In Flint, Michigan, people have been facing a water crisis, unemployment, poverty and an uptick in crime. In the midst of all this hardship, a grandmother cultivated a compelling happiness habit for her grandchildren. She wrote down all the positive stories her grandchildren told her and put the scraps of paper in a glass jar. On subsequent visits, she read their happy stories back to them. In this YouTube video hosted by the co-founder of Action for Happiness, Dr. Mark Williamson, happiness expert Shawn Achor explains how trying this and other simple but powerful gratitude exercises can boost happiness in hard times.
- Small daily habits can help you overcome genetic and environmental factors that might otherwise predispose you to unhappiness.
- Make gratitude exercises part of your daily routine, so they become a habit that sticks.
- Experiencing negative feelings doesn’t mean you’re failing. Your stress might actually yield helpful insights.
Small daily habits can help you overcome genetic and environmental factors that might otherwise predispose you to unhappiness.
Many people commonly believe that two factors, genes and environmental influences, predispose individuals to unhappiness. You can’t control either of those things. What you can change, however, are your actions. For example, every person you know has genes that predispose them to tooth decay. Pair tooth decay genes with modern sugar-laden diets, and you have both the genetic predisposition and environmental conditions that should lead most people to be toothless by age 15. So why do individuals keep their teeth for many years? It’s a simple toothbrushing habit that helps them overcome this predisposition. Happiness habits work in a similar way.
“[Some study participants] were breaking the tyranny of genes and environment over their trajectory of optimism and when that occurred…we saw all these cascading benefits.” (Shawn Achor)
Research shows that crafting small daily habits of gratitude and appreciation benefits people and brings about positive change, for example by improving productivity, reducing stress and strengthening resilience. Gratitude exercises needn’t be time-consuming: Try taking just two minutes each day to write in detail about a positive experience that occurred during the day. Research shows that doing this for 21 days in a row helps people experience more meaning in their lives, and this simple habit can even reduce the need for pain medication. Similarly, spending two minutes writing a message of appreciation to a family member, friend or co-worker can be a powerful reminder of meaningful social connections.
Make gratitude exercises part of your daily routine, so they become a habit that sticks.
Some people worry that they’ll tire of positive psychology exercises, or that these practices will lose their potency somehow over time, but just like brushing your teeth, positive psychology practices remain effective with daily use. No one will say, “I brushed my teeth for a decade, I’m out!” The same applies to positive psychology practices. Once they’ve become your daily habit, they’ll be so engrained in your life that you won’t stop doing them.
“When you scan for the gratitude within your life, your brain basically builds a background app passively using resources to scan for the positive.” (Shawn Achor)
Author Shawn Achor’s family starts each day by writing down things they’re grateful for, then they re-read them together at a later date. This exercise helped Achor realize that though he had a constant running tally of all of his daily stressors, he tended to forget 80% of the happy things he’d written down. The human brain is designed to prioritize threats; happiness habits are a way to consciously confront this tendency toward negativity.
Experiencing negative feelings doesn’t mean you’re failing. Your stress might actually yield helpful insights.
Remember that “it’s OK to not be OK.” It’s normal to feel sad about injustice and to experience grief after loss. Stress is an inevitable part of life, so experiencing unhappiness doesn’t mean you’re failing. Don’t hide your struggles. Sharing hard times with others can help you forge meaningful connections. Social connection is a strong predictor of quality of life and longevity, and challenges feel easier when you don’t have to face them alone. Keep in mind that stress only occurs when something is meaningful to you, and unhappy feelings can fuel positive change.
“Embedded within every stress is meaning.” (Shawn Achor)
To combat stress, first acknowledge your feelings, then try to identify why the stressful thing matters to you. Research suggests that reminding yourself of your purpose may not reduce your stress levels, but it will decrease the negative effects of stress, such as headaches, backaches and burnout.
About the Speaker
Shawn Achor is a best-selling author, speaker and co-founder of the Institute for Applied Positive Research. His books include The Happiness Advantage, Big Potential and Before Happiness. Dr. Mark Williamson is co-founder and director of the nonprofit organization Action for Happiness.