We Tend To Remember Bad, More Than Good
Our brains are hardwired to remember bad things, rather than good things. It was much more important for primitive man to remember there was a bear living in a cave, than to remember there was also pretty flowers growing there.
Remembering negative experiences protects us from danger. And thus it is an evolutionary prerogative. Having the luxury to worry about being happy is a very modern concept. However as we don’t have to grow and kill all our own food, we have medicine and we have dealt with most of the dangers primitive man faced, we, as a species, have reached self actualization and happiness on the ‘to do’ list.
But what that means is, even if good and bad things happened to us in equal measure, we would still think more BAD things happened. Because those memories remain at the forefront and the better memories are quietly erased as irrelevant.
Choose To Remember Good Things
In order to really appreciate the true level of good in our lives, we have to make a conscious choice to do so. However since our brains don’t, and possibly, can’t do it on their own, we need to have some sort of system in place to help us.
If you are going to be happy, you have to appreciate the good things in our lives. And the easiest way to do that, is by showing gratitude.
I think gratitude is one of those things that some people roll their eyes at. It feels new age and a bit neon Christian. It makes us thinks of 20-something women in pastels with really popular instagrams. Well, that’s what it makes me think of.
However its actually a rather old, rather traditional, rather cultural ideal packaged up in a new wave of enthusiasm. Its the modern version of saying grace before meals, and prayers before bedtimes. It is something our grandparents and great grandparents were familiar with.
Most people will say it goes back to the bible, when Jesus gave thanks to God before meals. However it is much older than that. Many native tribes from all over the world gave thanks—usually to the spirits of the animals they killed—before eating. Gratitude, may be almost as old as language itself.
Gratitude Really Works
In my experience, and in the reported experiences of many women in their 20s with popular instagrams, gratitude works. This is also backed up by a few sociological studies, though I am not going to link to any of them here. There are lots of books you can read on happiness, if you want to know more about the science. Email me if you want recommendations.
Remember the important thing about showing gratitude is making you happy. Its about remembering all the good things and people that surround you every day, so you can really appreciate them.
In my experience, it takes a week or two of daily gratitude lists, before it really starts having a positive effect. At first I was making myself write three things I was grateful for each day, and trying not to repeat ones I had used before. I used an app on my phone called Zest for this. These days, I quickly open zest when I wake up in the morning and I usually write 8-10 things I am grateful for, not because I think I should, but because it feels so good to do it.
But What Should I Be Grateful For?
For the longest time, I had no idea how to be grateful. I didn’t know what to be grateful for. I was at a complete loss. I tried to be happy when good things happened, but they felt few and far between, which left me with few things to be grateful for on a day to day basis.
Then, one life changing day, a pastor at my church was talking about gratitude. Specifically, giving thanks to God. He said: “If everything you didn’t give thanks for today, would be gone forever tomorrow, what would you be grateful for?”
Suddenly, there were hundreds of things I was grateful for. Thousands. Suddenly, I could have spent all day doing nothing but reciting the things I am grateful for in an OCD panic that if I didn’t I would lose them forever.
Thankfully life doesn’t actually work like that, and even if you aren’t grateful for things, they tend to stick around. However it did teach me what to be grateful for. Everything I don’t want to lose.
Ways To Show Gratitude To Others
Say thank you. Literally tell people you are grateful for them. I used to feel silly telling people I really appreciated their efforts on my behalf. In fact, I think my pride stung when I had to do it. I felt like I should have been able to do everything alone.
However maybe you can do everything alone, that doesn’t mean you are. And as long as your gratitude is sincere and not over the top, most people will feel fantastic when you thank them.
Saying thank you doesn’t have to be a ten page letter. It doesn’t even have to be a one page letter. A few sentences are enough. You want to make someone happy, not take up an hour of their time.
‘Hey, I just wanted you to know I really appreciated you coming to bat for me yesterday. I’m so glad I have friends like you on my side. Let me know if I can ever return the favor. Jake.’
That’s all you need to say.
Ways To Track Gratitude For Yourself
Due to the popularity of gratitude in a whole range of circles, there are a lot of apps, specialized notebooks, and tools out there to help you track your gratitude. Just search gratitude tracker in the google play store on you phone and you will find a whole list to choose from.
If you prefer a more old-school approach, you could have a pretty notebook that you record 3-12 things you are grateful for every day. Some people like to write down good things that happen, along with things they are grateful for, and place them in a jar, so they can get them all out at the end of the year and read through them.
If you are religious, a daily prayer book would be a fantastic place to expand on your gratitude each day.
Where and how is up to you, there are literally thousands of options. Keep looking until you find one that suits your needs. You mind find you need an alarm on your phone to remind you every day, or maybe you want to leave your gratitude journal with your medication so you do both at the same time.
However I think if you commit to recording at least three things you are grateful for every single day for three weeks, you will start to notice a difference. Give it a try. What’s the worst that could happen?
Next week, we are going to be looking at interpersonal relationships. Unsurprisingly, studies repeatedly show that interpersonal relationships have the single greatest impact on our happiness. People with good interpersonal relationships and a strong community live longer, are happier and are generally better off.
So next week I want to look at how to strengthen current interpersonal relationships and forge new ones. I want to look at the barriers many of us face when it comes to socialization and building relationships and I want to give you all some ideas for how to improve yours.
Jake, In Summary
I got into gratitude about 18 months ago and it really transformed my life. I have two main ways of tracking gratitude. First I use the app ‘Zest’ on my phone. Second, every day I write two pages in my prayer book, most of which is giving thanks for the things I have.
I am still working on showing gratitude to the people around me. I like to think I remember to say thank you to people, but unsolicited praise is still something I have to think about. It doesn’t come automatically. However when I do give unsolicited praise and gratitude, I find it greatly strengthens my relationships with people, making both me, and them, feel better.
The most profound difference for me, particularly since I started writing the two pages in my prayer book every day, has been a huge decrease in stress levels. The more I am grateful for what I have, the more time I take REMINDING myself of all the good things I have, the less stressed I am.
It becomes a constant stream of good news. And things that would have made me angry or stressed don’t anymore. Like when my dog pees on the veranda. Something that used to put me in a bad mood all day. Now I am glad to have him and make more time to play with him and pet him, because I am always being reminded how wonderful it is to have him with me.
As someone who is instinctively always planning for the worse, I think showing conscious gratitude has had the single greatest positive impact on my happiness. So I hope you will give it a try.