Hands up if you’re guilty of swooning over your best mate’s new Topshop splurge? Finding yourself thinking “If only I had a jacket like that, I would be so much happier.” What about her amazing apartment full of designer furniture? Or her fabulous jet-set life she gets to lead because of her uber-cool job? If the answer is “yes, yes and yes”, then don’t worry, you’re not alone. As a society we’ve been sucked into a tornado of wanting what we can’t have in the hope that these unobtainable things will bring joy to our lives.
We measure our happiness and success by the objects that surround us and we are constantly striving to have more wealth and a better status in life. Keeping up with the Joneses has become a bit of a national pastime and, boy, do we think we deserve it. Sure the world owes us something. Sure we all deserve to be rich and successful. Sure we can step on anyone in our way to get what we want.
Really? You believe that? Because I don’t. And thankfully we’re waking up to the reality that money doesn’t buy us happiness. All across the world we’re earning more and have more materialistic things than ever before, but as a society, we’re no happier than we were 50 years ago.
So why do we do it? Why do we turn to frivolous spending sprees and instant fixes to make ourselves feel good?
Always wanting more
Irina Khanna, psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, intuitive consultant and energy healer at Illuminations Well-Being Center in Dubai, says, “As a human race it is very difficult for us to feel contentment. Greed is a basic human need. This is largely due to conditioning from our society, environment and experiences based on an inbuilt mechanism for survival.”
Irina goes on to say that many of us go through unpleasant experiences in our past such as abuse, struggle and failure, which all make us believe that we are not good enough. To protect ourselves it is our instinct to run and avoid feeling these emotions, looking for self-worth from our external environment.
“We begin to believe that if we have more money, more wealth, more success and fame, we will be worthy of ourselves in the eyes of society,” she says. “But we all know that seeking from the external is looking in the wrong place because the only person who can make us feel whole, complete and integrated is our inner self.”
The secret to happiness
So if a three-hour spending spree at Zara doesn’t make us happy, what will? Well, according to Robert A Emmons, gratitude is key to our happiness. As the leading scientific expert on gratitude, professor of psychology at the University of California and founding editor-in-chief of The Journal of Positive Psychology, Emmons believes that gratitude is essential for our happiness. “Without gratitude, life can be lonely, depressing and impoverished,” he says. “Gratitude enriches human life. It elevates, energises, inspires and transforms. People are moved, opened and humbled through expressions of gratitude.”
Irina agrees, stating that gratitude is one of the most powerful and rewarding exercises we can practise. “To develop an attitude of gratitude creates contentment, true happiness and bliss. We can’t manufacture gratitude, but we can give it more opportunity to appear in our lives, simply by focusing on what is good, or, as they say, counting our blessings.”
So what have we been doing with our lives? Wasting endless pots of money trying to buy ourselves a few moments of unadulterated bliss when all we needed to do was give a little thanks.
Is it as easy as that? Based on his own research, Emmons defines gratitude as a specific way of thinking about receiving a benefit and giving credit to others for that benefit. “In fact, gratitude can be very difficult because it requires you to recognise your dependence on others, and that’s not always positive,” he says. “You have to humble yourself, in the sense that you have to become a good receiver of others’ support and generosity, which can be very hard.”
In fact, Emmons believes that gratitude is a collaborative effort. As a grateful person you are able to take credit for you own responsibility for your success as well as give thanks to the people around you – family, friends, colleagues – who may have contributed to your happiness and success.
Narcissists have a particularly tough time getting to grips with gratitude as they reject the idea of needing to feel thankful. In their heads the world and everyone in it owes them something.
Thankfully we’re not all narcissists, although narcissistic tendencies can be found in all of us to some degree. But all hope isn’t lost, says Irina.
“Initially we need to consciously be aware of this shift in our beliefs until it becomes part of our nature, and then we begin to operate on autopilot. Does it take effort to be negative and ungrateful? In the same way, it will soon take no effort to be grateful for everything.”
The best way to get started on your journey to gratitude is to start keeping a daily journal. Try adding at least five things a day that you are grateful for.
Irina points out that it will take time to practise and develop your attitude of gratitude in order to change your ingrained belief systems.
“This can sometimes be challenging because a lot of our current thoughts, beliefs and perceptions are programmed from past painful, challenging and unpleasant experiences,” Irina says. Fortunately our subconscious mind only works in the present moment, so by improving our thoughts and emotions through gratitude we can actually trick ourselves into ditching those old damaging behavioural patterns and instead manifest our positive thoughts and dreams into reality.
“The only way to attract happiness is to be happy. Like attracts like,” says Irina. “So when we begin practising gratitude it creates the energy of happiness around us and it begins to attract people and situations that keep us happy. So if we are grateful for everything, it definitely ensures our happiness and wellbeing in every aspect of our life.”
What about when the going gets tough, though? It’s easy to give thanks when work is going well, we have a supportive group of friends, a happy marriage, a healthy bank balance and can jet off for little luxury breaks every few months, but what happens when someone loses a job, gets a health scare or falls on financial hardships? Do we still have anything to be thankful for?
Of course we do, insists Emmons. In fact Emmons says a grateful attitude is essential in the event of a crisis. “In the face of demoralisation, gratitude has the power to energise. In the face of brokenness, gratitude has the power to heal. In the face of despair, gratitude has the power to bring hope,” he says. Don’t expect it to be an easy task, but if you can be thankful when the going gets tough it will help you recognise the lessons to be learnt and turn them into positives.
Being grateful in a crisis will hold you in good stead for future calamities, according to Emmons. “Consciously cultivating an attitude of gratitude builds up a sort of psychological immune system that can cushion us when we fall,” he says. “There is scientific evidence that grateful people are more resilient to stress, whether minor everyday hassles or major personal upheavals.”
Another way in which to be constantly thankful is to look back on bad situations that have happened to you and compare them to what you have now. Revisit your darker moments of loss, sadness and grief, and consider where you are now. You survived and you are stronger for it. It also helps to recognise the way past scenarios have helped to shape you into the person you are today and be thankful for who you are.
So the next time you feel pangs of envy over your friend’s latest purchase, be thankful for what you already have and think, “I’d struggle to fit a new coat into my already bursting wardrobe. A designer apartment wouldn’t allow me to show off my personality at home. I’m glad I don’t have to constantly fly around the world for my job as it means I don’t miss out on precious time with my family and friends.” If you remember to be thankful, you’ll be happier for it.