My overworked husband finally came to bed at 2.30 am and ended any chance I had of slipping back into my deep and comfortable sleep. After tossing and turning for two hours, I dragged a blanket out to the couch to wait for daylight, which comes late in this new wintery city of ours.
I flicked on the TV, and for just a split second before the channel changed, I saw five words formed in a scrolling font on a white card, a prop in whichever show was airing at that hour:
“Choose to see the joy.”
I quickly snapped awake because while I had no context for the message within the TV program, I had plenty of context for it in my own life, especially as I sat on that couch, tired, cranky and simmering at the thought of missed sleep and an exhausting day ahead.
“Choose to see the joy.”
That short message was inviting me–daring me–to flip my thinking in that moment (and every moment). It was urging me to focus not on what was wrong (hours of missed sleep, a cold room, and a tired, grumpy start to the day) but on what was right (I am alive, snow was falling outside creating what I knew would be a beautiful sight by daylight, the kids were on holidays, and I really had no big demanding plans for the day). And as I did this, as I switched my focus from dark to light, I could feel myself start to relax, release, let go, smile, enjoy … and I discovered yet again that actively finding and focusing on the goodness in the moment can make me much happier: it can transform my mood and my outlook for the entire day.
I knew that ‘choosing to see the joy’ was about actively finding things to be grateful for in any given moment. And I’ve been interested in gratitude as a concept for a while because it’s a key component of the rapidly growing field of positive psychology, the scientific study of happiness and how to live a fulfilling life.
As it turns out, there’s a direct link between joy and gratitude.
World-renowned research professor Brene Brown, who has spent more than a decade studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness and shame, says the link between joy and gratitude is not quite what you’d expect and is best summed up in this quote by Jesuit priest Brother David Steindl-Rast:
“It is not joy that makes us grateful; it is gratitude that makes us joyful.”
So, the more grateful we are, the more joyful (happier) we will feel.
In fact, a chapter in Brene Brown’s bestselling book The gifts of imperfection encourages us to cultivate gratitude and joy as a way of letting go of our belief in lack and our fear of uncertainty, and so live a more wholehearted life (which she defines as one in which you believe you are worthy and enough)–the point of all of Brene’s work.
Here, Brene talks briefly about joy and gratitude and gives parents a tip for helping children cultivate gratitude daily:
Gratitude has many social, physical, and psychological benefits. The Greater Good Science Centre (based at the University of California Berkeley and together with HopeLab offers research-based methods for a happier, more meaningful life at Greater Good in Action) reports that practising gratitude is one of the most reliable methods for boosting happiness and life satisfaction, and reducing anxiety and depression (as well as having a host of other benefits like improving sleep, boosting the immune system, enhancing educational outcomes, and even lowering blood pressure). Read about it here.
So, gratitude is powerful, but experts agree it’s best when practised as part of a tangible activity. The world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude (from the Greater Good Science Centre) Dr Robert Emmons based a lot of his research on the daily practice of journalling (writing down what we are grateful for each day). Bindi Irwin recently recounted the story (in the Australian Women’s Weekly) that when her famous father Steve Irwin died, her mother Terri would daily ask her and her brother Robert to name one great thing about their day. Bindi says some days it was just that the shower felt great, but it was enough to shift her focus back to the positive.
Both of these ideas merge in what’s called The Three Good Things (or The Three Blessings) from ‘the father of positive psychology’ Dr Martin Seligman (I’m about to read his book Learned optimism). You simply write down three good things that happened in your day and why they happened. The health benefits from just one week of this exercise are reported to last up to six months: powerful stuff.
There are many ways to include gratitude in your day. Here’s a list from Greater Good in Action. Or you could check out Oprah on gratitude or the worldwide photographic project celebrating the extraordinary power of gratitude, 365 Days of Gratitude.
Please let me know in the comments whether being grateful makes you feel calmer, happier, healthier.