Thanks and Giving: The Keys to a Happy Life

There's a reason this blog is called Maximum Gratitude Minimal Stuff.  I spend a lot of time writing about minimalism and decluttering, but it's the habit of giving thanks that changed my life and started me down a simpler path.

autumn leaves against a blue sky

I was taught from a young age to aspire to greatness.  

My parents thought me capable of straight A's and starring roles.  And I worked hard to meet those expectations.  Success gave me a measure of confidence, but it also made me a perfectionist who was secretly afraid to try new things.  And I was kind of a snob.

For most people, excellence, achievement, winning, and plenty of money and possessions are considered not just desirable, but the purpose of life.  Backseat roles and "getting by" are not what we wish for.  And with all the best intentions, our parents, teachers, and coaches want us to find our "passion" so we can distinguish ourselves in some way.

We pay lip service to the idea that "everyone matters," but we obviously treat some people (the wealthy and the successful) as more important than others.  And so we all want to be significant in some way.  If we don't get enough of that recognition in our day to day lives, we seek it online.  Somehow we need to do more, have more, be more to be happy.

But no matter how hard I strive, there's always someone who does more and has more than me.  Even Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk haven't stopped seeking money and influence, nor are they finished chasing their dreams.

The search for more might not make us happy.

I've said it before – our constant desire for more autonomy, knowledge, and comfort is what leads to discovery, invention, and innovation.  We all owe a debt to the strivers who came before us.  But that constant pressure to achieve can also make us anxious or depressed.  Our competitiveness can lead to jealousy and suspicion.  Our eternal search for more can make us very unhappy.

Anyone who thinks that money and success only reveal who you are, rather than changing your very heart, isn't paying attention.

Studies show that powerful, affluent people are more likely to break rules, lack empathy, and sacrifice intimate relationships.  Does this mean that everyone with financial means is evil?  Of course not – that would include most of us.  But it does mean that we should be aware of the potential negative influence of money and success.  It also means that those things are not always worth the effort we expend in acquiring more of them.

In fact, becoming conscious of how much we already have is the path to happiness.  The practice of gratitude actually changes your brain in multiple positive ways.

Gratitude is the game-changer.

Current research shows that gratitude increases serotonin levels, improving sleep, mood, and metabolism.  Even more interesting, an attitude of thankfulness stimulates the production of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that's activated when something good unexpectedly happens.  While acquiring a new pair of cute shoes can release a burst of pleasure, so can sitting down with a gratitude journal.

Unlike buying something new, a regular gratitude practice will lead to long-lasting satisfaction.  When you focus on what you're grateful for, you essentially crowd out your more negative thoughts.  And since the brain constantly looks for things that prove what you already believe (it's called confirmation bias), by regularly scanning your life for what is good, your mind will start finding even more good things for you to appreciate.

Most of us have a lot to be happy about, even if we don't think so.  And if we spend more time focusing on those good things – cultivating gratitude – we'll feel happier.  Gratefulness leads to happiness.  It's an essential part of a quality life.

In our culture, it seems acceptable to focus on our problems and woes.  It's acceptable to spend a lot of time criticizing ourselves and finding fault with others.  And just like gratitude, complaining and pessimism get easier with practice.  So developing appreciation takes a conscious effort to be different from the crowd.

This is why a gratitude journal can be so beneficial.  Actually writing down what you're grateful for forces you to slow down, be more mindful, and really pay attention to the goodness in your life.  And when bad things happen (as they do), that long record of blessings helps you create the resilience you need to take positive action and survive those hardships.

Yet another thing happens when you start to notice and give thanks for all you have.  You realize that you're living with abundance.  You feel rich.  And you discover that you have the means and the desire to be generous.

That's why thanks and giving go together.  One just naturally leads to the other.

Don't impoverish yourself by leaving thanksgiving to just one day a year.  Gratitude will bring contentment, satisfaction, and a hopeful view of the future like nothing else can.

It is not joy that makes us grateful,
it is gratitude that makes us joyful.

David Steindl-Rast

Updated June 2023


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