The concept of gratitude is an important part of every religion and ancient philosophy, from Taoism to Christianity.
And modern research shows that there is indeed a direct link between gratitude and happiness.
The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, says that those who practise gratitude have stronger immune systems, lower blood pressure, demonstrate greater compassion, experience more optimism and happiness, feel more connected and experience numerous other benefits.
One of the dangers of living in an affluent society is that we come to expect things to be a certain way and get very upset at minor inconveniences. Sociologist Christine Carter calls this “the abundance paradox.” The more we have, the more we’re disappointed when we don’t get what we want, rather than being grateful when we do.
Adults often complain that children have a sense of entitlement and want instant gratification. Perhaps, however, this is an intergenerational problem in developed countries. We often forget that just a generation ago our telephones were all connected to the wall and the idea of a home computer was science fiction. Even now, electricity, running water and sufficient meals are inaccessible to a significant percentage of humanity.
One of the most noticeable contrasts you see when you go from a more affluent country to a less affluent one is the level of joy and appreciation.
My memories of working with street children in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Zaire) more than 20 years ago, for example, still make me smile. These children came to us often with nothing but the shorts they wore – and a lot of painful memories. I recall celebrating Christmas, sharing what in North America would be a simple chicken dinner, getting sweets and soft drinks, dancing and music, and giving each child a few new articles of clothing. I have never witnessed such rapture.
It’s said that a happy memory is a joy forever and this is certainly one that I will always inspire me.
It’s important to realize that some of our greatest successes come when we overcome difficulties. The abundance paradox is certainly one of these challenges. How do we learn to be grateful for what we have and thus find happiness?
There are many techniques we can use to become more mindful of the good things in our lives. The key is to foster an attitude of gratitude, to be continually aware that we have so much to be thankful for.
A study conducted recently at Ireland’s University of Limerick found that while it’s good to write down what we’re grateful for, in this case by keeping a gratitude journal, the people who experienced the greatest benefits were those who expressed gratitude to others.
This is consistent with research that shows that managers who express gratitude to their employees are not only more effective, their employees express greater job satisfaction and the managers experience less burnout.
Gratitude is contagious. When we feel appreciated, we naturally express gratitude and other positive emotions, not only to the person who showed us gratitude but to others we encounter. Gratitude becomes a positive habit and part of the workplace culture.
We’re not perfect. We all have a tendency to feel entitled and to be annoyed with inconveniences.
However, when we step back, recognize and express our reasons for being grateful, the world becomes a little brighter.
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.