Are you content with your life?

Everybody is familiar with the feeling that things are not as they should be. That you’re not successful enough, your relationship is not satisfying enough, that you don’t have the things you crave. A chronic dissatisfaction makes you look outwards with envy and inwards with disappointment.

Pop culture advertising and social media makes this worse by reminding you that aiming for anything less than your dream job is failure and you need to have great experience constantly, be conventionally attractive, have a lot of friends, find your soulmate, and that others have all of these things and are truly happy.

And of course, a vast array of self improvement products implies that it’s all your fault for not working hard enough on yourself. In the last two decades, researches have been starting to investigate how we can counteract these impulses. The field of positive psychology emerged, the study of what makes life worth living. While cognitive behavioral therapy was developed to change negative feelings. Scientists began to ask why are some people happier and more satisfied than others and are there ways to apply what they’re doing right to the rest of us. In this episode, I want to talk about some of the strongest predictors of how happy people are, how easily they make friends and how good they are at dealing with hardships.

We all know about the term gratitude. While it may sound like a self-improvement trend preached by people who use hashtags, what we currently know is based on a body of scientific work and studies. I’ll include all the sources in the show notes of course. Gratitude can mean different things to different people in different contexts. It’s a character trait, a feeling, a behavior and many other things to different people. You can feel grateful towards someone who did something for you, for random events like the weather or even for nature and it’s wired directly into our biology. 

Gratitude most likely evolved as a biological signal that motivates animals to exchange things for their mutual benefit and can be found in the animal kingdom amongst many fishes, birds, mammals and especially primates. When your brain recognizes someone’s done something nice for you, it reacts with gratitude to motivate you to repay them. 

This gratitude makes you care about others and makes others care about you. This was important because as human brains got better at reading emotions, selfish individuals were identified and shunned. It became an evolutionary advantage to play well with others and build lasting relationships. For example, if you were hungry and someone else showed you where to find tasty berries, you felt gratitude towards them and a bond to return the favor in future. When you repaid them, they felt gratitude towards you.

This brought our ancestors closer together and forged bonds and friendships. So early forms of gratitude were biological mechanisms that modified your behavior towards cooperation which helped humans to dominate Earth. But over time, gratitude became more than just an impulse to play fair. 

Scientists found that gratitude stimulates the pathways in your brain, involved in feelings of reward, forming social bonds and interpreting other’s intentions. It also makes it easier to save and retrieve positive memories. Even more gratitude directly counteracts negative feelings and traits like envy and social comparison, narcissism, cynicism and materialism.

As a consequence, people who are grateful, no matter what for, tend to be happier and more satisfied. They have better relationships, an easier time making friends. They sleep better, tend to suffer from depression, addiction and burnout, and are better at dealing with traumatic events.

In a way, gratitude makes it less likely that you’ll fall into one of the psychological traps modern life has set for you. For example, gratitude measurably counters the tendency to forget and downplay positive events. If you work long and hard for something, actually getting it can feel daft and empty. You can find yourself emotionally back where you started and try to achieve the next biggest thing, looking for that satisfaction instead of being satisfied with yourself. 

Or imagine being lonely and wanting to have more friends. You actually might have someone or even multiple people who want to hang out, but you might feel that this is not enough, that you’re a loser and feel bad about yourself. So you might turn down their attempts to hang out and become more lonely. If you feel grateful for your relationships instead, you might accept invitations or even take the initiative. The more often you risk opening up, the higher the chance of solidifying relationships and meeting new people.

 In the best case, gratitude can trigger a feedback loop. Positive feelings lead to more prosocial behavior, which leads to more positive social experiences that cause more positive feelings. This is a common experience after serious hardship, like chemotherapy, for example. Life can feel amazing after a crisis is over. The smallest things can be bottomless sources of joy. From being able to taste to just sitting in the sun or chatting with a friend. Objectively, your life is the same, or maybe even slightly worse than before, but your brain compares your present experiences with the times when life was bad and reacts with gratitude. 

So in a nutshell, gratitude refocuses your attention towards the good things you have and the consequences of this shift are better feelings and more positive experiences. While it is great to know these things, is that actually a way for you to feel more of it? How to make your brain more grateful? 

The ability to experience more or less gratitude is not equally distributed. You have what’s known as trait gratitude that determines how much you are able to feel it. It depends on your genetics, personality and culture. This discovery made scientists wonder if they could design exercises that change or trait gratitude and lead to more happiness. Let’s start with an important caveat. It’s not yet entirely clear to what degree gratitude can be trained or how long the effects last. There are no magic pills for happiness. Life is complicated. On some days it feels like you’re in control of yourself and on others, you feel like you’re not. And this is OK. 

Also, sometimes pursuing happiness can make you more unhappy if you put too much pressure on yourself. Gratitude should also not be seen as a solution to depression or a substitute for professional help. It can only be a piece of the puzzle, it’s not the solution to the puzzle itself. The easiest gratitude exercise with the most solid research behind it is gratitude journaling. It means sitting down for a few minutes, one to three times a week and writing down five to 10 things you’re grateful for.

It might feel weird at first, so start simply. Can you feel grateful for a little thing like how great coffee is or that someone was kind to you? Can you appreciate something someone else did for you? Can you reflect on which things or people you would miss if they were gone and be grateful that they’re in your life? We’re all different, so you’ll know what works for you. And that’s it, ready? It feels almost insulting, like things shouldn’t be that simple.

But in numerous studies, the participants reported more happiness and a higher general life satisfaction after doing this practice for a few weeks. And even more, studies have found changes in brain activity some months after they ended. Practicing gratitude may be a real way to reprogram yourself. This research shows that your emotions are not fixed. In the end, how you experience life is a representation of what you believe about it. If you attack your core beliefs about yourself and your life, you can change your thoughts and feelings, which automatically changes your behavior.

It’s pretty mind blowing that something as simple as self reflection can hack the pathways in our brain to fight dissatisfaction. And if this is no reason to be more optimistic, what is? Being a human is hard, but it doesn’t need to be as hard. And if you actively look, you might find that your life is much better than you thought.

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