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Flipping the Script on Happiness

Flipping the Script on Happiness

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Success doesn’t make us happy, but it turns out happiness makes us successful. And the key to happiness? Is gratitude.

“Why do you waste your time studying happiness at Harvard? What does a Harvard student possibly have to be unhappy about?” It’s a question that psychologist Shawn Achor hears a lot.[1] And it’s likely a question we’ve asked others and ourselves: “How can she have depression when she has a loving husband and three beautiful children?” “Why am I anxious? I have an awesome job and a great apartment. What’s wrong with me?”

The problem is we’re making the wrong assumption: we’re assuming that having nice things is what makes us feel happy. We assume that our external world predicts our happiness levels. But according to the research, that’s quite the opposite of how our minds and hearts work.

Or, as Dr. Achor puts it: “If I know everything about your external world, I can only predict 10% of your long-term happiness. 90% of your long-term happiness is predicted not by the external world, but by the way your brain processes the world.”

“If I know everything about your external world, I can only predict 10% of your long-term happiness. 90% of your long-term happiness is predicted not by the external world, but by the way your brain processes the world.” -Shawn Achor, MD

By the way your brain processes the world. But what does that mean? It means the lens through which our brains view our surroundings. Perhaps some of us have rose-colored lenses, and are happier for it. But does that mean the rest of us living with regular lenses or even grey ones are doomed to despair? No. We can change the lens. We can turn up the dial on joy, and as Dr. Achor’s research suggests, doing so not only fights depression, but also increases just about every single educational, business, and “productivity” outcome in the process.

So… how do we change the lens and become happy? How do we give our brains the 90% voting power they possess, versus placing the locus of the decision on our circumstances, which can only inform 10% of the process?

It’s quite simple, actually: we give thanks.

“Grateful people are joyful people.” – Brother David Steindl-Rast

In his TED Talk with over six and a half million views, another expert on happiness, monk and interfaith scholar Brother David Steindl-Rast, explains: “grateful people are joyful people.” Or, to put it another way: happiness is rooted in gratitude.[2]

Here are some simple ways to make gratitude part of your daily life:

Stop, look, and listen. Take time out of the chaos of the holiday season to pause. Take a deep breath before biting into that delicious meal. Stop and look around the table at the faces of the people gathered there. Stand outside of your car or at the bus stop and breathe in the air before heading home after work. Some people even like to set “mindfulness reminders,” wherein their phones ding at random intervals throughout the day to remind them to stop, ground, and access gratitude.

Focus on gratitude now, not on success in the future. It’s good to set goals, whether it be to get into a good school, land a great job, or hit a sales quota at work, but be careful not to peg your happiness on the achievement of those goals. Focusing instead on creating positivity in the here and now creates something that Achor refers to as the “happiness advantage.” Simply put, the happiness advantage refers to the phenomenon wherein a happy brain performs better than a negative, neutral, or stressed one. In the milieu of a happy brain, productivity increases by 31%, sales increase by 37%, and physicians are 19% more efficient. In fact, Achor reports that only 25% of job successes are predicted by intelligent quotient (IQ), whereas 75% are predicted by optimism levels, social support, and the ability to see stress as a challenge instead of a threat.

Remind yourself. After three months of living in India and having my daily shower consist of ice-cold water ladled out of a plastic bucket, I was so grateful to come back and have an instant, seemingly endless supply of hot water for bathing. But, after a couple of weeks back in North America, I stopped rejoicing as I stepped into the bathroom: a hot shower was just a normal part of life, taken entirely for granted. After listening to Brother David Steindl-Rast’s TED Talk, however, I was inspired to put a little sticker on the handle of the shower faucet, to remind me of the miracle of hot, clean, running water. Doing little things like this can serve as potent reminders of all the ways in which we are blessed.

Meditate. Sitting in quiet contemplation to breathe and “tune in” to one’s thoughts allows the brain and body to set down the multitasking feats we expect of ourselves in our fast-paced society. Meditation allows us to slow down, letting the brain “breathe” for a moment and integrate all that’s come its way. Meditation has also been shown to fight depression and help us cope with stress.[3],[4] And it doesn’t have to be boring or scary: starting by sitting on the floor or in a chair in a quiet setting and simply breathing for five minutes per day can have remarkable effects.

Write it down. Numerous studies have demonstrated the positive effects of keeping gratitude journals and expressing gratitude.[5],[6],[7] The practice is easy, affordable, and nearly foolproof: every day take a few minutes to journal about a positive experience you’ve had in the past 24 hours. This exercise allows the brain to relive the positive experience (as opposed to the many negative ones we tend to dwell on!), and also helps us access the feeling of gratitude. Don’t just go through the motions, though: psychology professor Robert A. Emmons, PhD suggests getting personal in these journal entries, focusing on people versus things, and savoring the surprise delights of a day as ways to get the most out of gratitude journal entries. Exploring one positive item in detail is also likely more beneficial than jotting down a bullet list of five items.[8] (Side note: gratitude journals can make a great stocking stuffer!)

Don’t just list it, say it: thank you. In a recent study on gratitude and happiness, researchers explored the benefits one step beyond just keeping a gratitude journal: one group actually was required to express feelings of gratitude for the things they were thankful for. For a test period of three weeks, the participants in Group A were asked three times per week to reflect upon the people they’d met or interfaced with that day and journal about what/who they were grateful for in those interactions. Those in Group B did the same exercise, but at the end of each week, they were also asked to express their appreciation through face-to-face communication, a hand-written note, an e-mail, or a message on social media, with the instructions to “tell him/her how much you appreciate something specific that he/she does and reflect on their reaction and how you feel.” The participants in the control group – Group C – were asked to journal three times weekly more generally about what had happened that day, without any instructions to focus on gratitude specifically. At the end of the three weeks, those in Group B had the most outcomes with respect to balanced mood and a reduction of depressive symptoms, suggesting that creating connection from a place of gratitude can generate more happiness than just reflecting upon it silently. (At one-month follow up, however, those in Groups A and B had comparable results, suggesting that both introspective reflection and outward expression have positive benefits.)[9]

Creating connection from a place of gratitude can generate more happiness than just reflecting upon it silently.

Spread the joy. ‘Tis the season for random acts of kindness. Spreading joy needn’t break the bank or consume hours of time. Send a quick e-mail to somebody praising a job well done. Buy a homeless person breakfast. Share a laugh with a friend. Send a loved one a video that will make them laugh. Notice what happens inside of you when you do.

“Because nothing makes us more happy than when all of us are happy,” in the words of Steindl-Rast.


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The information provided is for educational purposes only. Consult your physician or healthcare provider if you have specific questions before instituting any changes in your daily lifestyle including changes in diet, exercise, and supplement use.

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