One of the most common happiness recommendations is to keep a gratitude journal. Studies show that doing so raises people’s life satisfaction, improves health, increases energy, reduces troublesome thoughts, and promotes good sleep.
So, as part of this month of memento mori (“remember you must die”), I’ve started a gratitude journal (although, I must confess, it struck me as somewhat precious and artificial). Each night, I type up three things that I’m grateful for, or appreciate.
Looking back at two weeks of entries, I see that I never mention some of the most important factors for my happiness: a stable, democratic government; my health and the health of my family; the relative lack of dysfunction in my family; my secure financial situation; my love of my work and where I live; the proximity of good friends.
Reading my list from last night, for example, I see that I didn’t mention the clean bill of health (I assume) I received yesterday afternoon.
I went in for a routine medical test. My usual inclination is to postpone such things, but it was starting to nag at me that I was overdue—and there’s nothing like reading a stack of cancer memoirs to convince you to keep up with your check-ups.
So I went, and I have to go back in six months so they can double-check some results, but they don’t seem concerned at all. It gave me a chill to look at my report.
[ ] NORMAL/NEGATIVE: No evidence of cancer.
[X] PROBABLY BENIGN (not cancer): Recommend repeat test in 6 months.
[ ] ABNORMAL: there is a finding that requires further tests for a more thorough evaluation. You should contact your physician as soon as possible.
Did I feel happier as I left that office? Nope. I didn’t feel like going for the test, and I didn’t enjoy the process, but I didn’t dread it so much that I felt happy just to have it over. I felt about the same as usual.
But nevertheless, I’ve furthered my happiness by removing a source of unhappiness—the uneasiness of procrastination, of not doing something I know I ought to do.
And this is a great example of an important happiness principle: Manage down as well as up (is there a catchier phrase?). For happiness, it’s not enough to focus on being happier; I also need to remove sources of unhappiness. That, I did.
And there’s a way to extract happiness from this experience, as well.
In a famous story, Sherlock Holmes perceived a clue in the fact that a dog didn’t bark. My gratitude journal should remind me to feel happy about the problems that aren’t there. Yesterday was the day that I didn’t have cancer—a happy, happy, happy day.
From 2006 through 2014, as she wrote The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, Gretchen chronicled her thoughts, observations, and discoveries on The Happiness Project Blog.