We must risk delight.
We can do without pleasure, but not delight. Not enjoyment.
We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness
in the ruthless furnace of this world.
To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
—Jack Gilbert

In 1978, researchers from Northwestern University and the University of Massachusetts wanted to understand how extraordinary life events impact our happiness. They took twenty-two lottery winners and the same number of regular folks (non-lottery winners) and tracked their happiness levels.

They discovered that although the lottery winners were thrilled that they’d won the lottery, they took less pleasure in ordinary events than the regular folks and were generally not any happier than the non-lottery winners. Just six months after winning the lottery, their happiness levels went pretty much back to where they’d been before.

There are a lot of explanations for all of this, but the one that’s most accepted is called “habituation.” Once the initial excitement of winning the lottery wore off, winners returned to the level of happiness that they had habitually lived at before winning.

It’s not that circumstances don’t matter.

Injustice and hardship really do exist. Things at work or in your personal life might be really hard right now. Western culture perpetuates a belief that if we’re not happy it means something’s wrong with us. We’re told to “be more positive” or “just get over it.” That’s not what I’m talking about here.

I’m not talking about ignoring challenging emotions or pretending that things are okay when that doesn’t feel true. This is not about “looking on the bright side” or denying the hard moments. This is about taking joy on as a spiritual practice—recognizing and allowing yourself to savor what is good in your life.

Joy is a habit.

The ability to feel joy is a strength you can develop through repetition and practice, just like you might strengthen your biceps doing reps with free weights. Focusing on what brings you joy fifteen seconds at a time, ten times a day only takes a total of two and a half minutes per day, and it’s one of the most powerful ways to change your brain and your life.

Joy leads to success, not the other way around.

Waiting for circumstances to change before we can be happy doesn’t work so well. In fact, it limits our potential for success by narrowing our vision of what’s possible and draining our energy.

Most of us know someone who’s constantly trying to be happy by changing their external circumstances but who’s failing miserably— perhaps they’re hopping from job to job or buying way too many shoes or planning a dream vacation while checked out in the rest of their life. Many people achieve a major goal just to be disappointed when they realize that they’re not any happier than before they went through all the effort. I encourage you to raise a red flag in your mind if you ever find yourself expecting that happiness will come after you change your circumstances.

There are no perfect jobs, just good work you can learn to love.

And, no matter how much you love your job, you will still face challenges and struggles and days when you wish you were doing something else. Joy comes in the ordinary moments, and we risk missing out on everyday delight when we get too busy chasing down the extraordinary.

Meanwhile, thousands of studies now demonstrate what most of us already knew instinctively— Priming our brain for positivity leads to success in nearly every area of our lives, including work, health, and marriage. Happy people are better leaders, close more sales, and are less likely to burn out. Happiness motivates us to take action towards our goals, and it makes us more creative and resilient in the face of challenge. Even the smallest shots of positivity can make you more effective.

To feel more joy, practice gratitude.

In The Gifts of Imperfection, shame and vulnerability researcher, Brene Brown, writes, “Without exception, every person I interviewed who described living a joyful life or who described themselves as joyful, actively practiced gratitude and attributed their joyfulness to their gratitude practice.”

In Daring Greatly, she writes, “I use the word practicing because the research participants spoke of tangible gratitude practices, more than merely having an attitude of gratitude or feeling grateful. In fact, they gave specific examples of gratitude practices that included everything from keeping gratitude journals and gratitude jars to implementing family gratitude rituals.”

The key to experiencing more joy, even when things are hard, is to cultivate a regular gratitude practice.

For example, in my family, we hold hands before we eat and hold a grateful silence. Then, once we start eating, we usually ask each other, “What’s new and good in your life today?” The fastest path towards feeling how you want to feel is to pay attention to what is already good in your life.

In the Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor writes about one study that found that when participants wrote down three things they were grateful for every day for a week, they were happier at one-month, three-month and six-month follow-ups. Even after they stopped the practice, they remained significantly happier and more optimistic. The more participants scanned their environments for what was working, the more evidence of positivity they found, even without trying.

Writing down what you’re grateful for only takes a few brief moments, and it’s one of the most powerful ways to develop a habit of joy.

After you write down what you’re grateful for, take a moment to feel the positive emotions and sensations. Place a hand on your heart. Breathe a little slower and deeper than usual and imagine your breath flowing in and out of your heart. Radiate the feelings of appreciation throughout your body and into the world. This entire gratitude practice can take just three minutes.

Let’s practice some gratitude now, shall we?

  • Grab a piece of paper and a pen.
  • Then, write down five things you’re grateful for. Here are some questions that might help:
    • What success can you celebrate today, no matter how small?
    • What do you appreciate about yourself today?
    • Who are you grateful for in your life?
    • When did you feel good today?
    • What’s new and good?
    • What is bringing you joy recently?
    • What are the favorable conditions in your life that you might take for granted? (Having spent weeks without them, I can assure you that indoor plumbing, tap water, and beds free of bedbugs are real blessings!)
    • And, if you’re going through an especially challenging moment, what new lessons are you gaining from this experience?
  • Once you’ve written down at least five things, take a moment to feel any positive emotions that arise. Place a hand on your heart, breathe deeply, and allow the sensations of gratitude to wash through your body.

I encourage you to take this on as a daily practice.

Any time you experience success in work or life, no matter how teeny tiny, seize the opportunity to take in the good. I have yet to find anything more powerful than gratitude when it comes to changing your life.

I’d love to hear from you in the comments below-

What helps you to pause and appreciate what’s good in your life?

And, if you have a friend or two who’ve been struggling with feeling down or who are just wanting to feel more inspired or alive, would you please do me a favor and send them this article? I’d be grateful. Thank you!!

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