It's Thanksgiving time, and this time of the year teachers all over the country ask their students: "What are you thankful for?" and they get the cutest and most hilarious answers. It may seem hokey, but reflecting on what you are grateful for in your life can actually increase your subjective experience of happiness and wellbeing in a meaningful way. Researchers have done experiments where they asked people to keep a gratitude journal. The assignment is simple: every day, write down three things you are grateful for, but the catch is that you can't write the same thing twice. In the beginning it is easy to come up with things you are grateful for, but as time goes on you have to get increasingly creative. You have to really start paying attention throughout the day for things you can appreciate, and that is precisely what makes this practice so powerful and effective in increasing people's happiness and wellbeing. After participating in this experiment for a month or so, people who kept the happiness journal reported significantly higher feelings of happiness and wellbeing than the control group that didn't do this practice, and their feelings of happiness had increased significantly from the beginning of the experiment. 

Many of us have been conditioned to believe that happiness is something that we will get to experience "some day" in some distant, always illusive future when we finally meet all our goals, get everything we want, and when we will eventually get our act together. Our culture is saturated with messages that our happiness depends of acquiring "stuff," the perfect house, the perfect body, the perfect job, the perfect mate, the perfect car, the perfect... you name it. We are bombarded with images and stories that make us believe we are fundamentally lacking and that they way out of this is to consume, pursue, go after... whatever it is. The problem is that even when we acquire the thing we believe will make us happy, there is always something else we want/need/must have. Even after the initial excitement and euphoria of meeting a goal or obtaining some kind of possession, the novelty wears off and we are again left wanting something else.

Ancient wisdom, and cutting edge research has a very different message: happiness is available right here, right now, in the present moment, regardless of our circumstances. Even in the midst of real hardship and suffering, human beings are capable of appreciating what they have, and connecting in a meaningful way with others. It is often in the midst of real hardship when the resilience of the human spirit really shines. Last year, when the town of Bastrop burned down in a devastating fire, I was so moved by the residents who, despite losing everything they owned, expressed so much appreciation for their community. World wide surveys show that people who live in the most impoverished circumstances (e.g. the slums in India) report that they experience just as much happiness (sometimes more) than people who live in affluent suburbs in the United States. Last week I listened to an interview on NPR with the president of Uruguay, who is known as "the poorest president in the world" because he chooses to forgo his generous salary and luxurious presidential residence, and live under very humble circumstances. He expressed that he feels (and I am paraphrasing here) that people who are considered wealthy are in fact the ones who are poor, because they have to work all the time to maintain this lifestyle, and never actually get to enjoy their life.

The power of gratitude lies in the act of opening ourselves up to appreciating what is available to us in the present moment. The present moment is the only time we can ever experience happiness; therefore, happiness is always available. This Thanksgiving my wish to you is that the practice of gratitude will become a regular part of your life, and that you will experience many moments of happiness and appreciation!