It’s easy to always want more.
Western culture (especially in the USA) is inundated with media and advertising telling us that our lifestyle isn’t good enough and something new will make us happier.
It’s easy to believe money will be the solution to happiness:
- I’ll be happier when I can buy more.
- Making more money will make me happier.
- I’ll be happier when I’ve saved up enough to quit my job.
- I’ll be happier when I’m financially independent.
But what if that’s not really the case? For most people, these life changes don’t end up truly changing how happy they are.
In actuality, humans are really quite bad at predicting the things that will make them happy. Many times, life changes like those listed above may make you happier, but only for a short time.
Dan Gilbert, social psychologist and author of Stumbling on Happiness showed that people who recently became paraplegics are just as happy one year later as people who won the lottery. Once basic needs are met, we seem to have a natural steady baseline of happiness that most of us return to regardless of big life changes.
So, how do you adjust that baseline?
Practicing gratitude is just one method of doing so, but it’s a rather effective one.
What is gratitude?
You may be thinking that’s a dumb, simple question, but I bet it’s something you haven’t thought in depth about. Most people haven’t.
Most people think gratitude = thankful. And it is, sort of. But it’s also a little bit more than that.
Robert Emmons, one of the world’s leading experts on gratitude, suggests that it really has two parts:
- The first part is affirming goodness. You have to affirm that something is good in the world. You are recognizing something adds value to your life (and it doesn’t have to be monetary).
- The second part is that we must recognize this goodness is outside of ourselves. Gratitude requires acknowledging other people and the big (and small) gifts that they bring to our lives.
Why money won’t make you happy
Money can do many things – it can make you comfortable, provide stability, ensure you have food, shelter, clothing, utilities, etc. In the words of my grandmother:
“Money won’t make you happy, but a lack of money will make you unhappy.”
However, having lots of money doesn’t guarantee that you’ll have a more adoring partner or close-knit friendships. It can’t protect you from all illness and it won’t make you like yourself any better than you do right now.
More money doesn’t change the person in the mirror. Having more money doesn’t change your identity, it just changes the external circumstances in which you live.
True happiness is derived internally and money can only be external.
To change those internal beliefs, you have to change your thoughts.
How can gratitude make me happier?
Gratitude turns what we have into enough – author unknown
1. Gratitude strengthens relationships
There is a lot of research that says that strong relationships are a key element of a happy life. When we are appreciating other people, the things they do for us, and the good they bring to our lives, that will naturally foster stronger relationships.
In research studies on couples, people who could identify something kind their partner did and express how grateful they were for it felt more satisfied with their relationships and connected to their partners.
Gratitude is also important outside of our close relationships and within larger communities. It’s a form of “social glue“.
2. Gratitude has numerous benefits for well-being
There have been MANY scientific studies that have analyzed the benefits of gratitude for well-being. For just a short list, people who practice gratitude experience:
- stronger immune systems
- lower blood pressure
- higher levels of positive emotions
- more joy, optimism, and happiness
- more and better quality sleep
- less bothered by aches and pains
- act with more generosity and compassion
- and feel less lonely and isolated
3. Gratitude prevents hedonic adaptation
Hedonic adaptation is a psychological phenomenon where we are excited about new things for a little while, but then we ‘adapt’ and get used to them. We then need ‘newer’ and ‘better’ things to keep experiencing those positive emotions of newness and excitement.
It’s something that keeps us always striving for more and is a driving force behind lifestyle inflation. It takes your appreciation away from what you have now (whether that is your house, spouse, job, etc.).
Gratitude helps to combat hedonistic adaptation by creating positive feedback loops. The more gratitude you practice the easier it is to find it in the future. When you’re grateful for what is present in your life, you slow the need to reach for more.
4. Gratitude reduces materialism
Materialistic people are less happy than their peers, they experience more negative emotions (like fear and sadness), less positive emotions, and less meaning in their lives.
In materialism, the source of happiness is rooted in something new. Materialistic people are often unrealistic about the level of happiness that new object will bring them, and then they are disappointed when their high expectations aren’t met.
Gratitude is the opposite force in our minds though. Practicing gratitude helps us savor what is good and present right now and takes the focus away from what’s coming next.
How can I cultivate gratitude?
There are many ways you could go about this but here are a few ideas:
- Start keeping a gratitude journal. It can even be done in as little as five minutes a day using a journal like this one.
- Write a “gratitude letter” to someone who did something that you appreciated, but you’ve never properly thanked (Bonus gratitude and happiness if you actually deliver it).
- Spend your money on experiences rather than things.
- Identify one kind thing someone has done for you and say thank you for it at least once every day.
- Give it time. Gratitude is part skill and part personality trait. Both can be cultivated and honed, but that takes time. Many experts say that you should really give it at least a couple weeks of intentional practice before trying to see if you feel any different.
I’m not saying that money isn’t important, because I believe it is, obviously. But I want you to remember, it’s not the ONLY thing. If you blindly pursue the development of your financial life without nurturing who you are as a person along the way, you’re going to end up a wealthy Scrooge.
So, as you’re preparing to sit down this Thanksgiving, don’t just think of it as a chance to over-indulge on a large meal. Take it as a day to think deeply about the many things in your life that you have to be grateful for.
If you want to learn more about intentionality, check out my Busy Person’s Guide to Living a More Intentional Life. Practicing gratitude is just one of the steps along the way.