One of the most effective ways of boosting happiness revolves around the psychology of gratitude. Present a person with a constant sound, image, or smell, and something very peculiar happens. The person slowly gets more and more used to it, and eventually it vanishes from their awareness. For example, if you walk into a room that smells of freshly baked bread, you quickly detect the rather pleasant aroma. However, stay in the room for a few minutes, and the smell will seem to disappear. In fact, the only way to reawaken it is to walk out of the room and come back in again.
Exactly the same concept applies to many areas of our lives, including happiness. Everyone has something to be happy about. Perhaps they have a loving partner, good health, great kids, a satisfying job, close friends, interesting hobbies, caring parents, a roof over their heads, clean water to drink a new smartphone, or enough food to eat. As time passes, however, they get used to what they have and, just like the smell of fresh bread, these wonderful assets vanish from their consciousness. “As the old cliché goes, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”
Psychologists Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough wondered what would happen to people’s happiness levels if they were asked to carry out the conceptual equivalent of leaving the bread-smelling room and coming back in again. The researchers wanted to discover the effect of reminding people of the good things that were constantly present in their lives. The participants were assigned to 3 groups and were asked to spend a few moments each week writing. The first group listed five things for which they were grateful, the second noted five things that annoyed them, and the third jotted down five events that had taken place during the previous week.
Everyone scribbled away, with the “gratitude” group remarking on seeing the sunset on a summer day and the generosity of their friends, the “annoyed” group listing taxes and their children arguing, and the “events” group detailing making breakfast and driving to work. The results were startling. Compared to those in either the “annoyed” or the “events” group, those expressing gratitude ended up happier, much more optimistic about the future, and physically healthier—and they even exercised more.
Thinking about a perfect future
When trying to write your way to a happier life, expressing gratitude is just the tip of the iceberg. There is also the notion of getting in touch with your inner perfect self. In a classic study conducted by Laura King at Southern Methodist University, participants were asked to spend a few minutes during four consecutive days describing their ideal future. They were asked to be realistic but to imagine that all had gone as well as it possibly could and that they had achieved their goals. Another group was asked to imagine a traumatic event that had happened to them, and a third group simply wrote about their plans for the day. The results revealed that those who had described their best possible future ended up significantly happier than those in the other groups. In a follow-up study, King and her colleagues repeated the experiment, this time having people describe on paper the most wonderful experience in their lives. Three months later, assessments revealed that compared to a control group, those reliving an intensely happy moment were significantly happier.”
Finally, another research examined the idea of “affectionate writing.” It may come as no great surprise to learn that being in a loving relationship is good for your physical and psychological health. However, are these benefits the result of receiving love, expressing love, or both? To find out, Kory Floyd, from Arizona State University, and his colleagues asked some volunteers to think about someone they loved and spend twenty minutes writing about why this person meant so much to them. As a control, another group was asked to write about something that had happened to them during the past week. Each group repeated the writing exercise three times over the course of five weeks. Once again, this simple procedure had a dramatic effect, with those who spent just a few minutes engaged in affectionate writing showing a marked increase in happiness, a reduction in stress, and even a significant decrease in their cholesterol levels.
When it comes to an instant fix for everyday happiness, certain types of activities have a surprisingly quick and large impact. Expressing gratitude, thinking about a perfect future, and affectionate writing have been scientifically proven to work—and all they require is a pen, a piece of paper, and a few moments of your time.
To help you incorporate effective writing techniques into your life, try and start a rather unusual diary. Instead of keeping a record of the past, this diary will encourage you to write about topics that will help create a happier future. The diary should be completed on five days of the week, with each entry taking just a few moments. Maintain the diary for one week. According to scientific studies, you should quickly notice the difference in mood and happiness, changes that may persist for months. If you feel the effects wearing off, simply repeat the exercise.
There are many things in your life for which to be grateful. These might include having close friends, being in a wonderful relationship, benefiting from sacrifices that others have made for you, being part of a supportive family, and enjoying good health, a nice home, or enough food on the table. Alternatively, you might have a job that you love, have happy memories of the past, or recently have had a nice experience, such as savoring an especially lovely cup of coffee, enjoying the smile of a stranger, having your dog welcome you home, eating a great meal, or stopping to smell the flowers. Think back over the past week and list three of these things.
Tuesday: Terrific Times
Think about one of the most wonderful experiences in your life. Perhaps a moment when you felt suddenly contented, were in love, listened to an amazing piece of music, saw an incredible performance, or had a great time with friends. Choose just one experience and imagine yourself back in that moment in time. Remember how you felt and what was going on around you. Now spend a few moments writing a description of that experience and how you felt. Do not worry about your spelling, punctuation, or grammar. Instead, simply commit your thoughts to paper.
Wednesday: Future Fantastic
Spend a few moments writing about your life in the future. Imagine that everything has gone really well. Be realistic, but imagine that you have worked hard and achieved all of your aims and ambitions. Imagine that you have become the person that you really want to be, and that your personal and professional life feels like a dream come true. All of this may not help you achieve your goals, but it will help you feel good and put a smile on your face.
Think about someone in your life who is very important to you. It might be your partner, a close friend, or a family member. Imagine that you have only one opportunity to tell this person how important they are to you. Write a short letter to this person, describing how much you care for them and the impact that they have had on your life.
Friday: Reviewing the Situation
Think back over the past seven days and make a note of three things that went really well for you. The events might be fairly trivial, such as finding a parking space, or more important, such as being offered a new job or opportunity. Jot down a sentence about why you think each event turned out so well.