We all know that a major portal to happiness is to appreciate the good things in our lives. Whether we are marveling at the unconditional love our dogs give us, the feeling of pulling the blankets up to our necks on a cold winter’s night or the joy of reconnecting to an old friend, our ability to bask in life’s pleasures magically improves the quality of our lives.
I recently enjoyed a lecture by Dr. Rick Hanson, who wrote the best-selling book, Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm and Confidence. He discussed the evolutionary reasons we are programmed to focus on the negative rather than positive aspects of our lives. He then challenged us to overcome this inherent bias by significantly increasing our focus on what is good about our lives. I left Dr. Hanson's powerful lecture inspired to make total appreciation one of the cornerstones of my life.
I began this quest on my two hour ride home by being continually thankful for everything I was experiencing which included the beating of my heart, the music of Springsteen blasting from my car speakers and the fact that all I had to do to get my car to move forward was to press gently on the gas petal. I also created a mental list of the best things that have happened in my life and remembered each one in as much detail as I could muster. I wrapped up my trip by visualizing that I was sitting on the front porch of my beloved family cabin in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, gazing at the cedar stream meandering by and basking in the wonders of nature.
I have continued to totally appreciate every good thing in my life and have relished the increased happiness and joy it has brought me. I have found many new things to be grateful for that I had previously not paid enough attention to such as the sounds of the peeping frogs in a nearby pond as the evening sets in, the fact that my body is healing a small cut on my finger without any effort on my part and the beauty of the sun shining down on the Buddha statue in my front yard.
Ongoing appreciation does not negate the challenging or painful aspects of our l lives. However, it fills us with a sense of inner abundance that we can use to overcome the hurdles we face and lessons the sting of loss, disappointment and even trauma. In fact, our level of happiness at any given moment is largely determined by our ability to focus on the positive rather than negative aspects of our lives.
If you want to prove to yourself how much control you have over your happiness, spend a few minutes thinking about everything that is wrong with your life. Very likely, you will begin to feel a bit down. Now, switch your focus to what you are grateful for and your mood will immediately brighten. I sometimes do this in ten second intervals, watching my mood bounce up and down like a yo-yo.
I often ask my depressed clients to list five things that they appreciate. I enjoy seeing their spirits lighten as they ponder what they are grateful for and consequently develop a more positive perspective on their lives. I also encourage my clients to bathe themselves in gratitude in between our sessions like it is water cascading down over them from a waterfall.
Whenever I encounter people who appear to be very happy, I ask them what their secret is. They generally cite their appreciation for the fact that they woke up that morning and/or note that they have a lot to be thankful for which increases the quality of their lives. I wish everyone was able to be this grateful - the world would certainly be a happier place!
Many people are unable to be thankful for what they have because they mistakenly believe that they need something else in their lives to be happy such as finding the right partner, losing weight or making more money. However, happiness is not an elusive goal to be reached at some future point, but a wonderful gift we can give ourselves at any moment through our ongoing gratitude.
Over the course of my life, I have experimented with many different strategies to experience greater well-being and peace of mind. Although they have all been helpful, my new focus on total appreciation has enabled me to soar to new heights. I wish the same for you - the view is terrific from up here!
Nate Terrell, LCSW is the author of Achieving Self-Compassion: Giving Yourself the Gifts of Happiness and Inner Peace. He invites you to check our his website at www.achievingselfcompassion.com.