Let’s start with a question.
What comes first? Gratitude or Happiness?
Research shows that expressing gratitude for things that you have (or are working in your life) gives you a pleasant feeling, a serotonin boost. And one way of defining happiness includes a general state of positive emotions and life satisfaction. But isn’t it also true that being happy makes us grateful?
Four months ago, I was mysteriously struck (not by the dreaded virus that is doing the rounds) by a bout of acute, excruciating pain in the lower half of my body. With only fifteen to go before the launch of my book, Rewriting My Happily Ever After, I was naturally terrified of all the things that still needed my attention and here I was, literally confined to my bed.
While walking and standing were understandably painful, I was unable to be at ease even while lying down. It was scary. The doctors and specialists did their thing – blood tests, x-rays, even an MRI. I left home only to meet medical or alternative therapy practitioners.
Not surprisingly, my joy at being so close to getting my book out into the world was marred by the impossible-to-ignore health issue that was perplexing doctors and frustrating me.
Reluctant to disclose the exact state of my health and the lack of progress in identifying the source of my pain, I wondered about what to share on social media. The days had been boring (not to mention painful), but there had been small moments of happiness too.
- Family members had called to express concern
- Friends had shown up to check on me
- Colleagues and classmates had offered leads and insights on alternate therapies
- Early readers had left glowing reviews for my book
I could not honestly say that I was at the peak of life satisfaction during those weeks, yet, I could not deny that if I looked for it, I could find things that made me happy. And for a brief moment, took me away from my pain.
Why not write a weekly post on social media listing three things that made me happy?
I began on the last day of October 2021, focusing on the happenings of the preceding week, looking for those small and big things that made me smile despite the underlying foundation of pain that refused to abate.
Here is the first post:
There are many things we can do to change our perception of a situation that is less than ideal.
Lately, my health has been a cause for concern as well as a giant black hole that has sucked away much of my joy and pride of accomplishment at having published my book.
For all of October, a month that I normally look forward to for several reasons, I have been in pain and consumed by the need to get to the heart of the problem.
But, there are things that are beyond medical and human understanding despite diagnostic tools, medical treatment and my favorite, medicines (as a pharmaceutical scientist :).
I went on to list the three things that brought a smile to my face that week. These included:
- Enjoying lifelong learning by attending a module on resilience
- Participating in author interaction sessions – a new source of joy that helped me connect online with readers
- Signing my books and sending them out
Over the next three months, I updated my weekly happiness tracker on social media.
Full disclosure – my pain departed as mysteriously as it had arrived around 18th November, leaving medical personnel, well-wishers and me, completely perplexed. Yet, weeks later, I continued to post my weekly happiness tracking exercise. Keep in mind, it was not a gratitude practice. It was simply an exercise in observation.
In December 2021 I traveled to the US on a holiday where my schedule was completely unpredictable. In January 2022, I returned home to the same house and the same old routine. Although the things I documented changed on a weekly basis, I am surprised at my own consistency.
Curious about my devotion to something that was begun during an unusual phase of my life, I wondered about my desire to continue with it in 2022.
I went back and studied my previous posts to see if there was something to learn. As always, the lessons are embedded in the doing and in the reflection.
Here are six personal lessons from my weekly happiness tracking exercise.
1. Observing and keeping track of your life has value, whether we call it journaling, or gratitude practise or anything else. What we are actually doing is taking that extra time to watch and reflect on the way we spend our days.
Awareness is the first step towards insight
2. Happiness does not always come from the obvious things – expensive holidays, amusement park rides, or fancy meals but can be found in appreciating a seal sunning on the seaside, an unexpected rainbow after a thunderstorm, or a cute dog that insists on sitting on your lap
3. Travel made me happy. So did coming back home.
Happiness is possible in every moment and is not restricted to a particular place
4. Taking photographs makes it easier to review your ‘week that was’. Even the bad or silly pictures make you smile
5. While my book traveled places in my hands and well as in those of my readers located worldwide, all my happy moments did not come from my book and it’s journey. It was the individual connections made with those who sought me out to tell me about it’s impact that have remained memorable
6. More than material things, I especially appreciated the gifts of time that were generously given to me – my friends drove down from Dallas to Austin to meet me, a colleague baked a cake that resembled the cover of my book for my book launch and her young daughter created a handmade bookmark with the theme of my book specially for my birthday. An assistant at the MRI clinic took special care to make me comfortable before my visit knowing my claustrophobia. So many readers took the time to read and review my book and also engage me in author interaction sessions
So what is the conclusion from this little experiment?
I can’t say which comes first. I will leave it to the happiness and gratitude researchers.
All I know is that for me, gratitude and happiness are intrinsically connected.
Whether it is the small bites of satisfaction that make you happy and lead to gratitude or the feeling of being blessed by people and their actions that make you feel grateful, the point is to have enough bandwidth to notice these ubiquitous moments of grace that cross our path everyday.
Will I continue my weekly happiness tracker in 2022?
Yes, of course. How else can I enjoy the double benefits of happiness and gratitude?
Do you track happiness or have an active gratitude practice?
Photo credit: Happiness Tracker, Greater Good Magazine