Tim Kreider got stabbed in the throat.
The knife went in two millimeters from his carotid artery. He describes those two millimeters as the difference between being “flown home in the cargo hold instead of in coach.”
Luckily, he made a full recovery. How does he describe the event?
“It was one of the best things that ever happened to me.”
He was so grateful to be alive that for the next year, it was impossible for him to be unhappy.
Except for the ten or fifteen minutes during which it looked like I was about to die, which I would prefer not to relive, getting stabbed wasn’t even among the worst experiences of my life. In fact it was one of the best things that ever happened to me. After my unsuccessful murder I wasn’t unhappy for an entire year.
This is the power of gratitude.
No, I’m not encouraging you to get stabbed in the neck but we’ve all felt how happy being grateful can make us.
In fact, happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky says gratitude is one of the things the happiest people on Earth all share.
…the more a person is inclined to gratitude, the less likely he or she is to be depressed, anxious, lonely, envious, or neurotic.
Gratitude is one of the most scientifically validated ways to increase happiness.
Gratitude has one of the strongest links to mental health and satisfaction with life of any personality trait—more so than even optimism, hope, or compassion. Grateful people experience higher levels of positive emotions such as joy, enthusiasm, love, happiness, and optimism, and gratitude as a discipline protects us from the destructive impulses of envy, resentment, greed, and bitterness. People who experience gratitude can cope more effectively with everyday stress, show increased resilience in the face of trauma-induced stress, recover more quickly from illness, and enjoy more robust physical health.
But there’s one problem with gratitude — it wears off. Inevitably, we all end up taking things for granted.
And Tim Kreider wasn’t any different. What happened after that year of lucky-to-be-alive bliss?
He went back to normal.
You can’t feel crazily grateful to be alive your whole life any more than you can stay passionately in love forever— or grieve forever, for that matter. Time makes us all betray ourselves and get back to the busywork of living. Before a year had gone by, the same everyday anxieties and frustrations began creeping back. I was disgusted to catch myself yelling in traffic, pounding on my computer, lying awake at night worrying about what was to become of me. I can’t recapture that feeling of euphoric gratitude any more than I can really remember the mortal terror I felt when I was pretty sure I had about four minutes to live.
We all have moments of gratitude. The question is how can we stay grateful and happy all the time?
You need to build gratitude into your routine instead of making it a lucky accident.
Below are four rituals, backed by scientific research, that can help you stay grateful and happy. You don’t have to do them all and you don’t have to do them every day.
But working one of them into your schedule on a regular basis can go a long way toward keeping you smiling.
1) Count Your Blessings
Every night for the next week, set aside ten minutes before you go to sleep. Write down three things that went well today and why they went well…Writing about why the positive events in your life happened may seem awkward at first, but please stick with it for one week. It will get easier. The odds are that you will be less depressed, happier, and addicted to this exercise six months from now.
That’s it. Just put a pen and paper by the bed, write down three good things that happened to you that day and why they happened. Then go to bed.
Does it really work? Yeah.
People are 25 percent happier if they keep gratitude journals, sleep one-half hour more per evening, and exercise 33 percent more each week compared to persons who are not keeping these journals.
Do you need to do it every day? Nope. People saw optimal results when they did it once a week.
(For the secret to never being frustrated again, click here.)
So you thought about the good things that happened to you. Know what else can help? Thinking about if good things didn’t happen to you…
2) Absence Of A Blessing
It must feel great to win a gold medal in the Olympics. But surprisingly, research shows it feels better to win a bronze than a silver. Why?
People who win the silver think about how they didn’t win the gold. Those who get the bronze feel grateful to have received a medal at all.
Research shows that when you imagine that an important positive event in your life (like meeting your spouse) never happened, it makes you appreciate it more, makes you grateful — and happier.
Thinking about the absence of something positive in your life produces more gratitude and happiness than imagining its presence. What would your life be like if you had not met your spouse? If you did not live in your current neighborhood? If you had not had that chance encounter with the stranger on the plane who later became a business associate?… By taking something away in our minds, we become more aware of benefits that we still have but previously took for granted. Mentally subtracting something good from your life can make you more grateful for it. Think of an aspect of your life for which you feel grateful and then write about the ways in which this might never have happened (e.g., “what would have happened if I had never met my wife?” as opposed to “I am so grateful to have met my wife”).
For bonus points you can actually subtract something positive from your life. Not forever, mind you.
In my interview with Harvard professor Mike Norton, author of Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending, he explained that taking a break from something you love and “making it a treat” can boost appreciation and happiness:
…if you love having coffee every day, don’t have it for a few days and and then when you have it again, it’s going to be way more amazing than all of the ones that you would have had in the meantime.
Yes, this scientifically validates that Netflix binges make you less happy than watching shows weekly. Sorry.
(For more on the shortcut to bonding with a romantic partner on a deeper level, click here.)
What’s the third ritual? This one will surprise you.
3) Thinking About The Bad Can Be Very Good
Think about something awful that happened. How did you grow from it? How did it make you appreciate what you have?
Sometimes even when bad things happen they can ultimately have positive consequences, things we can now be grateful for. Choose an experience from your life that was initially unpleasant and unwanted. Try now to focus on the positive aspects or consequences of this difficult experience. As the result of this event, what kinds of things do you now feel thankful or grateful for? Has this event benefited you as a person? How have you grown? …How has the event helped you appreciate the truly important people and things in your life? In sum, how can you be thankful for the beneficial consequences that have resulted from this event?
Every year, Tim Kreider celebrates his “stabbiversary.” He remembers the day he got stabbed in the throat — and how lucky he is to still be alive.
Once a year on my stabbiversary, I remind myself that this is still my bonus life, a round on the house.
(For more on what you can learn from the Samurai about always being your best, click here.)
Okay, time to bring out the big guns. This one is the thermonuclear bomb of gratitude and happiness…
4) The Gratitude Visit
Tons of research shows gratitude improves relationships:
- Gratitude levels predict marital satisfaction.
- Being grateful improves friendships.
- Showing gratitude gives your romantic relationship “a booster shot.”
- How should you deal with a difficult boss? Show gratitude.
So what’s the best way to show gratitude to people you love — and make yourself very happy?
Write a letter of gratitude to someone who has done something for you. And then read it out loud to them.
This can boost happiness for three months.
One of the most effective ways to deepen your own gratefulness is to write a letter of gratitude to an important person in your life whom you’ve never properly taken the time to thank and then visit that person to present him or her with the letter. Studies published in the most rigorous scientific publications show that the gratitude visit can increase happiness and decrease depression in the letter writer for as long as three months after the visit!
Bring tissues. You will cry. They will cry. You will both be very happy. And it will be something you will never forget.
(For more on how to write your letter and make yourself and someone you love incredibly happy, click here.)
Okay, let’s round these techniques up — and add in one more little thing that’ll make you happy right now.
Four ways to boost gratitude and happiness:
- Write down three good things that happened to you that day before you go to bed.
- Imagine something meaningful to you never happened. Then appreciate how lucky you are to have it.
- Think about something bad that happened to you — and how it made you feel lucky to have gotten past it and how you have grown.
- Do a gratitude visit. Write a letter of gratitude to someone who has done something for you and read it out loud to them in person.
And you, dear reader, I am grateful that you take the time to read what I write.
Even if you don’t get around to doing any of the four things above, I encourage you — right now — to send a thank you email or text to someone who has been good to you.
The simplest thing you can do is a two-minute email praising or thanking one person that you know. We’ve done this at Facebook, at US Foods, we’ve done this at Microsoft. We had them write a two-minute email praising or thanking one person they know, and a different person each day for 21 days in a row. That’s it. What we find is this dramatically increases their social connection which is the greatest predictor of happiness we have in organizations.
Do it right now, before you forget. Research shows that gratitude isn’t just correlated with happiness — gratitude causes happiness. Simply put:
It’s not that happy people are grateful. It’s that grateful people are happy.
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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.
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