Life Is Good

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I felt several flashes of gratitude today, and it wasn’t even Thanksgiving or Ben & Jerry’s free cone day. First my husband, Dave, got me iced coffee without my asking. Then my 8-year-old presented me with a handmade Rainbow Loom bracelet. And my new comforter felt amazingly soft and luxe when I fell into bed at night. Ahh

As I grow older, I’m getting more appreciative of the people and creature comforts that make me feel loved and contented. One study estimated that for every 10 years of life, gratitude increases by 5 percent. And that, the research suggests, is beneficial to our bodies and minds: People who are regularly grateful—who acknowledge the goodness in life and the sources of it—are generally healthier and happier. And their husbands like them more! OK, I made that up, but I’ll bet it’s true.

“When people are grateful, they feel more alert and alive,” says Robert Emmons, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, and author of Gratitude Works! “The expression of gratitude is important, too—it strengthens relationships.”

Perhaps like me, though, you find your bursts of thankfulness to be just that: fleeting thoughts that quickly dissolve in the chaos of the day. Between our busy lives and the bigger stressors we’ve been facing (hello, unemployment and government shutdowns), it’s no wonder our country suffers from Gratitude Deficit Disorder, as Emmons calls it. Still, this is one problem that’s very curable.

Feel the love

Don’t worry if you’re a cynical grump: “Gratitude is the most changeable character strength because it’s about mindfulness—something anyone can do,” says Giacomo Bono, PhD, adjunct professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills. Studies show that while genetics account for half our happiness level, the other half is under our everyday control. “The benefits can be almost immediate,” Emmons promises me.

There can be long-term health payoffs, too: lower blood pressure, a stronger immune system, better sleep and fewer bouts of depression. This is mainly because appreciating life buffers stress, experts believe, so we’re less likely to fall prey to its perils. After hearing all this, I’m raring to give the pros’ be-thankful tactics a go. What I learn:

Post it!

At Emmons’ suggestion, I put up sticky notes around the house about what I’m happy for: little things (“That plumber was awesome to come over last night to fix the leak”); big things (“12 years of marriage and we’re still going strong”); little-big things (“The kids’ freckles are so cute”). It feels kind of dippy writing notes to myself, but it is nice to come upon them.

Care deeply for stuff

You get the most bliss from feeling gratitude for people rather than things, Emmons tells me. That said, whether it’s your new TV or the Kate Spade dress you bought on sale, consider how objects add value to your life. Easy: The dress makes me feel slimmer and so confident. Danke schön, Kate!

Record your appreciation

Psychologists pretty universally recommend keeping a gratitude journal (research shows that people who do so routinely are up to 25 percent happier than those who don’t), whether it’s in a notebook once a month or on your iPhone every morning. So I try twice a week to type out, in a Word document, my life’s assets: my husband, my kids, our babysitter, our lovingly renovated 1912 colonial. When I do so, and reread what I’ve journaled, it’s impossible not to think, I am a lucky woman.

Forget your blessings

The challenge, of course, is keeping good feelings going when life isn’t so great. Enter the Bailey Effect, named after the character in It’s a Wonderful Life who sees what the world would have been like had he never been born. This strategy works well for me. One day, I’m stuck on a train en route to work. When I consider how hard my life would be without a train—a reality after Hurricane Sandy—my commute starts to suck a whole lot less.

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