Why Gratitude is the Key to Happiness and Abundance

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Happiness Project" by Gretchen Rubin. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why is it important to practice gratitude? What are some things you can do to cultivate gratitude and strengthen your appreciation for life, just as it is here and now?

Gratitude is a powerful way to combat negativity, relieve anxiety, and invite more happiness into your life. To cultivate gratitude, get into the habit of reminding yourself of the things you’re grateful for, contemplating death every now and then, and reframing negative experiences.

Here are three simple practices to help you cultivate gratitude and take your life a little less for granted.

The Power of Gratitude

Like most people, you may take your everyday life for granted, thinking that nothing can disturb your reality. Unfortunately, major life changes and catastrophes can happen to anyone, at any time. It’s often only in reflecting from the new perspective that catastrophe grants you that you realize just how good your life is, just as it is now. In this article, we’ll discuss three simple ways to cultivate gratitude and become more attuned to the good fortunes in your life.

1) Examine Reminders of Life’s Fragility

Perhaps paradoxically, thinking about death and catastrophe can help you cultivate gratitude, as it adjusts your perspective and helps you realize how good your life is now, just as it is. This practice helps you deal with life’s difficulties in both small and large ways. 

  • First, you more easily gloss over the minor setbacks and irritations of everyday life when you recognize your fortune in them. For example, instead of thinking, “My kids have way too much energy today,” you might think, “I’m grateful that my kids are healthy enough to run around the house.”
  • Second, when you inevitably encounter catastrophe or loss you’ll have a greater mental strength to move forward and take key lessons from the experience. 

There are many ways to examine loss and catastrophe—Rubin found that reading memoirs of those who had experienced terminal illnesses, devastating injuries, addictions, and death worked for her. In reading these memoirs, she found a renewed gratitude for her everyday life, as well as an appreciation of its fragility. 

Your contemplation of life’s fragility might not take the same form as Rubin’s. For example, if you’ve experienced a life-threatening illness, you probably won’t want to read accounts of others who have been through the same experience. For this reason, it’s important to do some exploring to figure out what helps you contemplate the process of life and death in your own way. For example, you might go hiking in different seasons to contemplate the cycle of life and death; watch documentaries that show the brutality of nature; study religious accounts of life and death; read obituaries; visit graveyards; and so on. 

Adopting this practice comes with a few key lessons that will help you make the most of your life just as it is. 

  • First, you’ll learn the importance of simply being present. Take some time to reflect on present moments and realize what you might be taking for granted. 
    • One way to accomplish this is to try journaling. If you can’t commit to a full journal entry each day, try a one-line journal in which you write down the small things you’re likely to forget, such as a funny habit your child picked up or a nice chat with your mom. Years fly by in the blink of an eye—noting small, joyful moments of the present is a great way to capture and reflect on the “goodness” of your life before it passes by.
  • Second, it serves as a reminder to get your affairs in order. This can feel like a morbid and sad task. However, there are a few ways to find happiness in the experience. 
  • Think of the type of “happiness” you’re creating for your loved ones who won’t have to deal with your logistics in a time of immense stress. 
  • Choose a day of the year to go over your affairs with your loved ones and frame it as a reflection on “family responsibility.” Use this day to recognize and celebrate that you and your loved ones are still here with you. 

2) Keeping a Gratitude Log 

Another way to cultivate gratitude is to keep a gratitude log. Your log can take any form that feels right to you—a journal, a blog, or a short video each day. Consistently working on your gratitude is an important contributor to happiness for a number of reasons.

  • Recognizing the good in your life gives you a higher level of life satisfaction. 
  • It makes you less envious of others because you’re focused on what you do have instead of envying what others have. Additionally, being less envious means you live within your means, which allows you to be more generous toward others. 
  • It makes you more forgiving. When you’re grateful for someone, it’s more difficult to feel angry or resentful toward them. 
  • It improves your connection to nature, which is often taken for granted but snaps into focus when you’re consciously working on appreciating its place in your life. 
Gratitude Log Creation and Maintenance 

Start out with the basic process of listing three things each day that you’re grateful for. While making these lists, be sure you’re paying attention to the small, basic things you’re taking for granted or problems that you don’t think about because you don’t have them. For example, you might express gratitude for running water, healthy children, not living in a war zone, never having to do high school over again, and so on. 

As you get further into this practice you’ll likely find that you need to adjust your methods to fit your preferences. 

  • You may find that logging your gratitude less frequently—a few times a week, for example—instead of every day keeps the task from becoming a meaningless burden.
  • You may give up your physical log and instead dedicate a specific moment of your day to gratitude reflection—such as while you’re lying in bed, during your morning commute, or over your morning cup of coffee. 

3) Reframing

At times, you may need to force yourself into a moment of gratitude. When you’re feeling annoyed or overwhelmed by a task, stop yourself and search for a way to express gratitude for the experience. For example, if you’re thinking, “I’m tired and don’t want to cook dinner for the kids tonight,” you might try, “I’m grateful that I have enough food in the house to pull together a meal.”

3 Simple Yet Powerful Ways to Cultivate Gratitude

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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