This article is an excerpt by David Leonhardt from 101 Great Ways to Improve Your Life.
Do I believe there is a secret to happiness? I’ll bet you expect me to say “NO, there is just no simple secret.” While it is true that there are many factors that affect our happiness, I believe there is one secret that determines whether those factors will work for you, and that is the secret to happiness.
But first, allow me to share a some history. In 2001, I published the first edition of Climb Your Stairway to Heaven: the 9 habits of maximum happiness. I did all the things authors do, right up to getting myself some media interviews. Being an old hand at media relations (actually, Canada’s send-most-quoted consumer advocate at the time), you would think I would have been superbly prepared for the question that almost every journalist would ask me:
“So, which of the 9 habits is most important?”
What?! Which one is most important? Why, they are all important, of course. That’s why I wrote about them all. I was obviously too close to the forest to see the trees. Or, in this case, the tree.
After being asked this question a few times, I was forced to think, and think hard. And out of nowhere, I had an “Aha!” moment that stands the test of time five years later.
One of the 9 habits I wrote about is more important than the others. One of my 9 habits activates all the others. One of my habits is the secret to happiness. It starts on page 83 of the second edition.
“Count Your Blessings”
It sounds so simple, and so, well, almost corny. But let me give you a concrete example of how this works.
“Count Your Blessings” for Happiness
Have you ever bought a new car? Remember the pride you felt and the excitement when you made the choice? When you signed the papers? When you drove it off the lot? Do you remember that “new car smell”?
Then something happened. Where is that pride today? Where is that excitement now? What happened to that “new car smell”?
Simple. You stopped counting your blessings. When you bought the car, it was a step up. Perhaps it was a better car. Or a bigger car. Or simply a car that would spend less days on the hoist. You were grateful. You were appreciative. You were counting this blessing.
It does not take long for a new blessing to be taken for granted. And the new car becomes just another thing in your life that you take for granted. Consider this incredible set of statistics:
- 99% of people in the developed world take shelter for granted.
- 99% of people in the developed world take breakfast for granted.
- 99% of people in the developed world take lunch for granted.
- 99% of people in the developed world take dinner for granted.
- 99% of people in the developed world take clothing for granted.
At the risk of sounding trite or glib, most people in the developed world take cars, televisions, computers, vacations, toasters, freedom of speech, paper clips and thousands of other conveniences for granted. In fact, a TV remote control that requires a battery change or a web page that takes more than five seconds to load are considered serious irritations.
Who is happier, the person grateful to be able to change those batteries and wait for that web page? Or the person grumbling about the time it takes and the inconvenience and the bother and why can’t things work better? (Why don’t they make things like they used to? Why does the lineup have to be so long? Why is it so cold outside? Why do I have to go to work today?)
Of course you have every right to complain any time you choose. Nobody wants to take away your right to be unhappy. But I would love to take away your unhappiness, if you are willing to take action.
Math is not everybody’s strong suit
This is where “counting your blessings”, simple and even corny, is not as easy as it sounds. Our knee-jerk reaction is to complain, to grumble, to be frustrated, to feel almost offended when things don’t work out “perfectly”, just the way we want them to. Imagine poor God, sifting through the millions of prayers he receives daily. Despite the cornucopia of blessings we receive, I am willing to bet that he receives ten times more “Gimmee” prayers than “Thank you” prayers.
Counting our blessings in this day and age of entitlement is not as simple as it sounds, and it sure is not easy to do. In fact, billions of dollars of advertising conspire to reinforce the belief that whatever we have is not good enough and that we deserve better. Who is there to tell us we have enough? Who can help us feel happy with what we have?
You. Only you. Are you ready to give up your own natural knee-jerk reaction and choose to be happy?
You can have all the confidence in the world, but if you do not actively feel grateful for the fruits of your confidence, it will not bring you happiness. You can have immaculate health, but if you do not think about how wonderful that is, it will not bring you happiness. You can smile, build friendships, achieve success, win the lottery, or do whatever you desire, but if you are not saying every day, “Wow! This is wonderful. This is grand. I am the luckiest man (or woman) alive because of this,” don’t expect it to bring you happiness.
Yes, there is a secret to happiness. The secret is gratitude. The secret is appreciation. Or, as I call it in Climb Your Stairway to Heaven: the 9 habits of maximum happiness, the secret is to count your blessings.