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Increasing Happiness through Gratitude and Kindness

Practicing Gratitude Can Increase Happiness

The psychology of gratitude has been the subject of recent research and experimental evidence (Emmons & McCullough, 2003) suggests that practicing gratitude is a way to quickly and sustainably improve mood. Moreover, being thankful might be the key to raising your happiness ‘set-point’.

Counting blessings versus burdens

Dr. Robert A. Emmons carried out research with three experimental groups over 10 weeks (Emmons & McCullough, 2003):

  1. The first group were asked to write down five things they were grateful for that had happened in the last week for each of the 10 weeks of the study. This was called the gratitude condition.
  2. The second group were asked to write down five daily hassles from the previous week. This was the hassles condition.
  3. The third group simply listed five events that had occurred in the last week, but not told to focus on positive or negative aspects. This was the events or control condition.

Before the experiment began all participants had kept daily journals to chronicle their moods, physical health and general attitudes. These were then used to provide a comparison for after the experimental intervention. People who were in the gratitude condition felt fully 25% happier – they were more optimistic about the future, they felt better about their lives and they even did almost 1.5 hours more exercise a week than those in the hassles or events condition.

In a second similar study, they changed one of the control conditions to address whether the increased happiness was just the effect of positive comparisons, or true gratitude. Instead of asking people to write down any events from the week, people were asked to list ways in which they were better off than others. Again though, the results showed that those in the gratitude condition were significantly happier than those making positive comparisons between themselves and others. Unsurprisingly those practising being grateful were also happier than those focussing on daily hassles.

Gratitude can help those with chronic health problems

In a third study Emmons and McCullough (2003) recruited adults who had neuromuscular disorders, often as a delayed result of surviving infection by the polio virus. While not life-threatening the condition can be seriously debilitating, causing joint and muscle pain as well as muscle atrophy. People with this condition have a good reason to be dissatisfied with the hand life has dealt them. Again, a gratitude condition was compared to a control condition in which participants wrote about their daily experience. After the 21 day study, participants in the gratitude condition were found to be more satisfied with their lives overall, more optimistic about the upcoming week and also sleeping better.

10 Grateful Steps to Happiness

Here are 10 top tips for becoming more grateful and consequently more happy. These come from Dr Robert Emmons book ‘Thanks!: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier’  (2007) which documents the first major study of gratitude showing how wanting what we have can measurably change lives.

  1. Keep a gratitude journal
    Sit down, daily, and write about the things for which you are grateful. Start with whatever springs to mind and work from there. Try not to write the same thing every day but explore your gratefulness.
  2. Remember the bad
    The way things are now may seem better in the light of bad memories. Don’t forget the bad things that have happened, the contrast may encourage gratefulness.
  3. Ask yourself three questions
    Choose someone you know, then first consider what you have received from them, second what you have given to them and thirdly what trouble you have caused them. This may lead to discovering you owe others more than you thought.
  4. Pray
    Whether you are Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Muslim or atheist, a ritualised form of giving thanks may help increase gratitude.
  5. Use your senses
    80% of people say they are thankful for their health. If so, then get back in touch with the simple human fact of being able to sense what is out there: use your vision, touch, taste and smell to experience the world, and be thankful you can.
  6. Use visual reminders
    Two big obstacles to being grateful are simply forgetting and failing to be mindful. So leave a note of some kind reminding you to be grateful. It could be a post-it, an object in your home or another person to nudge you occasionally.
  7. Swear an oath to be more grateful
    Promise on whatever you hold holy that you’ll be more grateful. Sounds crazy? There’s a study to show it works.
  8. Think grateful thoughts
    Called ‘automatic thoughts’ or self-talk in cognitive therapy, these are the habitual things we say to ourselves all day long. What if you said to yourself: “My life is a gift” all day long? Too cheesy? OK, what about: “Every day is a surprise”.
  9. Acting grateful is being grateful
    Say thank you, become more grateful. It’s that simple.
  10. Be grateful to your enemies?
    It’ll take a big creative leap to be thankful to the people who you most despise. But big creative leaps are just the kind of things likely to set off a change in yourself. Give it a try.

Acts of kindness

Research has found that carrying out an act of kindness can enhance feelings of happiness. One study asked participants to complete a life satisfaction survey, participants were then assigned to one of three groups. One group were instructed to perform a daily act of kindness for the following 10 days, another group were instructed to do something new each day, the third group received no instructions. After the 10 days, participants again completed the life satisfaction survey. The groups that carried out daily kind or new acts both experienced a significant boost in happiness; the third groups happiness levels did not change. The findings suggest that kind acts are linked to enhanced happiness—even when performed over as little as 10 days. It also promotes the benefits of new activities and varying acts of kindness.

In another study researchers asked half of 51 participants to recall, as vividly as they could, the last time they spent $20 or $100 on themselves. The other half were asked to recall the last time they spent $20 or $100 on someone else. All participants also completed a happiness scale. Participants were then given small sums of money and the choice to either spend it on themselves or on someone else (through a donation to charity or a gift) depending on what they thought would make them the happiest. They were told their choice would remain anonymous. The results showed that consistent with the first study above, people in general felt happier when they recalled a kind act (a time they bought something for someone else) than when they remembered buying something for themselves. This happiness boost was the same regardless of the cost of the gift. In addition, the happier the participants felt about their kindness in the past the more likely they were to choose to spend the money on someone else. The researchers concluded these results suggest a “positive feedback loop” between kindness and happiness, so that one encourages the other.

Try to do something kind everyday, it will likely make you happier which in turn may make you kinder!