Sadly, we humans sometimes have trouble being happy. Even when we have wonderful jobs, loving families, great friends, or near perfect health, we still find something to bitch about—the husband who doesn’t clean the bathroom, the child who brings home a “C” on his report card, the twinge in our aging knees. We are so wired to look for the bad in any situation that we easily gloss over the things that are going right, making ourselves—and those around us—miserable.
The antidote for this? Gratitude, according to Janice Kaplan’s new book, The Gratitude Diaries: How a Year Looking on the Bright Side Can Transform Your Life. Kaplan, a journalist who spent a year seriously applying lessons from gratitude research to her everyday life, has written an inspiring and entertaining book about how cultivating gratitude can bring us a multitude of rewards, including improvements in our mood, relationships, and health.
The funny thing is, many people know that gratitude leads to better living, but they fail to act on that knowledge. A survey funded by the Templeton foundation and overseen by Kaplan found that while 94 percent of the respondents understood the benefits of gratitude, less than half of them expressed gratitude on a regular basis. Some of that may have to do with misunderstandings around gratitude, such as people worrying that gratitude makes you feel indebted to someone else or may leave you vulnerable to abuse. But research has found just the opposite: showing gratitude makes you feel warmer and more caring toward others and encourages others to respond with generosity and gratefulness in return.
“With gratitude, it really is better to give than to receive,” write Kaplan.
That doesn’t mean that gratitude is always easy. Kaplan explains that one of the difficulties in expressing gratitude is our tendency to habituate to the positive things going on in our lives—in other words, we may appreciate something one moment, but quickly come to take it for granted. In addition, our brains have a normal negativity bias so that “just at the moment when you are grateful to your partner for something that he is doing, you are hit in the gut by something else that he’s not providing,” as Kaplan writes.
But, the good news is our brains can be redirected away from that negativity through conscious cultivation of gratitude, and Kaplan’s book is filled with stories of how she did just that. She recalls how thanking her husband and avoiding criticism helped improve her relationship with him, how refraining from giving advice or nagging her kids helped them to share more with her, and how even looking at inclement weather more positively helped her to feel better (though it didn’t impact the weather). According to Kaplan, all of these stories support the wisdom of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, who once said, “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” In other words, being grateful for what she had is what helped make her life much happier.
Though Kaplan’s stories are just anecdotal, of course, she grounds them in the science of gratitude and includes interviews with several prominent researchers, like Robert Emmons, Martin Seligman, and Paul Bloom, to name a few. She also talks to behavioral economists about the relationship between money, gratitude, and happiness. In doing so, she discovers that spending money on things like new clothes does not increase happiness, except in the short term, because of hedonic adaptation—the tendency to want more as we get more—and because of a tendency to compare our belongings to those of others. Learning to be grateful for what we have, again, is key.
“Gratitude—stopping to appreciate the goodness already in your life—can prevent a toxic bout of envy. And few emotions are more toxic than envy,” she writes.
Kaplan interviews Paul Piff, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Irvine, to find out why material wealth is often a hindrance to gratitude. According to Piff, people who have wealth tend to think they “earned” it in some way, rather than recognizing how luck and support from others may have contributed to their success. Wealthier people also tend to give less percentage-wise when making charitable contributions—a missed opportunity, given how much giving to others contributes to happiness.
Kaplan applies the lessons of gratitude to her work as well as to her personal life and explains why gratitude can help transform our workplaces. Many business leaders don’t realize that a paycheck is less motivating than gratitude, and that employees receiving honest, heartfelt appreciation for what they do will work much harder than those who don’t receive it. Kaplan gives many examples of companies who’ve put gratitude practices to work for them, helping to create a more positive work climate for employees and to inspire more loyalty from customers.
Though at times I felt annoyed by Kaplan’s own clearly privileged viewpoint—she lives in the Upper East Side of Manhattan and regularly hobnobs with celebrities—I have to give her credit for her engaging style and colorful anecdotes. There is nothing like hearing about her interactions with celebrities like Clint Eastwood and Daniel Craig to draw one into her stories as she test drives research-based gratitude practices, like keeping a gratitude journal or writing a gratitude letter. And, as she herself discovered, there is probably nothing like taking the time to thank someone from your past with a gratitude letter for giving that person—and you!—a big boost of happiness.
“Recognizing how someone has contributed to your life makes you feel deeply just how interconnected we all are,” writes Kaplan.
While all of this sounds like good news, Kaplan does write about one down side of applying gratitude to your life: having to interact with people who are not on the same path. In humorous fashion, she recounts how listening to friends routinely complain about their lives became difficult for her, and how her upbeat attitude, in turn, sometimes annoyed them. Certainly, it’s something to keep in mind if you plan to undergo your own radical change: You are bound to affect your social life.
But the overall message from the book is pretty powerful: Gratitude, when practiced consistently, can have an incredibly positive impact on your life. So, if you want some inspiration for starting a practice of your own, I highly recommend picking up Kaplan’s book and reading it for yourself. It certainly inspired me to stop nagging my husband and kids so much, and that makes everyone happier.