Does your hapiness depend on your circumstances—or your attitude? I've asked myself that question so many times that I could relate when Kate, a woman in her mid-40s who was talking to me for the first time, couldn't figure out why she wasn't happy. "I've got a great guy, I've just gotten engaged, and I am still not happy," she said. "What's wrong?" I suggested that she would feel much better if she developed an attitude of gratitude, the ability to focus on what's good and right in life.
Try it yourself.
First, on a scale of one to ten, with one being blah and ten being the best you ever felt, give yourself a number. Next, write down or think about the things you're grateful for. Now rate yourself again. Did your number go up, even a little?
At every moment (and particularly during the holidays), you have a choice to look at what's right or wrong with yourself and your life. Gratitude is like a flashlight, shining on what's good. When you turn it on, you feel happier, no matter what else is going on.
I learned this most powerfully when I sat beside my father in the hospital as he lay dying. He had suffered for years with emphysema, hooked up to an oxygen tank. Now bedridden, his six-foot-two frame weighed only 130 pounds. Every breath was a struggle. I asked him whether his life was still worth living. "I like to read the comics in the newspaper," he replied. "I like to watch the ball game on TV. My life is good."
Science is now confirming the power of my father's good attitude. Studies show that being grateful increases happiness by 25 percent and boosts the amount of time people spend exercising (a terrific bonus for those of us who struggle to get to the gym). Being positive even seems to create greater equality in dividing up chores between partners.
I explained all this to Kate, who agreed to start paying attention on a daily basis to what she appreciated about her life. Sure enough, she got happier. I heard from her recently after a gap of about two years, and she was still smiling.
The great thing about the gratitude flashlight: It works no matter who you are—young or old, fat or thin, rich or poor, sick or well. All you need to do is turn it on.
6 ways to do gratitude
- At dinnertime, take a moment to say one thing you are thankful for. Be specific.
- Remember why you love your spouse, kids, and friends when they're annoying or frustrating you.
- Don't compare other people's lives with yours. When you're envious, ask yourself, "How can I create more in me of what I see in them?"
- Give thanks for your body. What can you appreciate about it right now?
- Look for the hidden blessings in challenges. How have you grown?
- Practice daily. Keep a gratitude journal and e-mail it to a gratitude partner, someone with whom you want to share positive thoughts.