Can you remember a time when you felt really happy or excited about something? Getting engaged – Your wedding day – The birth of your child – Landing your dream job – Buying your first car – Recovering from a critical illness?
How long did the happiness last?
Why does the thrill wear off?
A study of lottery winners found that despite feeling elated at the time, they were no happier 18 months later than non-winners. How can that be?
Psychologists call this phenomenon ‘hedonic adaptation’ or the ‘hedonic treadmill’. In other words, we quickly adjust to a new situation and revert back to our previous level of happiness (or unhappiness). Why does this happen? The new situation becomes the new normal so we don’t think about it anymore. If you see the same beautiful view outside your window every morning, you start to take it for granted – unless someone builds a high rise apartment that takes the view away from you.
Maybe that’s why life is full of ups and downs. We wouldn’t appreciate the ups if it weren’t for the downs. No matter how much we tell ourselves we’ll never take something for granted, the thrill will slip away unless we make a concerted effort to keep it alive. So what can we do to keep the embers of happiness glowing?
Psychologists have uncovered three ways to make happiness last longer. The first is to share your happiness with others. That doesn’t mean bragging about it. It means asking yourself: How can I use some of my lottery winnings to help those less fortunate?
The second strategy is to continue setting new goals or to devise new ways of enjoying something. What new experiences can you and your partner share? How can you inject new challenges or more fun into your job?
And the third – most powerful – means of fostering happiness is regularly reminding yourself of the things that make you happy. Put another way: counting your blessings or practising gratitude.
Lately however, ’practising gratitude’ has been misinterpreted and become hackneyed. For a while, practising gratitude had morphed into a status symbol: ‘It’s easy to be grateful when you’re born into privileged circumstances.’ Other people have told me they felt guilty for feeling grateful because there was so much suffering in the world. Yet others felt it would lead to inertia: ‘If you’re always focusing on the positive, you won’t be motivated to improve a situation.’
This is not how I view gratitude. Gratitude is about reminding myself to notice the beauty, kindness and goodness in the world. It isn’t about ignoring the misery, suffering and hardship. It’s choosing to focus on what’s possible rather than what’s limiting. I could easily end up a tearful mess if I focused on what my father was no longer able to do because of his dementia. Instead I choose to focus on what I still have with him: he still recognises me, he still has a sense of humour and he still enjoys music (among other things). There is no comparison with other people and no inertia. Quite the opposite: I am motivated to retain what we have and to try and discover more things that we can share.
Gratitude is also about pausing, noticing details, appreciating and savouring things or experiences with all our senses – whether it’s the first mango of the season, the full moon on a balmy night or the feel of clean, fresh bedsheets at the end of a long day. Our happiness would increase dramatically if we weren’t always in such a hurry to get to ‘the next thing’. We rarely allow ourselves time to stop and take in a joyous moment.
And finally gratitude is about reflecting on all the people who have helped me throughout my life. Which is how I like to celebrate World Gratitude Day: thanking people who contribute to my happiness. A card, a phone call or a face to face conversation explaining why that person is special to me. In this way, World Gratitude Day is an opportunity to feel at peace – I don’t want to look back after someone has gone and wish I’d expressed my gratitude to them. Maybe that’s why 21st September is also the United Nations International Day of Peace? And when you thank someone, you make two people happy: yourself and the other person.
As William Arthur Ward wrote, ‘Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.’
How will you celebrate World Gratitude Day on 21st September?