Happiness Strategy: Practice Gratitude and Positive Thinking

As noted in last week’s post on Dr. Sonia Lyubomirsky’s book The How of Happiness, how we think about ourselves, other people, and our world has a much greater impact on our happiness than our life circumstances. To that end, Lyubomirsky’s first three evidence-based happiness strategies focus on cultivating a positive mindset.

Express gratitude. Lyubomirsky encourages us to find ways to experience wonder, thankfulness, and appreciation for life as it is right now. This strategy can be enacted in many ways – e.g., prayer, journal entries, moments of silence, conversations with family and friends, letters of appreciation. It can be as simple as saying “thank you” spontaneously when experiencing a kindness. Lyubomirsky notes that a gratitude practice:

  • Prompts us to savor life’s experiences and focus on what matters
  • Bolsters self-esteem and self-worth
  • Helps cope with stress and trauma
  • Encourages generosity and moral behavior
  • Nurtures relationship
  • Inhibits insidious comparisons
  • Deters negative emotions
  • Thwarts hedonic adaptation (i.e., taking good things for granted)

Gratitude journals were all the rage a few years ago. I wasn’t a fan of them as it seemed a bit contrived. (Lyubomirsky’s research showed that daily journal entries were less effective than weekly ones as the daily activity can morph from a practice to a chore.) But I make a habit of contemplating my blessings and saying “thank you” regularly especially in response to all the ways large and small my husband enriches my life. It’s good for the soul and good for the marriage!

Cultivate optimism. In the immortal words of Monty Python alum Eric Idle, “Always look on the bright side of life.” Celebrate positive images and experiences from the past and present; anticipate a rosy future in which one’s best possible self has been made manifest. In the midst of adversity, treat circumstances as temporary rather than intrinsic. Hold confidently to a belief that you’ll get through it. It pays great dividends. Per Lyubomirsky, optimists:

  • Experience positive moods, vitality, and high morale
  • Readily attract to their broad social networks
  • Set more goals and persist in their attainment
  • Engage in active, effective coping mechanisms when faced with adversity

Note that this strategy does not entail whitewashing unpleasant circumstances or putting on a false front in the presence of others. It’s the application of intentional effort to construe the world from a positive and charitable perspective. As Professor Lee Ross observed:

“[Optimism] is not about providing a recipe for self-deception. The world can be a horrible, cruel place, and at the same time it can be wonderful and abundant. These are both truths. There is not a halfway point; there is only choosing which truth to put in your personal foreground.”

Avoid overthinking and social comparison. Few things can dampen joy quicker than ruminating about the meanings, causes, and consequences of sorrowful feelings, problems, and regrettable actions. It deepens sadness, fosters a negative bias, hinders concentration and problem solving, and dampens initiative. And it’s not great for relationship with yourself or others! Lyubomirsky suggest the following to shake it off:

  • Short-circuit the cycle by distracting yourself with an activity that makes you happy, curious, peaceful, amused, and/or proud. If you can’t be active, use happy thoughts as a distraction.
  • It you simply must give the matter some thought, set a time to do it and defer further thoughts on the matter until that time. If you have a close friend who is both sympathetic and objective, make a date to talk it out with that person.
  • Consider writing the matter down in a journal, perhaps returning to the written page several days in a row to work it through. Setting pen to paper can provide an organizing structure that helps move toward resolution.
  • Take action to solve the problem. Make a plan and take measured steps in that direction.
  • Be conscious of the locations, times of days, people, and activities that set off the rumination cycle and find workarounds to avoid the triggers.
  • Think about the big picture. Will this matter in a month? A year? Are there lessons to be learned? How will this inform future actions?

Social comparison can have a comparably pernicious impact. There’s always someone out there with a better life or set of achievements. If swept up in comparison, you can get caught up in feelings of inferiority, distress, and low self-esteem. And let’s face it: It’s hard to be envious and happy at the same time. Happy folks judge themselves by their own internal standards and have no problem taking pleasure in others’ success and providing comfort in their hardship. They don’t put a lot of stock in how others are doing in relation to themselves.

Beyond the simple approach of catching yourself in the comparison act and “switching channels,” you might give serious thought to giving up (or seriously restricting use of) social media. Studies have shown that the more we use social media, the less happy we are.