We are living in an era of increasing unhappiness. Diagnoses of major depression in the United States went up 33 percent from 2013 to 2016. Loneliness abounds. Anxiety affects 8 percent of children and teens. Hospitalizations for child suicide ideation or attempts rose for all age groups—including 5- to 11-year-olds—between 2008 and 2015.
Recently, as part of a Good Morning America segment, I went to a junior high school in Schaumburg, Illinois, where they are endeavoring to counteract these pernicious trends. As the superintendent told me, it’s not enough to teach kids math and reading; you have to teach them how to be successful humans.
One of their principal tactics? Gratitude.
Gratitude is one of the most misunderstood—and yet deeply useful—concepts trending today. For example, if you think taking a selfie in front of your private jet and posting it with #BLESSED is a way to practice gratitude, you’re doing it wrong. It’s not about showboating. Nor is it about maniacally focusing on the positive and pretending we live in a problem-free world. Oh, and it’s also not a way of using thank-yous as a form of interpersonal manipulation. (One of my favorite cynical takes on the concept is “Gratitude is the expectation of future favors.”)
Done correctly, gratitude is radically simple: It’s the deliberate attempt to not take the many good things in your life for granted. What’s more, science suggests gratitude’s linked to better mental health—and, if practiced regularly, more exercise.
To put this gratitude campaign into action in Illinois, the school recruited Shawn Achor, author of a best-selling book called The Happiness Advantage, which argues that gratitude at any age can boost energy, improve sleep, reduce depression, and increase both optimism and social connection—two of the greatest predictors of long-term happiness.
Achor, who manages to be relentlessly chipper without being annoying, is a happiness researcher with degrees from Harvard. When I interviewed him in the school library, he rattled off rapid-fire, and often oddly specific, statistics. For example, he told me that gratitude correlates with a 23 percent drop in headaches, backaches, and fatigue.
The push for gratitude is not merely academic for Achor. Notwithstanding his seemingly congenital congeniality, he has suffered from bouts of depression. The core of his message is that happiness does not have to rely solely on our genes or our environment; it can be a choice. His work suggests that we can create happiness hygiene habits.
“If, for just two minutes a day, we got someone to think of three things that they’re grateful for, or if we expressed our gratitude once over the course of the day to somebody else . . . we train our brain to become more optimistic and positive,” says Achor. And “if we keep the pattern going, it actually allows us to make the choice of happiness an easier choice.”
Achor has a series of gratitude hacks that anyone can do—even seventh graders. Since the results have been impressive at the school—it went from the 73rd percentile of academic achievement scores nationwide to the 96th percentile—I decided to spend a week test–driving two new daily habits to see how they could pay off for me.
First, everyday, I wrote a thank-you email to someone I felt really deserved it. Second, every night as my head hit the pillow, instead of engaging in my habitual rumination about whatever problems needed to be solved, I spent several minutes thinking about three new things that had happened during the day for which I was grateful.
Achor says these gratitude practices work by building new mental muscles that scan for the positive. Basically, this practice knocks us out of our default mode. Our brains evolved to have a pronounced negativity bias. Why? According to Achor, it’s because early human life was precarious, and we needed to be on the lookout for things like saber-toothed tigers. However, this threat-detection wiring doesn’t always serve us well in a modern context, where our brains unnecessarily revert into ancient freak-out mode when, say, we’re dissatisfied by our lack of Instagram likes.
But, you might ask, can gratitude really help everyone? What if you live in a refugee camp, or are battling a life-threatening disease? How is it possible to feel grateful then?
Achor says that when he first got into this research, he thought happiness might be too hard for certain people. But to his surprise, he’s found happiness in every environment, from cancer wards to prisons to combat zones. “We could find meaning in the daily activities that can move us forward,” he says. “And I think happiness could remain an option—wherever we live in the world.”
For me, after just one week I found that Achor’s gratitude exercises genuinely helped. Every time I sent an appreciative email, I received a warm response, dropping a nice hit of dopamine into my in-box, which is otherwise a source of diabolical overwhelm.
The real winner, though, was the nightly routine of contemplating three new positive developments in my life. I found the ritual bleeding out into the rest of my day, forcing me to occasionally pull back from my relentless rush to cross things off my to-do list. It contributed to a goal I’d been pursuing for years through my daily meditation practice—trying to cultivate a sort of nostalgia for the present, rather than constantly ruing the past or projecting into the future. All my life, I’d heard the exhortation to stop and smell the roses, but no one had ever actually told me how to do it. Achor’s hacks were a way to operationalize one of my favorite expressions: “These are the good old days.”
To be clear, this dose of gratitude did not stop me from worrying and strategizing about all the things that I need to worry and strategize about. Another of my favorite expressions is “The price of security is insecurity.” I still believe that to be true. It’s just that I found gratitude to be a nice corrective when I was taking my worrying too far.
I want to be super clear about this: Being grateful is definitely not the same as being complacent. Here’s one more saying I love: “Everything is perfect. But it could use a little improvement.”
As I write this column, it has now been several months since I first met Shawn Achor in that middle school in suburban Chicago.
I ultimately dropped the thank-you emails, because I found that creating the time to craft a new note every day added stress to the already Sisyphean task of managing my digital tsunami.
The nightly gratitude ritual is still going strong, however—and I suspect it is here to stay. I find it incredibly rewarding to have a practice that orients me toward the positive stuff I might otherwise simply experience and expunge.
I don’t know whether it has contributed to a 23 percent drop in headaches, backaches, and fatigue, but I do know that it feels damn good, and that it is also shockingly effective at putting me to sleep.
I’ll take it. #BLESSED.
HOW TO GET GRATEFUL
How can we make gratitude operational in our lives? A few exercises you can do while brushing your teeth or going to bed:
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