What is the secret to happiness? This elusive emotion is something we consistently chase, but is it a goal we should set in the first place?
"When people ask about the secret of happiness and you tell them, Well, take more time in your social relationships, worry less about things and more about experiences, they kind of nod and look at you and say, But what about the secret? Because the secret of happiness is like the secret of dieting; there's no secret," Harvard professor of psychology Dan Gilbert explained on NPR's TED Radio Hour.
Okay, so there may be no secret, but there is a simple daily ritual you can do that's scientifically proven to bring more joy into your life: A gratitude list. In the same way that a vision board may help you achieve your goals, positive psychology research outlined in Harvard Health Publications shows that "gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness." This simple act helps people not only feel more positive, but also improves their health, helps them handle adversity, and helps them build strong relationships.
But what does it take to be truly grateful? Brother David Steindl-Rast, a monk and interfaith scholar, says it all comes down to a very simple formula: Stop. Look. Go. "That's all," he said on the TED stage. "But how often do we stop? We rush through life. We don't stop. We miss the opportunity because we don't stop. We have to stop, we have to get quiet, and we have to build stop signs into our lives."
One stop sign you can start building into your life is a gratitude list. Ahead, we share a few simple steps for getting started on yours today.
Invest in a Journal
The first step toward making your gratitude list a daily habit is to invest in a journal. It doesn't have to be fancy or expensive—it just has to be yours. Make it personal. You will invest more of your time and energy into something when you feel a connection to it. Remember when you collaged the covers of your textbooks with your favorite pictures in high school? It made studying just that little bit easier.
Find the right notepad or book that compels you to use it every day, and then keep it somewhere you typically frequent.
Lay your journal on your nightstand so you'll see it before you go to sleep or when you wake up each morning, and remember to jot down what you are thankful for.
Set a Realistic Goal
The first rule of writing a gratitude list is that there are no rules. Don't stress if you don't know what to write or where to start. Be realistic about how many things you're thankful for, too. You don't need to jot down an exhaustive list—just start with five things. Sometimes you'll approach your gratitude list feeling downright gloomy, and the idea of being thankful will seem like an impossible task. When this happens, start by being thankful for the fact you're even making time to be grateful; you're trying, and that's the main thing.
Make It Simple
Not all of us see the world with a silver lining, but a gratitude list will help you become more of a glass-half-full person, we promise. Do a quick Google search or look up the hashtag on Instagram for examples of what other people are writing on their gratitude lists to kick-start your own. Just keep it simple. Below are a few things to get you going:
"I have a place to sleep."
"I ate today."
"I have a good heart."
"I drink clean water."
"I strive to be better."
"I wish others well."
"I am a good person."
"I have nice clothes."
"I am breathing."
"Someone cares for me."
Write It by Hand
Despite relying on technology for much of your work and personal life, keep things old school with your daily gratitude journal. This means grabbing a pen or pencil and writing things down by hand, on paper. There's something about the kinetic process of noting it in scripture that makes you approach your list with thoughtfulness and awareness. When you feel each and every word being written down on paper, it connects you to that sentiment. Try it and see.
Turn It Into Routine
By now you're likely familiar with the benefits of implementing a morning or nighttime routine. Not only does it enhance your productivity, but it also encourages a healthier lifestyle. (Set the stage for success with a five-minute morning routine.) Try adding writing in your gratitude journal to either your morning or night routine. If your schedule is crazy, then set an alarm in your calendar so you don't forget. After a while, it will become habitual, and you'll look forward to it every day.
Break the Rules
Just because we encourage you to write it down by hand doesn't mean you have to. A gratitude list should be something you want to do, not a chore, so feel free to break all our rules outlined here and set your own schedule and style. Oprah Winfrey explained it best in her book, What I Know for Sure. After writing and advocating for the power and pleasure of being grateful, her busy schedule took over, and soon her ritual of writing down five things she was grateful for every day started "slipping away."
While she didn't stop the practice, she did switch her approach. "I'm back to journaling—electronically—and whenever there's a grateful moment, I note it," she wrote on Oprah.com. "I know for sure that appreciating whatever shows up for you in life changes your personal vibration. You radiate and generate more goodness for yourself when you're aware of all you have and not focusing on your have-nots."
If this sounds like you and you too have a hard time writing it down on paper, then keep it on your phone instead. Set up a page in your notes app and jot down any moment you feel happy and thankful. Then, whenever you're having a challenging day, you can just go back to your phone, scan the list, and smile.