Most of my life has been geared toward attaining happiness through achievement and accumulation—grades, degrees, jobs, money, cars, the best schools, nice clothes, a big house. I’ve tried finding happiness in all of those things. And it hasn’t really worked. Sure, there are fleeting moments of joy that come from such attainments, but nothing that is deep or lasting or truly meaningful.
Things changed for me recently.
Several weeks ago, I watched a WellCast video that changed my outlook and gave me some clarity on finding happiness. It’s nothing earth-shattering. In fact, it’s really simple and straightforward, and perhaps that’s why I have found it so inspiring.
Being happy is all about being GRATEFUL. It turns out that expressing gratitude is scientifically proven to make us happier. As humans we tend to stabilize at one level of happiness. It’s a concept known as the hedonic treadmill, the observed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes. Some things may cause your happiness to spike—like winning a fantasy football game or a phone call from your mother-in-law—but generally speaking, your level of happiness stays constant whether you are on the golf course or at the dentist.
Why? Because we take things that make us happy for granted and, consequently, they stop boosting our spirits. The cure? Not just being grateful, but actively expressing our gratitude. By practicing gratitude and constantly reflecting on what we are grateful for and why, we stop ignoring what makes us happy.
This was such a simple revelation with tremendous implications for me, my family, and for the students and parents at our school.
Each year on the first day of school, the entire school gathers together and I give the students the theme for the year. The theme is often a character trait we want the students to practice and reflect on over the course of the year. Our theme for this year?… You guessed it—gratitude. I showed the students and faculty the WellCast video and then talked to them about being happy and showing gratitude as a path to happiness.
Almost immediately I could tell that the theme of gratitude resonated with the community. There were lots of nodding heads in the audience, but it wasn’t until small sticky notes started popping up around the school on random students’ lockers, teachers’ desks, administrators’ computers—all expressing gratitude for those people—that I understood how much they internalized the message, and how much they were enjoying expressing their gratitude. It wasn’t just sticky notes. Teachers immediately incorporated the theme of gratitude into their writing assignments and student journaling. I heard more “thank you’s” directed towards the students, teachers, dining staff, and maintenance crew. A number teachers expressed gratitude to me personally for a variety of reasons—both large and small. And I to them. And so on it went.
The building seemed happier to me than at any point in my three plus years as Head. For that I am truly grateful. But expressing gratitude has had a major impact on me personally. After all, I have to practice what I preach.
So I began telling my children how grateful I am for them. I told my son how grateful I was to have a son who put so much time, effort, and thought into his school work. I told my daughter how grateful I was for her incredible creativity and artistic ability and how much joy that brought to us as her parents. And that I was grateful that both of my children have shown themselves to be good and supportive friends to their classmates. I’m sure my wife is wondering when all of this gratitude is going to make its way to her. (Be patient, wife, I’m trying and I’ll get there! But that’s a whole other blog.)
But it didn’t just apply to my family or my school in Buffalo. I started expressing gratitude to my friends, especially my long-term friends who have been with me through many different stages of my life. I let them know how I appreciated their constant support, friendship, and help throughout the years. Most of them thought I was dying of some horrible disease until I told them I was just feeling grateful. And of course they took the opportunity to express their gratitude back. I’m sure they still think I’m a few sandwiches short of a picnic, but I’m good with that. It made me happier, and I hope it made them happier too.
Three weeks ago, I attended a reunion of students at a school in Maryland where I once worked. It was so much fun and so gratifying to see so many of the young adolescent boys whom I taught and coached doing so well as young adults. I made a point to tell those students how much I loved them and appreciated our time together and what a special part of my life they had occupied. Was it weird for them? Probably. But it sure felt great doing it. And it gave me energy and made me happy—and I’m still riding that high as I write this. And you know what? Most of those former students echoed the same feelings back at me. I expressed my gratitude and without expecting anything in return, they seized an opportunity to express gratitude back. It was powerful. And it made me happier.
Listen, I know life is much more complicated than simply saying “thank you” all the time, but I can’t help but think that if more of us took the time to practice gratitude and to receive the gratitude of others that there would be less bullying in schools, fewer workplace spats, and hopefully fewer tragic incidents like the ones that have occurred recently in Las Vegas, New York City, and Texas. Is that an oversimplification? A pipe dream? Ridiculous? Maybe.
For now I’ll focus on my own little universe. My challenge is to sustain all these good vibes floating around my existence. To avoid being a hamster on my own hedonic treadmill. But I feel like I’m aware and I’ve made a start and right now, I’m grateful for that.