Have you ever met someone who's in pursuit of happiness? Indeed, perhaps that person is you.
How happy does that person tend to be?
It's ironic but true that when someone is in pursuit of happiness, they tend to end up being pretty unhappy.
Well, the thing about pursuing happiness (or indeed anything) is that that pursuit tends to focus on what you don't have, the very thing you're pursuing, and reminds you that you haven't yet achieved it.
So if you're pursuing happiness and constantly being reminded that you haven't yet achieved happiness, well, you're not going to feel very happy about that, are you?
So, we can conclude that the key to happiness is not to focus solely on happiness. We need to come about it from a different angle. And that would lead us to think that whilst happiness may be the end goal, it cannot be the primary focus. It has to be a positive by-product.
Does that mean then that focusing on gratitude can lead to happiness? Can gratitude be the key to happiness? In order to conclude whether gratitude is (or is not) the key to happiness, it's important to consider the impact of practising gratitude.
The chemical impact of gratitude on your body
When you practise gratitude your body emits neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin and encourages your brain to release the hormone oxytocin.
How do these neurotransmitters and hormones affect your body and how are they related to happiness?
Well, dopamine is associated with pleasure and pleasure is an emotion that is closely linked with happiness. Serotonin is a mood-regulator which means our moods are balanced and we don't experience the ups and downs of mood-swings. Again, a balanced mood associated with contentment is also related to happiness. Finally, oxytocin induces feelings like trust and generosity which promotes social bonding, and a feeling of connectedness. As humans we naturally crave a sense of belonging, of being part of a community (no matter how small or large we prefer). The sense of belonging and connectedness brings with it satisfaction, contentment and happiness.
The impact of gratitude on your relationships
People who practise gratitude report feeling more positive about both themselves and those around them.
When you feel more positive in yourself, that positivity will naturally impact and benefit those around you, making you an easier person to be in a relationship with.
Also, when you feel more positive with those you are in a relationship with, be that a romantic or platonic relationship, you'll better enjoy being part of that relationship and the relationship, in turn again, will bring you greater satisfaction and happiness because, thanks to gratitude, you're no longer striving the change the other person or improve the relationship. Rather you appeciate, enjoy and find contentment, leading to greater happiness.
The impact of gratitude on your wants and desires
Similar to someone who is chasing happiness, when you always want or desire something, you're actually focused on not having that thing in your life already and trying to fill the perceived void. And once one void is filled another opens up because your attention is so much directed to what is lacking in your life.
Gratitude encourages you to be in the present moment, grateful for all you have in the present moment. It moves your focus away from lack and to the abundance you already have that you may have taken for granted.
When you move away from wanting, from focusing on lack to being grateful for all you have and focusing on your current abundance, you find greater peace, contentment and happiness in and with your life.
The impact of gratitude on your outlook
In a study performed by psychologists, Robert A. Emmons and Dr. Michael E. McCullough, participants were divided into 3 groups. One group was invited to write about things they were grateful for that had occurred during the week. The second group was invited to write about irritations or things that had displeased them each day. The third and final group were invited to write about events that had affected them and were encouraged to place no emphasis on them being either positive or negative, just simply write in a nuetral way.
Each group repeated their task over a period of 10 weeks.
The researchers found that those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Indeed, it was also discovered that this group, on the whole, exercised more during the time and visited a doctor less.
When you feel more optimistic and better about your life, you naturally feel happier.
The impact of gratitude on your health and wellbeing
"Your health's your wealth". That's a phrase that's often touted and, yes, it is true. Often people only realise how much health played a positive role in their life when they've lost it or fallen ill. Health is one of the many things we all-too-often take for granted. And, yet, without it, life can be a struggle. So when you're in good health, naturally it brings with it a sense of (often unconscious) peace and happiness.
If your health can play a role in your level of happiness, the impact of gratitude on your health must surely be important. So how does gratitude impact your health?
There are a number of studies that prove that gratitude positively impacts both your physical and mental health, from improving your sleep, mood and immunity, to decreasing depression, anxiety, and difficulties with chronic pain. It has also been found through various staudies that people who practice gratitude report fewer health complaints.
A growing number of studies are also finding that gratitude can have a positive impact on the physical health of your heart. One such study found that people feeling appreciation (an emotion related to gratitude) had improved heart rate variability, an indicator of good heart health.
Is gratitude the key to happiness? It certainly seems to lead to happiness. And anything that unlocks a door leading us to true happiness and contentment within our lives, certainly carries a special key.