A couple of days into the new year, I hosted a small “Intention Setting Party.” I was so happy that friends from different social circles came together to begin the new year by choosing a theme word for the year and to set their intentions. While looking forward was the purpose of the event, I found the most meaningful activity for me was letting go of the past. As you know, I truly believe that simplifying and prioritizing are important keys to happiness. Learning to say “no” in order to make room for what’s important is critical for achieving more satisfaction. So it makes sense that letting go and saying “no” to thoughts and feelings that no longer serve me was the most purposeful part of the day.
While letting go is an important part of realigning with our priorities, there is one thing I have decided to add back into my routine this year…keeping a gratitude journal. The science of happiness shows a direct relationship between practicing gratitude and feeling happy. I’m not a neuroscientist, so I’m not sure how it all works. However I find it completely logical that by intentionally noticing, and savoring, simple joys throughout we can increase our happiness. By savoring the good things, we are more likely to notice more good things. It’s the confirmation bias whereby we find evidence to support what we already believe. By noticing small joys throughout the day, we will train our brains to find more evidence to support our belief that joy exists, thus leading to increased happiness. If you’re looking for a more in-depth, scientific explanation about the neuroconnections developed through gratitude, check out the book Hardwiring Happiness by Rick Hanson.
Recommitment to Intentional Gratitude
A few years ago, as part of my personal happiness project, I decided to keep a gratitude journal. I wasn’t always consistent, and I admit I’ve gotten away from it this past year. So I’m recommitting. My experience keeping a gratitude journal reinforced the science. The year I journaled was the year I rediscovered happiness. I will admit that I made several other changes that year that resulted in a more positive outlook. But keeping a gratitude journal is a simple habit that doesn’t take much time and doesn’t cost anything. (You know you have a half used notebook in a drawer somewhere hoping to be useful again.)
I try to spend a few minutes at the end of each day reflecting on the day and recalling the bright spots. It could be as simple as “I’m thankful for peppermint tea,” or as important as “I appreciate the kindness of a colleague whose words made me feel validated and purposeful.” According to one of my favorite TEDTalks on gratitude, we should not only name the thing we appreciate, we should feel the gratitude as well, by reliving the joy we experienced earlier. The feeling of gratitude is what causes those new neural pathways.
Adding an intentional gratitude practice doesn’t have to mean journaling. As I mentioned before, I haven’t always been consistent with journaling, but I have created other intentional gratitude routines that haven’t wavered. Every night when I tuck my kids into bed, we share what makes us thankful. At this point my eight year olds remind me if we haven’t said what we’re thankful for. In my classroom, every Thursday is “Thankful Thursday.” We spend a few minutes at the beginning of the class period responding to a gratitude prompt. (Here’s a link to a school year’s worth of Thankful Thursday gratitude prompts that you can use with your own students/children.) The thing I enjoy most about practicing gratitude with my children and my students is it helps us build trust. It’s also a great way to model positive habits that build resilience and joy.
If you like the idea of sharing gratitude, another great habit is to write a thank you note, or send a quick email, each day to someone you appreciate. Not only will you benefit, but you will probably make the other person’s day as well. A great way to multiply happiness. If writing just isn’t your thing, or if you fear it would feel like work, a quiet gratitude meditation or prayer of thanksgiving to start or end each day will serve the same purpose. Connecting to a power higher than ourselves is another way we can increase happiness.
While setting our priorities and creating new habits for the new year, taking time to notice the joy in our lives is a habit worth adding. So if one of your intentions for the new year is to improve your mood, attitude, outlook, or mindset, try adding a gratitude practice. Whether it’s journaling, thank you notes, or gratitude meditation/prayer, creating an intentional gratitude habit is a direct path to happiness.