How Gratitude & Journalling Make You Happier.
The art of remembering that the world isn’t against you.
At first glance, practising gratitude seems pointless. Nothing more than a sanctimonious, new-age, waste of time. At least that’s how I used to think about it. But it turns out that there’s perfectly simple, logical, and scientifically valid reasoning behind gratitude’s ability to makes us feel happier. To understand what that is, we first need to understand a few features of the way our memory works.
The perils of a bad memory.
Humans are pessimistic by default. Yes, you too. This isn’t a character flaw, it’s a logical strategy for keeping us alive. After all, if we presume that there’s danger where there isn’t any, the worst that will happen is that we’ll miss out on a fun opportunity or waste some time going the long way around. But if we presume safety where there’s danger, it’s quite possible that it’ll be the last mistake we ever make.
For this reason, the mind prioritises negative memories. Situations and events that we don’t want to repeat stick in our minds more easily so that we remember not to repeat them. So far, so logical. The problem is that this combines with another psychological quirk to mess with our sense of reality.
When we make decisions about probability and risk, we give disproportionate value to the things that we remember most easily and vividly. If we’ve just seen a story about someone winning millions on a scratch-card, we’re much more likely to buy one. If that scratch-card was bought from the shop just around the corner from where we live, the probability goes up even more. The memory is now both personal and easily available for recall.
This availability bias is what makes us feel bad about how much better other people’s lives are when we scroll through Instagram, or why people are more afraid of flying than driving, even though the latter is statistically much more dangerous. We see a picture of some beautiful soul beaming at us from a sun-kissed beach, or read a story about a horrific plane crash, and we fail to weigh them against all of the flights that arrive safely every hour, or the fact that 99.9% of this person’s life is spent doing other, less enjoyable things.
Availability bias, combined with our tendency to remember negative things more vividly, means that we develop beliefs about the world which aren’t accurate. We become distrustful because of that time we got our heart broken. We become insecure because of the time we were teased about our weight. We become hesitant because of a particularly embarrassing mistake we made.
It’s why these feelings can follow us even around after we’ve gotten in shape or found a better partner or become proficient at our job. Those painful memories remain infuriatingly available because we’re afraid to repeat those unpleasant experiences.
The value of deliberately practising gratitude lies in the fact that it forces us to notice and recall positive events in our lives that might otherwise be forgotten. Consciously making time to remember the good things that have happened each day, increases the availability of positive memories, which makes them easier to call upon when facing new situations.
Even better than simply bringing positive events to mind is writing them down. Not only does writing things down help them to stick more firmly in our memory, but it also creates a physical record of positive events that can be called upon years later to balance the negative memories that will inevitably accumulate.
Great artists steal.
Best of all, a gratitude journal doesn’t need to be limited to your own positive experiences. The mind doesn’t limit itself to our own experiences to draw negative conclusions. It calls upon the experiences of other people, even complete strangers, for justification of its fears. We can do the same to create positive reinforcements.
If you hear a story about somebody who succeeds by taking a risk, or persevering, or overcoming their fears, store it away in your positivity vault. The memory of somebody else’s success can be just as effective at reminding you that success is possible. As Anne, one of my favourite characters in Ricky Gervais’ excellent show After Life, observes, “Happiness is amazing. It’s so amazing it doesn’t matter if it’s yours or not.
It may seem counterintuitive, but one of the most important steps in taking control of our lives is recognising our own weaknesses. And more importantly, recognising that some of our weaknesses are invisible to us. Our minds do so much filtering and processing without us noticing, that it’s easy to think we’re thinking clearly and accurately when we’re not.
Gratitude is a simple, effective and practical system that can help us to remember important things we might otherwise forget. It’s the happiness equivalent of tying a string around our finger. It makes it harder for fear to stand in our way. It helps us to maintain a mindset where positivity is more available than negativity. And the ability to do that is something we should be especially grateful for.