How Gratitude Makes You Happier

My girlfriend is generally better than I am at being in the moment and expressing gratitude for all the little things in life. Except maybe with pizza. Last Friday night, we sat across from each other in a warmly lit Denver restaurant, while in between giant bites of Detroit-style pizza, I repeated, “I. Fucking. Love. Pizza.”

I was able to sustain conversation throughout the meal, but mostly sat rapt with ecstasy, anything anyone near me said playing over a background track of my own voice repeating I Love Pizza in my head. Then I texted a photo of my plate to Jason, the only other person I know who shares my excitement for Detroit-style pizza.

According to the old saying, we should stop and smell the roses every once in a while, to pause and take in something good, and recognize it’s good. I’m trying to do more of that lately, and I don’t know if the 21st-century version of stopping and smelling the roses is profane proclamations of our love for a certain food and cell-phone photos sent instantly to friends three states away, but it seems like a good start to me.

A couple months ago, I interviewed James Campbell and Rachel Goldfarb for a story about how couples who live on the road together make it work. When I asked them if they had any secrets to getting along while living long-term in a tiny VW bus, Rachel said,

“We always end our day by asking each other, ‘What made you happiest today?’ Which has been a really great practice because then we’re always conscious of the things that bring us joy, and we try to do those things the most often.”

That’s a very simple thing: stopping once a day to ask the person next to you what made them happy, and in return telling them (and yourself) what made you happy. But most of us probably fail to do it. And once a day isn’t very often when you think about all the little miracles we really have in life (pizza, phones that play music, bicycles, people who will make us an Americano for a couple dollars, the ability to make a video phone call to someone halfway around the world).

So why don’t we do it? Plenty of us probably feel like we’re on a treadmill, running toward happiness, but never quite getting there. As actor and writer Jason Segel said in his interview with Marc Maron this summer:

“Where do you place your value? And what is going to address this itch that we keep trying to scratch that’s telling us we’re not there, that we’re not enough? If it’s success, you’ll never be successful enough, and if it’s money, you’ll never have enough money, and if it’s talent, you’ll never be adored enough. You have to find something else.”

Segel, who was talking about the theme of his movie The End of the Tour, is also scientifically correct.

There are several studies showing gratitude makes us happier, as well as more healthy: A couple 15-second reads here and here, for example, and a longer read here. They all seem to point to the same thing: if you’re not happy, it might be because you don’t realize you could be (and should be) happy.

A couple techniques (mentioned in the previous links) are to keep a “gratitude journal” in which you write down five things you’re grateful for over the span of a few weeks, or to write a “gratitude letter” to someone you haven’t thanked before, or to imagine your life without certain positive things, like meeting your husband, wife, or good friend.

Another one, which I’ve mentioned on this blog before, comes from the legendary Kurt Vonnegut, who said in a 2003 speech,

“I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’”

Or, if you’d like, “I Fucking Love Pizza.” Or whatever it is you’re grateful for.


More stories like this in my new book, Bears Don’t Care About Your Problems, out now.

13 replies on “How Gratitude Makes You Happier

  • Leah

    I always used to do “what was the best part of your day” over dinner, but I found that sometimes the best part of your day is after dinner, so I switched to right before bed. And even then, “getting into bed” is a totally acceptable answer for the best part of your day. I like the idea of “what made you happiest today” though, because even though it’s very similar I think it’s closer to what I’m actually going for.

    I think everyone should do this! 🙂

    (Oh, and when you’re on a trip/vacation/weekend/any day you’re not at work, you have to do Top 3)

  • Trevor

    Well said, and so important! Have you heard of the hedonic treadmill idea? Similar to what you were talking about. It is so easy to fall into the habit of just looking at what is next. The beauty of being grateful is that even just “searching” for gratitude guides one to be more in the moment. And, I agree 100% with you on pizza.

  • Velosopher

    Attention is like fertilizer: what we put our attention on, grows.

    Some people were born grateful, most of us have to earn it. Been getting back to meditation in the last six months after years away, and my gratitude is sneaking up and mugging me every day. A delicious energy bar; a unique company that makes unique bikes (I wrote their marketing manager a mash note and he was blown away).

    There are times in my life when consciously noting what I’m grateful for seems rote and loses its punch. I’m not sure, but I think the way I deal with that is to stop trying for a while. Eventually, it resurfaces. As a last resort, I go pet my dog. If that doesn’t work, I know I just have to batten down the hatches and ride out the storm til the sun peeks through again.

  • Heidemarie Weidner

    Thank you for a great post. Recently, I wrote a thank-you note to my doctor for handing out an email address to by pass the not-so-nice office staff; I make lists in my journal sometimes or out loud in the evening. What surprises me, however, is that you did not include the natural world. This evening, on my walk with my dog, I found 2 daisies and some Queen Anne’s Lace. Pretty amazing in late November.

  • Jason

    Honored. Stoked. And so damn “happy” for you that you’re a 10 minute drive from Blue Pan. Is there such a thing as vicarious joy?

  • Bob D

    I remember a solo camping trip I took last winter, and three things came to mind after it ended. I felt peaceful because the silence that the solitude of that trip gave me. I was content following a small meal and a brew near the trailhead. And I was grateful looking back over it hours down the road.

    Right on, brutha.

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