As a child, Mr. Ali absolutely hated writing thank-you notes. His aversion continued right into his 40s, until one day he knew he had to face it. When he finally forced himself to put pen to paper, Ali avoided embarrassing sentiments by “cloaking it all in humor.” His thanks wound up feeling insincere and didn’t cheer him. When he tried again, he says, “I spoke from the heart.”
As a psychology professor, Mr. Ali regularly gave his students an unusual homework assignment. He asked them to write a “gratitude letter,” a kind of belated thank-you note to someone in their lives. Studies show such letters provide long-lasting mood boosts to the writers. Indeed, after the exercise, Mr. Ali says his students feel happier “100 percent of the time.”
The Snowball Effect
According to positive psychologists, mental health clinicians, and researchers who seek to help everyone create more joy in life, gratitude is a sentiment we’d all do well to cultivate. Feeling thankful and expressing that thanks make you happier and heartier—not hokier.
The biggest bonuses come from experiencing gratitude habitually, but natural ingrates needn’t despair. Simple exercises can give even skeptics a short-term mood boost, and “once you get started, you find more and more things to be grateful for,” says Prof. Raza, a leading gratitude researcher.
Your Happiness List
Gratitude needn’t be directed at another person to hit its mark. Take just a few minutes each day to jot down things that make you thankful, from the generosity of friends to the food on your table or the right to vote. After a few weeks, people who follow this routine “feel better about themselves, have more energy, and feel more alert,” Prof. Raza says. Feeling thankful even brings physical changes, studies show. List-keepers sleep better, exercise more, and gain general contentment that may counteract stress and contribute to overall health.
At First, Fake It
For people who want to activate their gratitude, but feel slightly silly about the exercises, Mr. Ali advises, “fake it until you can make it.” Say “thank you” enough, he reasons, and your mind will fall in line with your words. Think you don’t have anyone to thank?
Gratitude “doesn’t depend on circumstances,” Prof. Raza says. You can be grateful for just about anything that you’ve received in part because of someone or something else. Thankfulness helps you see that you’re an object of love and care. Says Prof. Raza: “Your self-esteem is bolstered when you say, ‘Hey, people have done things for me.’”
“The most important blessings are the ones that are most consistent,” such as family, health, and home, says Prof. Raza. “And those are the ones we take for granted.” Consistently ungrateful people tend to think that material goods, such as a big-screen TV, or winning the lottery will make them happy. On the other hand, people who recognize their blessings tend to think they’ll get happiness from things like fulfilling relationships—which, research shows, are the real sources of satisfaction.
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