Research in psychology reveals that our happiness level stays remarkably stable over the course of our lives. Of course, receiving a desired gift or going on a romantic date may temporarily raise our happiness level, and an illness or the break-up of a relationship will probably decrease our level of happiness. But after three to six months, according to this research, we will have returned to our usual level of happiness. Is there a way to make our lives more permanently happier?
One possible way comes from research in the psychology of gratitude. It turns out that actually being thankful might just be the key to raising our overall level of happiness. In his book, Thanks: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at the University of California at Davis, outlines the research he carried out in this area. He asked a group of students to write down five things for which they were grateful each week for ten weeks. A second group was asked to write down five hassles from the week. At the end of the study period, people in the gratitude group felt happier. In addition, they were more optimistic about the future, they felt better about their lives in general and they even exercised more than those in the hassles group.
In a follow-up study, Dr. Emmons recruited adults who had neuromuscular disorders and therefore had good reason to be unhappy with their current lives. In this study a gratitude group was compared to a control group in which participants just wrote about their daily experiences. At the conclusion of the study, participants in the gratitude group were happier with their lives overall, more optimistic about the upcoming week and were even sleeping better.
The blessings of life are always present, but if we are not aware of and thankful for them, they don't do much for our happiness. Brother David Steindl Rast, a Benedictine monk who studied Zen, has an interactive website, gratefulness.org, that helps us to discover and cultivate gratefulness, and by doing so, hopefully to make the world a happier place. His website even includes a twenty-first century ritual of lighting a candle of gratitude in cyberspace. Simply click on the candlewick to light it and it will burn for twenty-four hours and get smaller as it burns. This provides a gratefulness ritual that can be performed sitting at the computer at any time.
Every ritual we participate in: birthday parties, weddings, kissing someone goodnight, and even funerals have something to do with gratefulness. The great ritual of the Christian Church, the Holy Eucharist, literally means gratitude in Greek. Our job is to be aware of our blessings and give thanks. Medieval theologian and mystic, Meister Eckhart said, "If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, "thank you," that would suffice."
Writer G. K. Chesterton understood this when he wrote, “You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, and swimming, fencing, walking, playing, dancing, and grace before I dip the pen in ink.”
Between now and Christmas, Wendy and I will watch, as we do every year, the 1954 movie “White Christmas” in which Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney sing the advice to count your blessings. We can count our blessings, as Dr. Emmons suggests, by writing down what we are grateful for each week, or each day, in a journal. Or, why not start a Thanksgiving Jar? Get an empty jar, and during the year, fill it with little notes about the good things that happened. Then, on next Thanksgiving, empty the jar and read all the good things, the blessings, that transpired during the year.
If you start one of these practices, I guarantee that on next Thanksgiving, you will be a generally happier person. And don’t forget, If you're worried and you can't sleep, just count your blessings instead of sheep. And you'll fall asleep, counting your blessings.