an attitude of gratitude - image of a thank you card

Cultivating an ‘attitude of gratitude’ in the era of Brexit and austerity might seem near impossible. How do we say thank you or count our blessings when the world around us seems completely chaotic?

In many respects, you would be right about the challenge of being thankful. However many authoritative and intelligent voices are saying that being thankful is one of the best ways to increase your happiness.

Happiness and an attitude of gratitude

Dr Robert A. Emmons and Dr Michael E. McCullough are two psychologists leading the field of thankfulness and gratitude research. One of their studies found that after only 10 weeks, an attitude of gratitude left participants feeling more optimistic and better about their lives.

Deciding you want to have an attitude of gratitude is a good place to start. But that in itself is unlikely to improve your outlook on life. Waking up and just saying ‘I’m thankful for a sleepless night worrying about money’ or offering a superficial ‘thank you’ to an irate and patronising customer will not shift the needle on the gratitude meter.

An attitude of gratitude depends on whether you really mean it or not.

an attitude of gratitude - image of a thank you card

How to be happier, less depressed and more satisfied with life

Research shows that people with a genuine attitude of gratitude are happier, less depressed, less stressed and more satisfied with their lives and social relationships. The Roman philosopher Cicero said: ‘Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues but the parent of all others’. A sentiment which echoed one of our previous articles discussing gratitude as one of the Character Strengths and Virtues that contribute to Happiness (see ‘How to be Happy, Part 2’).

November is an appropriate month to think about an attitude of gratitude. The 22nd of this month will be Thanksgiving Day in the USA. While we Brits don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, there are some similar festivals here in the UK.

Many churches held Harvest Thanksgiving on Sunday, September 23rd. Less well known is that Guy Fawkes Day on November 5th started as an annual Day of Thanksgiving for the failure of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605.

But what have we got to be grateful about?

It is a tempting mindset to bemoan the state of the world. With the seemingly never-ending Brexit negotiations and constant cuts to public services, surely things are as bad as they have ever been. So what have we got to be grateful for?

This is the way the story we tell ourselves goes but, according to scientist Steven Pinker, there is extensive evidence that we are healthier, wealthier, wiser, safer and happier than ever before.

Imagine what it was like to live in the early 1900s and you will recognise the progress we have made in just 100 years. We take central heating and electricity for granted and need not worry about diseases like tuberculosis and influenza killing thousands of people. On its own, this presents plenty of material for our attitude of gratitude.

An attitude of gratitude is good for relationships

According to the charity Action for Happiness, gratitude sits at the heart of relationship building. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls it our ‘hive mentality’. We are as much like bees as we are like apes with an instinct for cooperation. Gratitude plays a role in oiling the machinery of the way we relate to each other. Remember how you felt the last time someone failed to say ‘thank you’ for one of your good deeds for a good example.

When we show appreciation for others we are acknowledging how much we value them and their efforts. A simple ‘thank you’ helps to build connections and overcome barriers to working together. As French author, Marcel Proust said: ‘Let us be grateful to people who make us happy, they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.’

Is an attitude of gratitude just for the deluded?

You may say that practising an attitude of gratitude encourages delusional thinking and make us more likely to be duped by the unscrupulous. According to Steven Pinker, this sort of attitude leads to the view that we have no control over our lives and are at the whim of fate.

It is much more realistic to think that we have control over (at least some of) our actions. Therefore saying ‘thank you’ is an acknowledgement of the benefits life gives us rather than taking things for granted.

An attitude of gratitude is something that can be practised. Professor Haidt suggests we focus on those relationships which we value most. Write a letter to someone close thanking them for everything they’ve done for you. Or encourage acts of gratitude by being thoughtful to your nearest and dearest. Even if you find the thought a little bit embarrassing.

Try an attitude of gratitude. It might be a tricky thing to master but we call all gain from it.

Counselling and support services

Practising an attitude of gratitude can be an effective way of improving our outlook on life. Sometimes that is not enough and the issues we face in life need more than a change of attitude.

At The Spark, we have been providing counselling and support to individuals, couples, families and children for over 50 years. Our aim is to help clients to better understand their emotions and experiences, and to find ways to deal with them.

Find out more information about The Spark and our counselling services for individuals, couples and families. Contact us via our online form or freephone 0808 802 0050 to talk about how counselling could help you.

being happy often feels like pushing a boulder up a hill

Why does being happy – at times – feel like such hard work? Instead of an easy path to a relaxed and consistent glow of contentment, it often feels like pushing a boulder up a hill; a brief moment of satisfaction at the peak before it rolls back down the other side and we start all over again.

Parts 1, 2 and 3 of The Spark’s ‘How to Be Happy’ series considered some scientific, psychological and philosophical perspectives on happiness. In the final part of the series, our focus turns to the metaphorical boulder referred to earlier.

being happy often feels like pushing a boulder up a hill

The ‘boulder’ is the common myths that either block our view of the path to happiness or make achieving it a constant, arduous uphill struggle. By dispelling them we hope to offer you a clearer view of the path to lasting happiness.

Myth 1: Finding ‘true’ love will make me happy

A cursory glance at any of the music charts from the last 50 years would give the impression that the way to happiness is to find your ‘true’ love.  The myth is that in finding ‘the one’ we will be blissfully happy. Not just happiness for a temporary, passionate romance but one that will last the rest of our lives.

In his book, ‘The Happiness Hypothesis’, Jonathan Haidt dispels this myth.  The passion characteristic of the early stages of a romance is very real.  Indeed, Haidt points out that the euphoria can be as addictive as heroin or cocaine.

What happens when the passion fades?

However, like a drug, its effects are temporary and eventually wear off.  So, what about those relationships that are long-lasting and seem to the external observer to be mutually satisfying?

Older couple happy together

Haidt argues that these lucky couples experience something quite different from ‘true’ love. In the early days of their relationship, they may well have experienced the seemingly magical effects of romantic love. As this fades, those that become long-lasting are based on what Haidt calls ‘companionate love’: caring for each other and building a life-long, trusting relationship.

It may not be the basis for a catchy pop song but it is a more reliable basis for happiness than the romanticised concept of ‘true’ love.

Myth 2: I will only be really happy when I am free

Ever wondered what it would be like to leave your troubled life behind and move to the other side of the world?  Surely, away from the stresses and strains of debt, conflict and obligations, you would be truly happy.  You would be truly free to satisfy your every whim and live in perpetual happiness. Lottery tickets are sold in their millions based on this belief.

Over 100 years ago, sociologist, Emile Durkheim, actually found the opposite to be true.

He researched the factors that affect the suicide rate in any given country and made an important discovery. Durkheim found that the stronger social relationships are, the lower the suicide rate.

Relationships make us happy

Ties to family, work and home keep us ‘grounded’ and give structure to our lives.  A life without strong ties becomes meaningless. Here at The Spark, we find in our daily counselling of adults, children and couples that Durkheim’s insight is as true today as it was a century ago; relationships make us happy.

spend time with people to be happy

There are often stories in the media about the stresses of isolation.  You may have seen for yourself the tendency for older people to become unhappy as their contemporaries die around them. For them, it is not only the challenge of spending so much time alone but the feeling of loneliness.

It is possible to feel desperate and lonely even in a busy city when you have no long-term friendships.  A feeling of belonging helps us to feel happy.

Myth 3: The pursuit of fame and fortune will make me happy

In the past, only the most brazen would admit to life goals consisting of money and fame. The ‘Instagram generation’ brought up on Big Brother and Love Island, is the first to openly admit that the pursuit of fame and fortune – a drive that exists in most of us – is their chosen path to ‘happiness’.

How many times have we all whispered, internally at least, ‘if only I was world famous then everything would be very different’?  We persist in doing the lottery despite never winning, dreaming that the jackpot will change everything.  (Of course, it rarely does. Studies dating back as far as the 1970s indicate that lottery winners may experience a temporary increase in happiness levels but this tends to return to previous levels after a short time).

The Hollywood sign: does fame and fortune make you happy?

Ask yourself the ‘deathbed question’ and you are less likely to be attracted to money and fame.  How many of us are likely to say on our dying day: ‘Oh, I wish I’d worked harder to get that promotion,’ or ‘I should have spent more time in the office and made a name for myself?’  If we are more honest we are more likely to say ‘I wish I’d stayed in touch with my friends.’ Or ‘I should have spent more time with my parents before they passed away.’

Stay connected to be happy

In one of the longest studies of happiness ever conducted it is relationships that seem to have the greatest effect on human happiness.  The Harvard Study of Human Happiness has been running for over 80 years and has tracked happiness levels of over 1,500 people.

The findings are conclusive showing that close relationships rather than money or fame are what provides long-term happiness. Once again this chimes perfectly with our own experience providing counselling and support for over 50 years. Difficult and broken relationships are often the root of unhappiness and pain in our lives.

So what do we do now?

Across a variety of studies and a number of experts, there is a consensus that close and long-lasting relationships are the surest route to happiness.  So, what do we do if we are unhappy with our lives or despair that we will never find long-term contentment?

On his website, Jonathan Haidt suggests that you do ‘A Relatedness Check-up’.  The questions are simple:

  • Who are the people in your life you care about?
  • Who cares about you?
  • Are there at least a few people?
  • How often do you see them?

Humans are social beings and valuing relationships is a well-evidenced route to happiness.  As Haidt himself says, ‘We were made for love, friendship, and family, and when we spend a lot of time alone or free ourselves from the “constraints” of relationships, it is generally bad for us.’

Catch up on part 1, part 2 and part 3 of The Spark’s ‘How to Be Happy’ series.

Counselling and support services

Relationships are the key to happiness in our lives but they can be challenging, tough and painful at times. The Spark has been providing relationship counselling to individuals, couples, families and children for over 50 years. Helping our clients understand what can be done to improve their relationships.

Find out more information about The Spark and our counselling services for individuals, couples and families.

Contact us via our contact form or freephone 0808 802 0050 to talk about how counselling could help you.