Want To Be Happy? Practice Gratitude. Here's How

I couldn’t believe my luck when the incomparable Maya Angelou granted me an interview six months before we lost her bright light. I finally asked her the question that has gripped me for years: "How do we manage to triumph over adversities by 'bouncing forward' to go beyond what the naysayer said?'" (This is what she calls her emergence from deep childhood traumas and her violent upbringing.)

Angelou’s advice to me was clear-cut: Develop an attitude of gratitude. "I think we have to be grateful,” she told me in her deep, raspy voice. “You could have died last night, you know.” She laughed.

Rather than reveling in the injustice and brutality that stamped her life, she chose to focus on the achievements. “If I live my life with self-confidence and kindness and don’t get anything back from that, I’m not overcome.”

And yet, when the going gets rough, it is easy to get downtrodden. And she's right. The single best practice to lift our spirits is to keep a gratitude journal. Counting our blessings is one of the simplest and most powerful means to feel anchored in the midst of chaos. But when you're walking in the dark, it's that much easier to count the stars.

How to Get Started

Every day, write down three things you are grateful for.

They could be small things — a kiss, or a ray of sun breaking through the clouds — or big things like a promotion, a good test result, or a baby’s first steps.

Jot down the first three things that come to your mind, and then take a minute to reflect on them. What made these moments great? What do they mean to you? Is there something you can do to contribute to these good things?

Whether you tell your diary or your computer, getting down a tangible reminder of gratitude is important.

“When this becomes a habit, you’ve developed the attitude of gratitude,” says Karen Reivich, a resilience expert at the University of Pennsylvania, whom I met at the U.S. Army’s resilience training. “Gratitude journal” sounded too touchy-feely for a bunch of combat guys, so the Army renamed it “Hunt the Good Stuff.” Regardless, the exercise is the same. Instead of rehashing the bad stuff, reflect on the good things that are happening.

Why It Works

Professor Robert A. Emmons at the University of California–Davis, “the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude,” examined the impact of gratitude. Students who kept a gratitude journal for 10 weeks not only reported that they were more satisfied, optimistic, and content with their life, but they also had fewer medical symptoms. Follow-up studies showed that grateful people get better grades, have more energy, and even sleep better. In addition, cultivating gratitude improves our mood, and makes us more social and willing to help others.

A feeling of gratitude might not come easily when the world looks bleak. That’s why the journal is essential in redirecting our outlook. It gives us a chance to pause and notice the beauty in small moments, acknowledge it, and savor it.

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Take It Further

You could start a “gratitude challenge” on social media and share what you’re grateful for with others.

Even better, you could actually express your gratitude. Think of a person to whom you are deeply grateful, whom you have never properly thanked. Write a heartfelt letter in which you describe what you are grateful for and how he or she changed your life. Then send the letter. Or, even better, read the letter to that person over the phone or in person. People who expressed their gratitude in person showed the largest happiness boost, and it lasted for several weeks.

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