The Power of Gratitude

One of the sweetest things my son says to me is, “Mommy, how can I help you tomorrow?” We’ll be getting ready for bed and he’ll look up at me with his sea-blue eyes, his face as fresh as rain and his voice like spring, and he’ll ask these words in his sing-song way. My heart melts every time, and I almost always respond by saying, “You just did.” I look at him with a smile of wonder during these moments, marveling at this sweet soul that I have the privilege of mothering, and feeling the frustration, impatience, worry, or heartache that may have punctuated my day fall away. I can literally feel the prickly sensations softening and dissipating in the wake of the goodness of his offering.

I’ve mistakenly thought that I was the lucky one in those moments, to be the receiver of such purity and generosity. But, after watching the documentary “Happy” the other night with my husband, I now see that it’s actually my son’s positive chemical levels that are activated by his empathy. The film talks about the happiness research in the last twenty years that has revealed that 50% of our happiness levels is genetic and that we each have a set point where we naturally reside (which explains those sunny people who hop out of bed in the morning with a smile on their face; that has never been me). But the other 50% we can affect through our loving actions. And, yes, it’s loving action – acts of kindness, empathy, generosity, and service – that trigger oxytocin and create a positive chemical reaction to send the signal of happy feelings into the body. When we meditate on loving kindness, we trigger oxytocin. When we give to others, we trigger oxytocin. When we connect in meaningful ways to our friends and family, we trigger oxytocin.

Hence, when my son says, “How can I help you tomorrow, Mommy?” he’s raising his own happiness levels. And I can see it all over his body. His face relaxes. He looks peaceful and Buddha-like. He literally looks like an angel, which, I imagine, is how we all appear when we’re connected to our highest selves. And our higher self isn’t about looking our best or being in perfect shape or even having a dream job: it’s about opening our hearts so that we can connect and give to others. It’s about, in a word, love. And my guess is that there’s probably research out there that shows that his oxytocin levels effect my oxytocin levels; in other words, we’re more interconnected than we realize, and when his act of kindness and empathy touch my heart, we both raise our vibrations and are elevated to a state of happiness.

What’s also fascinating about the happiness research is that of the 50% that we can affect, only 10% of that is connected to things like where we live and how much money we make. This is obviously the polar opposite of what we’re culturally conditioned to believe: if you make more money, buy a bigger house, drive an expensive car, and marry the “perfect” person, you’ll be happy. In our image driven culture, propelled by Hollywood and the media, we’re brainwashed to believe that happiness lies in attaining something “out there”. But beyond meeting the basic needs of food, shelter, and clothing, happiness levels don’t exponentially increase as income or status increase; in other words, people who make $300,000 a year aren’t any happier than those who make $50,000 a year. It’s not about image. It’s not about externals. It’s not about status. It’s about who are you and how deeply you’re able to open your heart, connect and give to others.

At any given moment, you can look at your life, your partner (or lack thereof), your kids, your friends, or yourself and zero in on what’s not working. Many people who find their way to me are self-described as “glass half empty” type of people: they view life through the lens of what’s missing instead of what’s present. One of the key elements in shifting from unhappiness to happiness is learning to notice your habitual pattern of looking at life through a glass half empty lens and instead making a choice to notice what’s working and how blessed you really are.

In fact, try it right now: Think of someone you love. Perhaps it’s your partner or a close friend or your child. Think about your habitual way of viewing that person, and if it’s through a “what’s missing” lens, get out a piece of paper or blank screen and write about how you see this person in their highest essence. Imagine yourself putting on a pair of glasses that allows you to see through the lens of love and appreciation. Write about what this person means to you and why they hold a special place in your heart. Now, over the next few days, make a conscious effort to view this person through this lens of love and appreciation. Remind yourself before you see this person of how you see them and what you’ve written about. Notice if it changes to way you view them and your level of openness to giving and receiving love.

Oh, and by the way, Happy Thanksgiving! May your day be filled with gratitude for all of the blessings in your life. May you focus on what’s present instead of what’s missing, noticing what you have instead of what you don’t have. May you find a way to be of service to others and extend yourself – either with time or money – to help someone in need. May you love and appreciate who you are and bring that love and appreciation into the hearts of those around you and out into the world.

8 comments to The Power of Gratitude

  • Sarah

    I needed to hear this today! This October was wonderful in terms of my relationship with my husband, but I’ve found myself more edgy and anxious as the holidays near. I never like the holiday “hype” and feel the pressure to feel a certain level of happiness, anticipation, joy, etc. It’s also the first holiday season without my father-in-law and that makes it stressful and sad as well. I confess I’ve found myself often thinking in a “what’s missing” way lately…or wondering how I can “get back” to the feelings of stability and peace. Thanks for a reminder to connect to gratitude! Happy Thanksgiving to you as well:)

  • Clare

    These posts always come at the right time! When I’m stressed out with work my inner voice is much harsher, and I begin to focus on where I need to be instead of all the work I’ve done emotionally. I was getting frustrated with myself yesterday for letting anxiety win. But if I just take a step back and focus on what I’ve accomplished in my inner life instead of where I think I “should” be, I feel much more relaxed and satisfied, and I can breathe out all that frustration. Thanks, Sheryl, and a happy thanksgiving to all!

  • Featherlight

    Perfect timing, thank you!

  • Ali

    Wow!! This is exactly what i’ve been trying to do of late, and you’ve summed it up perfectly. I am so gratful for what I have and the people around me but so rarely look at it in this light and look at faults and flaws in my life instead. At a stage where anxiety is creeping back into my daily life, this has just encouraged me to keep up my gratitude for what I have and what I achieve in life, and move onto happier more positive feelings agin. I look forward to your next post, they are always so helpful.

  • Jess

    I can’t believe how much happier I feel just by focusing differently. Beautiful post, helped me lots. Thankyou Sheryl. 🙂