It had been a wonderful day. Now he was going for his usual 4-mile walk.
What made today special was his grown children had come home. They hadn’t all been together in six months. And there was even a new member of the family: his first grandchild. Three months old and adorable.
He mused about how wonderful it all was…
And that’s when the car hit him.
He was thrown 14 feet and landed in a ditch. He was going in and out of consciousness. Wiping a handful of blood from his eyes, he looked down to see his lap was… well, not where it should be. His hips shattered. His body corkscrewed into an entirely unnatural position.
His right leg was broken in nine places. The orthopedic surgeon would later describe the bone in his calf as “so many marbles in a sock.” His right knee had sustained a “comminuted intra-articular tibial fracture” — which is how medical science says, “nearly split in two.” Four broken ribs. The gash in his head would later take thirty stitches to close.
His body was like something out of a horror novel. Then again, he would know. Because on June 19, 1999, this was what happened to Stephen King.
And yet, years later, when asked what he was thinking at the time, he replied with just one word: “Gratitude.” He later would tell the New York Times:
I have a lot of pain, but there’s so much that doesn’t hurt, that I’m capable of. To be able to walk around … I’m grateful for everything that I have, and I try to stay as grateful as I can…
Defying the odds, he not only lived — not only managed to walk again – but he made a full recovery.
King’s accident, and his subsequent reaction to it, raises a very serious question for all of us: Why does it take a horrible tragedy for us to appreciate all that we’re so lucky to have?
Well, the answer is that you have a mental problem. Don’t worry; we all have it. Studies have repeatedly shown that we have a happiness “set point.” Good stuff makes us briefly happy, bad stuff makes us briefly sad — but we almost inevitably return to that set point.
It’s not much of a stretch to say nature doesn’t want you to be happy all the time. If you spent every moment feeling satisfied, you might be less motivated. If the treadmill’s not on, you don’t run. We always adapt to the positives in life and want more. This makes sense at the survival-of-the-fittest level, but it’s a bit disheartening from the I-wanna-have-a-happy-life level. We take things for granted. And we can quickly price ourselves out of the happiness market if we’re not careful.
So we’re doomed? Nope.
By deliberately practicing gratitude, research shows we can actually overcome our set point. Just like routinely lifting weights makes you stronger than you would be otherwise, taking the time to count your blessings can keep you smiling more than your genetics might dictate.
And it’s no little boost. A ten-week study where people noted what they were grateful for made them 25% happier than a group who regularly listed the things that annoyed them. And the benefits didn’t stop there. They were also more optimistic, fell ill less often and even ended up exercising more frequently.
Meanwhile, being ungrateful has been tied to anxiety, depression, envy, materialism, loneliness and writing angry emails to bloggers who try to help you. Depression in particular is inversely related to gratitude. Philip Watkins of Eastern Washington University found clinically depressed patients experienced 50% less gratefulness.
But despite endless articles about practicing gratitude, we often just don’t do it, at least not regularly…
Aaaaaand that’s why I’m here. Rather than just beating you over the head with why gratitude is important, let’s talk about how to do it right and make it a habit. To make it a regular part of our lives so we keep that happiness level above our set point.
We’re gonna get some help from Dr. Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at University of California, Davis, and one of the leading experts on gratitude. His book is “Thanks!: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier.”
Let’s get to it…
Every day write down three things you’re grateful for. You don’t need a special journal. (But if you want to get one and fancy it up with glitter and stickers, have at it.) Yes, you have to write those good things down. Merely thinking about them isn’t the same.
There. Done. Easy, right?
No, because we rarely stick with it. It can get a little stale after a while. So boring that you want to yawn your soul in half. In fact, this problem is so common that researchers have given it a name: “gratitude fatigue.”
And that’s why it’s critical to vary what you write about. Think about the positive things in different facets of your life. Don’t just mentally cut and paste the stuff from yesterday.
Whenever someone says they have nothing new to be grateful for, I have to patiently talk myself out of committing a violent crime. Put in some mental effort. Don’t be afraid to give your brain stretch marks. Pushing yourself a bit here is critical. Why? Because the searching is what matters. Keeping a gratitude journal is not about the journal. It’s about training your brain to notice the positive and remember it.
And research shows people who routinely do a gratitude exercise are more likely to see the positive in general, unconsciously, even when they don’t have a journal in front of them.
And doing the work better encodes those good things into memory. That means when it’s 3AM and the demons come, and you ask, “Is there anything good in my life?” you’re more likely to come up with a positive answer that lets you get back to sleep.
(To learn more about how to improve your relationships, check out my new bestselling book here.)
Make sense? Very positive, right? Good, let’s get negative.
We’re gonna take a very dark turn here, but one that leads to a brighter future…
The good news about your brain is that your memory is biased toward the positive. In studies where participants are asked to list memories, 90% of research participants mention more good ones than bad ones.
And now I want you to fight those positive instincts and deliberately think about your negative memories. No, I am not a sadist. Why would I want you to reflect on those horrible past moments of shredded despair? Those times of floor-to-ceiling inexcusable crumminess?
Because you got past them.
When life sticks one more pin in its voodoo doll of you, you swear, “If you just make this headache end, I swear I’ll never take ibuprofen for granted again. I will commit my life to Ibuprofen Awareness and lead a march on Washington to make ibuprofen available to all.”
Then the headache ends and you immediately take your non-throbbing skull for granted. Again.
Life can always be worse – and often it already has been. Don’t forget that. We rush to get past the pain, but that’s just doing your best Usain Bolt imitation on the hedonic treadmill, taking things for granted.
In his cheery travel guide, “Inferno”, Dante Alighieri wrote, “There is no greater sorrow than to recall in misery the time when we were happy.”
But there can be great upside to recall in happiness the times when you were miserable.
(To learn the 4 harsh truths that will make you a better person, click here.)
Despite all this, sticking to a gratitude journal can still be a challenge. The habit of being grateful can feel grating. How do we make that easy?
What’s the most common advice for sticking to an exercise program? Get a workout partner. And that’s effective. In one study, people were recruited for a weight loss program. Those who did it on their own had a 76% completion rate and 25% subsequently kept the weight off. But those who had a workout buddy achieved a 95% completion rate and 66% resisted a return of the chub.
Same thing applies for gratitude. Get yourself some positive peer pressure. While writing “I got a nice compliment on my shirt” day after day can feel like it’s going to drive you Caligula-level insane, texting the same thing to a supportive gratitude buddy feels good.
You can help one another think of new things to be grateful for. And their gratitude list will give you ideas. They can even challenge your ungrateful thoughts. It’ll bring the two of you closer and make you happier.
There are support groups for tons of very specific problems, but none for the big picture problem called “life.” So get a gratitude buddy.
Friends are the support group for life.
(To learn how to rewire your brain for happiness, click here.)
Like we discussed, writing in a gratitude journal is really just a gateway drug here. The real goal is to be a grateful person. So how do we get there?
You know who you talk to the most?
And you’re not always in good company. Sometimes I am forced to share my skull with the most unpleasant of companions. My Inner Critic has won gold medals at the Inner Critic Olympic Games at Seoul, Paris and Tokyo. Some people wish for a Ferrari; I wish for a mental off-switch.
The language you use influences how you think. Sounds unsurprising but we really don’t apply that obvious fact. The entire field of Cognitive Therapy is based on the idea that you can change how you think (and thereby how you feel) by changing how you talk to yourself.
We all have negative thoughts we repeat in our heads like some sort of deranged self-karaoke. Use what you’ve written in your gratitude journal to challenge your self-talk. Monitor that Inner Critic and criticize what they say.
“Things never work out for me.” Hold on, you just wrote last night about how well things worked out on that new money laundering scheme you came up with. Things do work out for you. Monitor and correct that inner monologue and you’ll feel better.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “We are what we think about all day long.” Don’t wanna be that? Correct your thoughts with lessons from your gratitude practice.
Inner Critic, meet our new hire: Inner Fact Checker.
(To learn the #1 ritual you need to do every day, click here.)
Alright, time to round it all up and learn one final, exceedingly simple way to train your brain to be grateful…
Here’s how to be more grateful:
A lot of us seem to live by the idea that once we get everything we want, we’ll be happy. I am here to tell you that you are not going to get everything you want. Nope. Never. Not gonna happen. Stop asking. Some of what you want is fantastically unrealistic, some of it is mutually exclusive with other stuff you want, and none of this matters anyway because if you did get everything you want your brain is wired to move the goalposts. That game is rigged.
Be happy now with what you have now. Be grateful.
That can be hard. In the 1980’s, researcher Shula Sommers found that a surprising number of people don’t like feeling grateful. Americans in particular ranked gratitude very low in desirability and constructiveness. Some felt it was unpleasant, even humiliating.
Gratitude means admitting that we are not self-sufficient, autonomous masters of our own fate. If we feel grateful, we are not totally responsible for our successes. And that’s true.
But we’re happier if we recognize that truth. It’s undeniable that so much in your life is due to others, or due to luck. Not just material things, but your positive feelings, opportunities, and accomplishments. At the very, very least, your childhood was almost entirely not the result of your individual effort.
We are always, forever interdependent. And there will be difficulties in life that are utterly beyond your control, not the least of which are illness and health. And when those type of challenges arise, self-reliance fails. So what perspective should we take?
G.K. Chesterton said, “All goods look better when they look like gifts.”
The good things in your life did not have to happen. No matter how competent and skilled you are, bad luck could have reared its ugly mug. And all too often, other people played a part in your successes that you aren’t giving enough credit to.
When we see the good as a gift, we aren’t entitled and don’t take it for granted. This is what people mean when they say they feel “blessed.” The good did not have to happen and they are lucky it did. They recognize that so much of the good are things they didn’t necessarily deserve or earn. In theological terms, it’s called “grace.”
We spend so much time trying to feel better by thinking about how good or special we are. But that’s the path to narcissism. Gratitude and grace focus on the good and special things that others have done for us. It reminds us that the world is a positive place. That’s a much better way to feel good about your life.
Did Stephen King “deserve” to live? Was it due him? No. And he knew that. It was a gift. And twenty years after that accident he tweeted:
On June 19th, 1999 I got hit by a van while taking a walk. As I lay unconscious in the hospital, the docs debated amputating my right leg and decided it could stay, on a trial basis. I got better. Every day of the 20 years since has been a gift.
Your life is a gift. And you’d be better to think of all the good things in it as a gift. When we receive a gift, we don’t say, “Well, of course. I deserve this.” No, we don’t.
We say, “Thank you.”