1: As a kid growing up, what were the best toys?
Someone else’s toys!
2: Who’s happier? Lottery winners or paraplegics?
Trick question. The answer is neither, according to the research of Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert. In his popular TED talk, Dan tells us that if it happened over three months ago, major life traumas have little impact on our happiness.
The answers to both of these questions are examples of what social scientists call “hedonic adaptation,” which describes our tendency as humans to return to a relatively stable level of happiness (high or low) following recent significant positive or negative events.
This concept applies in other ways as well. What brings more happiness, a significant new purchase or a trip to a new destination?
Experiences beat possessions. And it’s not even close, as the research of Cornell psychology professor Thomas Gilovich makes abundantly clear. Spending money on experiences “provide[s] more enduring happiness.” We get used to the new material possession. In time, it loses its luster. But experiences create new memories, which persist over time.
One action which the science shows combats hedonic adaptation and amplifies our happiness is to intentionally savor life by cultivating gratitude. Intentionally. Consciously.
“Groundbreaking research has shown that when people regularly cultivate gratitude, they experience a multitude of psychological, physical, interpersonal, and spiritual benefits. Gratitude has one of the strongest links to mental health and satisfaction with life of any personality trait—more so than even optimism, hope, or compassion,” Robert Emmons writes in Gratitude Works! Many of these effects are quantifiable. Consider these eye-popping statistics. Compared to people who don’t keep gratitude journals, those that do are 25% happier, sleep one-half hour one half-hour more per evening, and exercise 33% more each week.
To experience these benefits, we must put in a little work: “Because it is a virtue, gratitude, at least initially, requires mental discipline. Virtues do not come easily, and in some sense, we need them as they act as a counterpart to our natural tendencies,” Robert notes.
There are a number of evidence-based strategies we can put to work to benefit from the science of gratitude, including journaling, reflective thinking, letter writing, and gratitude visits.
Our theme this year at PCI is “grateful hearts” and we are kicking the year off with “100 Days of Gratitude” where I’m challenging each PCI associate to keep a gratitude journal for 100 Days. Options include: (1) writing down three things we are grateful for along with a sentence or two about why; or (2) writing five sentences about one thing we are grateful for; or (3) taking a photo each day of something we are grateful for and compiling the photos into a folder or album.
The idea is to freshly appreciate the people, opportunities, and blessings in our lives.
Regarding gratitude journaling, Robert has some suggestions:
1: “Use the language of gifts. Think of the benefits you received today as gifts. Relish and savor the gifts you have been given.”
2: “Be specific. Go for depth over breadth. Give details for each entry. The journal is more than just a list of stuff.” He also recommends including “some surprises”. What unexpected blessings did you benefit from today? What were you dreading that did not happen?”
Reflection: Do I typically spend money on possessions or experiences?
Action: Commit to keeping a gratitude journal for 100 days starting today.