things happen to us.
This explains why giving someone or something else credit for our success or well-being doesn’t come naturally. (Unless you’re an Academy Award winner. In which case, get off the damn stage already!)
But that doesn't mean you can't create a gratitude habit.
Myth #2: Grateful People Are Complacent
Hearing the admonition to “be grateful for what you have” can feel like being told to settle. To leave your ambition at the door. To accept the status quo.
You probably feel this way because such sentiments go against our need to feel in control.
We want to believe that we get what we deserve. That if we’re good people, good things will happen to us.
And if we believe we're entitled to good things, then we’re not inclined to be thankful for it.
Interestingly, we seem to accept that bad things happen to good people more readily than the reality that good things can happen to bad people. Or good things can come to us regardless of whether or not we “deserve” them.
But when you acknowledge you may not be entitled to the good things in life any more than you’re deserving of the bad things, you feel pretty damn grateful all of a sudden.
The Truth About Gratitude
Although expressing gratitude may seem like an exercise in complacency or superficial platitudes, the research suggests otherwise.
Not only does gratitude not make you complacent, but it actually motivates you do more. Because in addition to increasing joy, enthusiasm, attention, energy, excitement and determination, gratitude counteracts habituation.
Habituation is a phenomenon by which we become accustomed to wonderful new events (like a new relationship or getting a raise) that initially gave us a big boost of happiness. This explains how when you get a raise, you’re ecstatic. But mere months later you’re already resentful about how hard you work for the same amount of money.
If you express genuine gratitude for your raise, however, you’ll experience renewed excitement at how you’re earning more than you used to make. Instead of resentment, you feel appreciated, energized and eager to do your best work. You’ll probably even have a (greater) desire to do some pro bono work since gratitude inspires us to share and increase our good fortune.
Additionally, gratitude appears to be evolutionarily significant rather than some superficial social protocol.
The increase in happiness we feel from practicing gratitude is no coincidence.
If humans didn’t help each other, there’s no way the species would have survived the cave man days. So, as with other activities that promoted human survival (e.g., sex, eating carbs), expressing gratitude makes us feel great.
In other words, we’re wired to reap the benefits of practicing gratitude.
So try not to overthink it.
Write a letter to your college advisor. Call up your mentor. Start a gratitude journal. Pause to count your blessings once a day. Look someone in the eye and really mean it when you say “thank you.”
You’ll be grateful you did.
What has held you back from creating a meaningful gratitude practice? Challenge yourself to create one that lasts beyond Thanksgiving.
This post first appeared on Ms. JD as part of my year-long column as a Writer in Residence, "The JD's Life Coach". Ms. JD is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to the success of women in law school and the legal profession.