Between the Lines: Experts say don’t worry, be grateful

I got the mornin’ blues
Oh so bad
Honey come and kiss me
They’re the worst I’ve ever had
— Uncle Dave Macon
The blues come around
Every evening when the sun goes down
— Hank Williams
The founding mothers and fathers who came up with Thanksgiving Day surely did not have the great African-American tradition of the blues in mind.
But in the invention of this deeply American tradition, they inadvertently came up with what might be the best cure for melancholy.
Whether we get the blues in the morning or the evening, we all get them at some point.
Happily, this holiday weekend can offer a solution.
Gratitude, it turns out, provides not just an antidote to the blues; it is also one of the best routes to genuine happiness.
In recent years the psychology profession, after more than a century of focusing on various forms of unhappiness that range from mild depression to outright psychosis, has begun to focus on the question of what makes us happy.
“Philosophers, religious leaders, and contemporary scientists all agree that gratitude is a key to happiness,” writes Gretchen Rubin, author of the best-selling book “The Happiness Project.” “Studies show that consistently grateful people are happier and more satisfied with their lives.”
As the bible puts it in Proverbs, “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine.”
In the excellent book “The How of Happiness,” Sonja Lyubomirsky, a researcher at the University of California, Riverside, reports that while 60 percent of our happiness level is determined by genetics and circumstances, fully 40 percent of it is within our personal control.
Not surprisingly, she identifies gratitude as one of the most effective strategies for increasing personal happiness.
It works even if you just fake it till you make it. The act of smiling releases endorphins and on a cellular level makes us feel happier.
As Rubin puts it, “Act like you want to feel.”
Not a bad recipe for Thanksgiving, come to think of it.
It’s a day where we are virtually mandated not only to watch football and tolerate our annoying relatives. Along with the turkey, gratitude is a major element of the menu.
It sounds easy enough — after all, it’s just one day of constant gridiron gazing and giving Aunt Gertrude the benefit of the doubt — but is happiness truly achievable by effort, short of winning the lottery or making a million?
For starters, earning a million dollars or winning the lottery won’t do much. Above a certain comfort level, the research shows that money on average doesn’t make people happier.
Even victims of traumatic accidents — imagine a young person ending up in a wheelchair for life — usually return to their pre-accident levels of happiness in a couple of years.
The things we think will make us blissful or miserable turn out to be less consequential than our daily habits.
Happiest among those habits, for many people, is the practice of gratitude.
How to achieve a merry heart?
It’s not enough to say an occasional thank you. We need to cultivate the regular practice of gratitude.
If you are at all inclined toward a regular period of meditation or contemplation, try making gratitude a part of it. I’ve found that when the blues take hold of me, just listing five things for which I am grateful helps to lift the cloud.
Martin Seligman, Ph.D., the pioneering University of Pennsylvania happiness researcher, discovered that having depressed patients write down three things that went well each day boosted happiness levels as much as medication or psychotherapy, and that the effect was long-lasting.
Others have found that keeping a “gratitude journal” helps them be happier. Oddly, the research shows that if you write down things for which you are grateful every single day, over time it’s less effective than if you do it regularly but less often, such as one day a week.
Lyubomirsky reports on research that writing and sending a “gratitude letter” — to, for example, a coach, a teacher, or a friend — has a lasting effect on happiness.
Gretchen Rubin writes that while she’s not inclined to meditate, she uses the “threshold” practice of training herself to give thanks for a little something every time she crosses the threshold of her residence.
There is, after all, a happiness wisdom behind both our annual holiday of Thanksgiving and the daily habit of pausing before a meal to say grace.
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at http://MiddleburyVt.blogspot.com.

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