Sometimes it’s hard to think about what’s good in your life. Weirdly, this even happens to people who you would say have a demonstrably better life than your own—more money, more friends, more status. That’s because gratitude isn’t necessarily a marker of actual life blessings — it’s more like a mutant ability to experience positive feelings more intensely than normal, according to an op-ed by Arthur C. Brooks for the New York Times.
A 2014 article in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience identified a variation in a gene (CD38) associated with gratitude. Some people simply have a heightened genetic tendency to experience, in the researchers’ words, “global relationship satisfaction, perceived partner responsiveness and positive emotions (particularly love).”
If you’re not genetically predisposed to happiness, don’t despair (any more than usual). There are things you can do that will build up whatever ability you already have.
Go Through The Motions
Telling someone to “pretend” they’re happy is fraught advice, especially since a lot of people with mental health issues may be missing the help they need if they go along with it. If you’re depressed, you should be honest about that and speak with a doctor.
But there is another shade of meaning to the idea that you should fake it til you make it. Sometimes acting as though you’re happy and grateful is like jumpstarting an engine. Instead of getting out of bed and going to sit on the couch and watch the news, you could stand at the window and hum a song or stretch or laugh out loud. Small behaviours accrue and our body takes note of them.
For example, Brooks references the famous 1993 experiment that indicated even the mechanical motion of smiling can sometimes make us feel happier. It stimulates brain activity that is associated with positive emotions. Expressing gratitude, even when you’re not really feeling it, can do the same:
According to research published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, gratitude stimulates the hypothalamus (a key part of the brain that regulates stress) and the ventral tegmental area (part of our “reward circuitry” that produces the sensation of pleasure).
Until you start to feel it, pretend, and real gratitude may appear.
There’s a reason a gratitude journal is a thing. Taking the time to list things you’re grateful for every day makes a marked difference in how you feel about your life. Brooks references a study from 2003, in which a group of people were asked to keep a weekly list of things they were grateful for. Others were asked to keep weekly lists of thing that were annoying or neutral. At the end of the ten week study, the gratitude group “enjoyed significantly greater life satisfaction” than the group that had been keeping track of everything that sucks.
Putting a pen to paper will force you to think about the things in your life you enjoy instead of the things you hate. Even if they’re small, your mind is spending time in a positive place instead of a negative one, which is setting you up for a better day.
A journal or list is what Brooks calls “internal gratitude,” but that’s just one piece of the puzzle. “External gratitude” is when we make a point of thanking others or saying what we’re thankful for out loud. Or via email:
The psychologist Martin Seligman, father of the field known as “positive psychology,” gives some practical suggestions on how to do this. In his best seller “Authentic Happiness,” he recommends that readers systematically express gratitude in letters to loved ones and colleagues. A disciplined way to put this into practice is to make it as routine as morning coffee. Write two short emails each morning to friends, family or colleagues, thanking them for what they do.
Imagine thanking someone you care about every day for what they do for the world. It’ll not only give you an opportunity to dwell on something good, it will likely cheer them up as well. In fact, Brooks recommends attempting a “thank you” when confronted with anger. Apparently, people with “low emotional security” who tend to lash out when confronted will melt into a puddle as soon as they hear a nice thanks. That might include your own brain.