The Healthiest Habit of the Happiest People

There are some very chipper people in the world who just radiate joy. You know them when you meet them: they’re smiling, kind, and content. They’re sure of the goodness in their lives, and the goodness in you—even if you’re still a stranger. And they just don’t seem to see the gloom that simply must be around them.

Sometimes we see these people and envy them. How can anyone be so positive all the time? How can life feel so easy to them? Why can’t I feel like that?

We’ve all heard (and maybe told) the anti-sunshine-and-rainbows jokes. Because the fact is that, much of the time, life isn’t pretty. And that might make us think that viewing the world “with rose-colored glasses” is rarely the best idea.

But this tendency is, in fact, a very positive quality. Studies find that people who foster a positive outlook on life (in a realistic way, of course) are happier, more successful, and even healthier.

Gratitude as a Virtue

Anecdotally, every one of those joyful people I’ve met in life have one thing in common: thankfulness. Simple gratitude goes a long way, it seems, in building a happier, healthier mindset; a more meaningful spiritual life; and a more positive outlook with which to enjoy the good things in our world.

For me, gratitude is a habit. It’s the best habit, because it works on your heart in so many ways. Gratitude forces us to recognize the wonderful things around us. It encourages us to hold onto our respect for others, and to speak positively to them. It fosters a consistent, positive prayer life. It humbles us. And it inspires us to be better people.

Though not listed among the Cardinal or theological virtues by Catholicism, the concept of thankfulness has been top-of-mind for many of our saints, and it is all over Scripture. Christ Himself gave thanks to God many times, often during some of the most pre-eminent miracles and moments of the Gospels.

Gratitude is part and parcel of many of our cardinal virtues. It is woven into justice, in that it acknowledges and rewards the rightness and generosity of others; it is a part of prudence, in that it requires mindfulness, care, and wisdom in practice; it is supportive of temperance, in that it shows us how to be selfless; and it is rewarded by fortitude, in that a thankful person is often a courageous and strong person.

And what better way can we supplement our practice of the theological virtues—faith, hope, and charity—but by expressing gratefulness to God for those gifts, and to our neighbors for practicing them along with us?

The Wisdom of Giving Thanks

What makes thankfulness so important to us, as humans? We are responsible for so much in life, and yet so little. We are gifted with so much in life, and yet deserve so little of it. The least we must do is acknowledge this generosity and show our thanks for it. We must take nothing for granted, lest we learn the hard way how fragile our lives truly are.

Here are some bits of wisdom I love:

“No duty is more urgent than that of returning thanks.” – St. Ambrose

 “Remember the past with gratitude. Live the present with enthusiasm. Look forward to the future with confidence.” – Pope St. John Paul II

“The secret of happiness is to live moment by moment and to thank God for what He is sending us every day in His goodness.” – St. Gianna Beretta Molla

“Lord, teach me to be generous. Teach me to serve You as You deserve.” – St. Ignatius of Loyola 

How to Be More Thankful

I have met so many beautiful people whose positivity is unwavering. Their secret, I think, is that they always find something to be thankful for. They always choose to acknowledge and lift up the good that surrounds them, rather than focusing on their struggles. They know that, in the end, we can control very little—but we can be grateful for very much.

In learning from them and from my own experience, here are five ways I try to make thankfulness a habit in my life:

  1. Always acknowledge the little things. When you come across your favorite number by happenstance, give a little thanks for the small smile it brings. When someone holds the door for you, always thank them out loud and with a smile. Upon learning to recognize the tiny moments of every day for which we can say “Thank you,” we become much more grateful for the bigger moments, too.
  2. Pray with proper order. There are several key elements to prayer, and thankfulness is one of them. It should come before we make requests to God. Remember ACTS when you pray: Adoration, Contrition, Thankfulness, and Supplication. My humility and penchant for gratitude improves greatly when I keep prayer in perspective this way.
  3. Share your gratitude with people you love. Regularly telling your family and friends about what you’re grateful for in life can help you and them be more thankful day to day—but do it humbly, and not to brag. For example, try going around the dinner table to have everyone share one thing they’re grateful for more frequently than just once a year at Thanksgiving.
  4. Hold yourself accountable to say thanks. I recently heard a lovely suggestion that’s specific to marriage: each night before bed, thank your spouse for at least one thing they did for you that day—something that made you feel more loved. It might also help to keep a gratitude journal, or to fill up a jar throughout the year with notes on what you’re thankful for each day, week, or month. The important thing is to set a goal and be consistent. It’s excellent for your mental health!
  5. Resist gossip. I find that gossip and judgmental thinking tend to become habitual—and that’s really too bad. The way we think and speak of others is influenced by paradigms. If my automatic reaction is to say, “Boy, that barista was sloooow today,” I might not even notice that the person behind me paid for a stranger’s drink while I was waiting just as a random act of kindness. I’d be too busy dwelling on my coffee’s delay.

There’s Always Something

Although certainly there are some trials in life that, when we emerge from them, remind us in no uncertain terms that we have a lot to be thankful for. Perhaps you’ve survived a horrific car crash. Perhaps your loved one beat cancer. Perhaps you got the job that makes providing for your family straightforward instead of stressful.

But if gratitude is truly a habit, then it’s the in-between times that call us to be most thankful—the times when no apparent miracle has occurred, but the simple pleasure of a 70-degree day in March left you feeling just a little warmer (inside and out). That’s something to be thankful for.

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