“We need to learn how to want what we have, not to have what we want in order to get steady and stable happiness.”
– The Dalai Lama
This quote is more than simply feel-good sentiment. It’s a powerful truth about the keys to happiness and better living. Interestingly, it’s also backed up by psychological research showing that endlessly chasing life’s wants tends to lead us to a happiness dead-end.
The good news is that you can learn to leverage gratitude to put a permanent end to this chase, allowing you to find peace and greater wellbeing wherever you’re currently standing.
The Hedonic Treadmill
There’s a simple formula for lasting happiness that goes like this: Happiness is what you have divided by what you want. Therefore, to be happy, you must either:
(a) Increase what you have; or
(b) Want fewer things.
Most of us automatically choose option (a) when trying to level up our happiness. Visualising a goal, we make sacrifices to bring it to fruition, usually with some vague idea about how reaching the goal would finally grant us some long-sought contentment.
Think about the satisfaction you feel watching the ‘likes’ roll in after posting the perfect summer selfie, or the thrill of splurging your hard-earned dollars on the latest iPhone. But when the initial excitement of your new post or purchase fades, you soon find you’re no happier than before. Why is this?
This tendency to quickly return to baseline levels of happiness when good things happen is known as hedonic adaptation or the hedonic treadmill. As the name suggests, if we want to stay happy, we must keep ‘running’ on this treadmill by getting more and more of what we want.
Sometimes we can go months, years, or even decades of our lives propping up our happiness in this way. You might feel validated with each new upload to Instagram or continue getting your kicks by keeping up with the latest gadgets for quite some time!
But what happens when life stops doling out the goods, or when the wins that were once so great stop feeling rewarding?
Should we aim higher? Research would say probably not.
One famous study investigating the happiness of lottery winners showed that, even for these lucky few, most were no happier following their winnings once the initial exhilaration had faded. In fact, compared to the study’s non-winning control group, lottery winners derived less enjoyment from life’s more ordinary pleasures.
This tells us that if we want to be happier in the long run, we must shift our strategy. Rather than trying to increase what we have, we need to practice finding satisfaction with what we already have–this is where gratitude comes in.
What is Gratitude?
As cliché as it may sound, there’s always a reason to be grateful. For example, you might recall something as simple as a nice cup of coffee you drank or the joy of waking to a sunny day. We can also find much to feel grateful for in our relationships, such as moments of laughter shared with friends or when our partner lovingly cooks us our favourite meal.
While these small wins may not seem like much, stopping to really think about them has benefits our brains don’t take for granted.
Your Brain on Gratitude
As we’ve discussed elsewhere, your brain tends to serve up more of what you’re already experiencing, including negative emotions.
Imagine your boss says something that annoys you in the morning, and you continue to think about it all through the afternoon. In this state, you’ll be primed to notice and respond irritably to more bothersome things.
Suddenly, not only is your boss a nitpicky annoyance but so is your colleague–and your spouse!
Thankfully, gratitude has a remarkable way of interrupting these negative cycles. By choosing to replace a negative thought with a positive one, you jam a stick in the spokes of negativity’s wheel and reverse it.
You start noticing more of what’s good instead and feeling more positive emotions as a result.
Gratitude has also been shown to increase happiness hormones like dopamine and oxytocin while decreasing the stress hormone cortisol. This can subsequently reduce symptoms of pain, anxiety, and depression while improving your mood and life satisfaction.
The Social Benefits Of Gratitude
As an emotion embedded in social exchange, gratitude also helps us build and sustain social bonds. The quality of these social bonds correlates highly with markers of physical and mental health and even appears to extend our lifespan.
Research has found that the positive effect of quality relationships for longevity is as powerful as the negative effect of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. This finding highlights how truly interdependent we humans are and why bringing an attitude of gratitude to our relationships is a truly wise thing to do.
Three Gratitude Exercises
When looking at our lives, it’s easy to focus on everything we think is wrong. But for greater happiness, it’s time to retrain your brain to start noticing what’s right.
Here are three science-backed tricks to help you do just that.
First, try starting your day with a gratitude practice. Research shows this simple act of reflecting on people and things for which you are grateful can help decrease depressive symptoms and even your blood pressure.
Here’s how to do it:
- Get comfortable in a seated position and lengthen your spine. Take a few long, deep breaths before letting your breathing continue naturally.
- As you observe the breath, begin by extending a sense of appreciation to your lungs for breathing without your help. You might consider the other functions of your body too, such as your pumping heart or the way your five senses help you navigate the world. If it feels natural, try thinking the words “thank you” as you reflect on each of these parts of yourself.
- Now, extend this same thanks to someone in your life you feel grateful for. Picture that person’s face in your mind or recall the sound of their voice. Briefly consider how life would be different if this person were no longer around, and then notice if a sincere gratitude arises as you feel thankful for their positive presence in your life.
To write one, simply pick someone in your life who has done something kind and express your sincere thanks for how their actions have positively impacted you. Once you’re done, consider planning a visit with the recipient of your letter to read it to them. Or if they live far away, you might read it to them over the phone.
Lastly, try taking a few minutes each day to write three things you feel grateful for. This practice, known as the Three Good Things exercise, has been shown to significantly boost your mood after only three weeks.
To make this practice a habit, it can be helpful to carve out a particular time each day to do it regularly. Consider getting up ten minutes earlier in the morning or making it the last thing you do before falling asleep at night.
No matter your lot in life, finding ways to feel genuine gratitude for what you have is always worth it. So start practicing gratitude today, and watch as your happiness soars with appreciation for the gains you’ve already got.
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