Everyone wants to be happy. But few of us ever put any thought into what actually makes us happy. We all think if we get more money, more success, more love, more sex, and less annoying family members, we’ll be happy. Or, as British author Henry James once said:
“When [a man] has fair health, a fair fortune, a tidy conscience and a complete exemption from embarrassing relatives, I suppose he is bound, in delicacy, to write himself happy.”
It makes sense to think that way, doesn’t it? I mean, if I get more of the stuff that I really want, and less of the stuff I don’t want… then I’ll be happy. A + B = C.
There’s just one problem: Happiness is an emotion. And emotions don’t work like math equations. You can’t just add up components and have them create your desired effect. If we humans could do that, we’d all be happy all of the time (and life would probably be super duper boring).
Instead, happiness – like all emotion – needs a trigger; something that sparks the emotion itself. Every emotion has multiple triggers. For example, fear can be triggered by a strange man in your home, a giant dog, or the thought of Bruce Jenner’s upcoming reality show. Likewise, happiness can have multiple triggers. But there is one trigger in particular that scientists have discovered is nearly universal in generating happiness.
That trigger is GRATITUDE.
Dr. Martin Seligman was my psych professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He’s also the founder of Positive Psychology and one of the most prominent psychologists ever. Positive Psychology turned all psychology on its head (Silicon Valley people would use the term ‘disrupted’) by positing that psychology should actively try to amplify people’s well being, rather than simply aim to cure what ails them. It was pretty revolutionary in its time. Now it’s standard practice.
Anyway, Dr. Seligman has crated what he terms ‘The Gratitude Challenge.’ Before I explain what that is, I want to point out that I am NOT one of those uber-hippy-green-mantra-vegan-zen-Buddha-people. So when I throw out something like The Gratitude Challenge, I do it because I know its legit. This comes from years of scientific research by an actual innovative psychologist, not some chick who handles people’s chakras for a living.
That being said, here’s The Gratitude Challenge, as explained by Dr. Seligman himself:
For sound evolutionary reasons, most of us are not nearly as good at dwelling on good events as we are at analyzing bad events. Those of our ancestors who spent a lot of time basking in the sunshine of good events, when they should have been preparing for disaster, did not survive the Ice Age. So to overcome our brains’ natural catastrophic bent, we need to work on and practice this skill of thinking about what went well.
Every night for the next week, set aside ten minutes before you go to sleep. Write down three things that went well today and why they went well. You may use a journal or your computer to write about the events, but it is important that you have a physical record of what you wrote. The three things need not be earthshaking in importance (“My husband picked up my favorite ice cream for dessert on the way home from work today”), but they can be important (“My sister just gave birth to a healthy baby boy”).
Next to each positive event, answer the question “Why did this happen?” For example, if you wrote that your husband picked up ice cream, write “because my husband is really thoughtful sometimes” or “because I remembered to call him from work and remind him to stop by the grocery store.” Or if you wrote, “My sister just gave birth to a healthy baby boy,” you might pick as the cause … “She did everything right during her pregnancy.”
Writing about why the positive events in your life happened may seem awkward at first, but please stick with it for one week. It will get easier.
That’s it! That’s all. That’s the entire challenge. Just write down 3 good things that happened today and why they happened. Do that every night before you go to bed.
The reason The Gratitude Challenge works so well is because it’s so freaking simple. The whole thing takes maybe a minute or two. And its genius is that it gets your brain into the habit of thinking positively, which, as Dr. Seligman points out, is against our evolutionary nature.
I come from a family of cynical intellectual New York Jews, so trust me when I say that I am one SUPER NEGATIVE MOFO. But after just a few days of taking The Gratitude Challenge, I can honestly say that I began actually BEING MORE GRATEFUL during the course of my day! Positive things would happen, and I’d start to notice them instead of brush them aside. I’d APPRECIATE LIFE more. Simply because i trained my brain to get into the habit of doing so.
And gratitude is the key ingredient – the secret sauce – of happiness. The more gratitude I feel for the things I have, the less I dwell on the things I don’t have. That equals more happiness, less unhappiness, and an overall better quality of life.