We all want to be happy. But what does that even mean? For most, it means having our health, a loving family, a job we enjoy, and financial stability. Yet we exist in a culture that conflates happiness with a consumption of goods rather than with our values. We’re told that luxury and convenience bring happiness, that a satisfied, joyful life is one filled with exotic vacations and leather furniture and bigger houses.
If we feel happy, then we better get hustling because that happiness has an expiration date that only a disposable income can keep fresh. In this way, the pursuit of happiness is a treadmill we can’t get off and leaves no space for feeling grateful for what we already have at this moment.
What’s ironic is that science says that the happiest people on earth are those who regularly practice being grateful. There is a distinction between feeling grateful and being grateful. Feelings are more of an autonomic, chemical response in our brain. We don’t have total control over our emotions, and we cannot make ourselves feel grateful.
But being grateful is a choice. The word thanks comes from the Latin word tongēre, meaning “to think.” It’s a verb, an intentional action. We are being asked to think and give thanks, to acknowledge what we have instead of complaining about what we don’t or wishing we had more. Being grateful is a prevailing attitude that endures and is relatively immune to the natural flow of abundance and scarcity in our lives.
Of course, it’s easier to be grateful on the salad days. But what about when life gets hard? The world feels a little uncertain these days. The news seems to be a constant onslaught of horrifying photos from Gaza or Ukraine, the newest ecological disaster, and the death toll from the latest mass shooting. Our Supreme Court wants to strip us of all our freedoms. The economists swear we aren’t in a recession, but it’s been months since I haven’t gone over our grocery budget. (Why do raspberries cost $6?)
Many of us feel powerless and hopeless.
But buying more stuff isn’t gonna solve our problems, though it might momentarily feel like happiness. When life sucks, being grateful provides a perspective from which we can view life in its entirety and not be overwhelmed by temporary circumstances.
When we express gratitude, our brain releases dopamine and serotonin, the two crucial neurotransmitters responsible for our emotions, and they make us feel “good.” They enhance our mood immediately, making us feel happy in the short run. By consciously practicing being grateful every day, we can ultimately create a permanent grateful and optimistic outlook in the long run.
As G.K. Chesterton writes, “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”
In this season of gratitude, let’s intentionally strive to put some think in our thanks.
Here are a few prompts to get started. Choose one and really think about your answer.
- Write about a kindness you witnessed recently.
- What happened in the last week that made you laugh out loud?
- What is your favorite thing about where you live?
- Write about a movie that touched your heart, and why.
- Write about someone that you really admire.
- What was your favorite trip from the past year?
- What is something that you are looking forward to this week?
- Write about your favorite book.
- What do you love most about the time you are living in?
- What are your favorite things to eat?
- When do you feel most creative?
- What is a song that makes you want to dance?
- Write about strangers who help make your life easier.
- Where were you when you last watched a sunrise or sunset?
- What excites you about the future?