Cultivating personal happiness. This may sound like a rather selfish pursuit, but I believe it is essential to living life a good life and to being the sort of person who is able to have a positive impact on family, friends, community and the larger world. We know that we can’t fill a pitcher from an empty well and by the same token we can’t foster happiness in our families and communities if we are not happy ourselves. Happiness is contagious. It has been said that the greatest gift we can give our children is the gift of our own happiness. I would like to take that one step further and say that our own happiness is the greatest gift we can give to the world. Furthermore, happiness helps to offset much of the negativity and stress found in life. Recognizing happiness in our life and learning what brings us joy is vital to being satisfied and content. A joyful life is more fulfilling and allows us to be more resilient to the stressful aspects of life.
What makes us happy? Contrary to what some might think, research has shown that affluence does not increase happiness. Money is not the answer. But there is one simple thing that is guaranteed to increase happiness. Gratitude. A simple word, a profound concept whose practice has the potential to change your life.
In 2005, inspired by the book Simple Abundance by Sarah Ban Breathnach, I began keeping a gratitude journal. Each morning I sit quietly and reflect upon the previous day and write down five things for which I am grateful. It is a lovely start to the day – reflective, appreciative, focused on the positive. The daily reminder that my life is good and that I do have much for which to be grateful is important to me and has changed the way I think. Looking for the good and the positive has changed from a daily practice into an ingrained way of thinking. Always mindful of those ordinary miracles to include in my journal, I find myself more aware, more present, more willing to find the good and the positive. A change in the way we think can change our life. The practice of writing my daily gratitudes has made me a more positive person. I still have the occasional bad day, get into a funk, and have my share of troubles and worries. The practice of keeping a gratitude journal and cultivating a spirit of gratefulness helps me cope and helps me keep things in perspective.
The University of California’s Greater Good Science Center reports on research that finds that people who practice gratitude consistently report: “a stronger immune system and lower blood pressure, high levels of positive emotions, more joy, optimism and happiness, acting with more compassion and generosity and feeling less lonely and isolated.”
I now have 10 completed journals and am about to use up the last pages in my 11th journal. At five per day that’s about 23,725 things for which I have been grateful! Sometimes I look through my journals and find that certain themes emerge. I am consistently grateful for family, friends, health, the beauty of the natural world, opportunities for personal growth and learning but I am also grateful for the smell of a fresh box of crayons, the sound of birds wings moving through still air, the farmers who grow the carrots I eat, the laughter of my grandchildren, the creative spirit, comfortable shoes, good books, clocks, healthy teeth, paper, fresh coffee in the early morning, vacuum cleaners, driftwood, forgiveness, laughter, the smell of fresh mown grass, raspberries… At certain times of the year, I write a gratitude for the lives and memories of my loved ones whose earthly time has passed.
The practice of keeping a daily gratitude journal has changed my life. I encourage you to try it for yourself. You may find yourself a happier person for the effort. I did.
• Annette Coyle is a member of the Juneau Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.