We live in a world full of rush, pressure to perform, and happiness sellers in the form of self-help books that try to solve the search for happiness for people suffering from rush and pressure to perform. Googling "How to become happy?" offers millions of articles such as "How to be happy: 21 habits to try", "7 tips to live a happier life" or "15 ways to be happier now".
But is there a shortcut to happiness? Most happiness guides and tips probably won't make your life happy except maybe for a fleeting moment. Instead, happiness can increase significantly when you integrate a very simple thing into your life – gratitude.
What is happiness?
Happiness is a personal or subjective experience, which can also be called subjective well-being. Happiness is being content with your life. According to numerous studies on happiness, gratitude is an essential part of the creation and experience of happiness. The equation works in such a way that when we are grateful, we can experience happiness.
According to studies gratitude and happiness appear at different points in relation to time: gratitude is directed to the past (gratitude for something received) and happiness to the present (being present and enjoying the moment). However, gratitude can be practiced both in the present moment and in the future. The latter is a powerful tool that you can use to directly influence your own life.
What is gratitude?
Gratitude is often felt for a 'gift' received, which can be a tangible object as well as words or actions. Generally, gratitude is felt for positive things, but it is also possible to experience gratitude in difficult and even traumatic situations.
Gratitude doesn't just mean noticing the good things in our lives. It also includes the ability to recognize the difficulties and challenges that are part of being human. In difficulties, you may be grateful e.g., for having been a strong person or for having learned new things about yourself or life.
Gratitude as a concept has fueled a lot of philosophical discussion. To whom or what are we grateful? If we receive a gift from a friend, we are grateful to our friend for the gift. If we are grateful for our health or the passing moment, to whom are we grateful?
In most religions, the answer is usually easy, but if the worldview does not include God, how can one be grateful? In the new spirituality there is often 'gratitude to the universe', but in the end is there much difference between the universe and God?
Gratitude can also be thought of as consciously being present and understanding of the bigger picture. Consciousness or mindfulness is the ability to self-reflect, through which we understand our own place in the universe, and we understand what things are just random and what are the things we can influence.
Nature, hiking and gratitude
One could easily imagine that the more we own different things and wealth, the more satisfied or happier we are. However, you can often experience gratitude when you live ascetically for a while with only what you need to stay alive.
Nature has always been a place where people have turned to find peace and quiet. It offers an opportunity to detach from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and gives room for self-reflection. Even if you go for a trail run, moving in nature is more than just a sport: it's a connection with nature and ourselves.
One easy way to get into a simple state is to go on a multi-day or long-distance hike, carrying everything you need to live on your back. Even better, if you avoid extra amenities and set up your own accommodation. You can push the feeling of gratitude even more by challenging your own physical or mental limits.
Gratitude is an integral part of my own hiking journeys. During the hike, I can experience deep gratitude, for example, for the beauty of nature on a sunny or rainy day, for being able to move with relatively little pain, or for having dry clothes to wear and warm food to eat in the evening. Actually, I feel gratitude almost all the time.
After the adventure, it feels amazing to have fresh coffee, toilet and the fact that you don't have to get up in the morning and walk twenty miles with your rucksack on slippery rocks in rain. Which is exciting: during the hike you can be grateful that you get to hike, and after the hike that you don't have to hike. So, gratitude depends on perspective.
Gratitude is a tool for understanding what we take for granted in our lives. How often do we give thanks for our health, for example? Health may be on our minds as we follow the huge wellness boom and choose diets and exercise programs to become a better version of ourselves (and eventually we may become anxious when we did everything but didn’t find happiness!).
Perhaps we will only deeply understand health and gratitude for health when we lose our health. If we take the things around us and in ourselves for granted, it is difficult to experience gratitude.
Being present and gratitude
Gratitude can be felt anytime, anywhere. In nature and silence, however, it can be easier to invite your own gratitude if you have not been consciously grateful before.
Nature is a perfect place to learn being present and mindfulness. Mindful presence is focusing the mind on the present moment without judgment. Walking on a forest path or sitting on a rock can turn into a meditative experience, or you can deliberately practice, for example, walking meditation. Conscious presence helps to let go of past worries and fear of the future, making room for gratitude for what is in that moment.
Mindfulness is a skill that requires practice. When you consciously focus on what you are doing right now, you can experience the richness of life more deeply. When moving in nature, you can pay attention to every step, think about how the bark feels against your cheek, hear how the wind hums and rustles the leaves. Even briefly living in the moment can open the door to a feeling of gratitude when you notice how much beauty and wonder there is around you.
Gratitude does not mean a shallow smile at the beauty of the scenery or the success of the perfect Instagram photo. Gratitude is a genuine deeper feeling for being able to experience these moments and be a part of this big world. You will recognize the feeling of gratitude in yourself.
Gratitude not only increases positive feelings, but also deepens the connection with the environment and oneself. The experience of connection can happen when you are completely alone, and it is a connection with all of creation, animate and inanimate. The experience of connection is an extremely comforting experience and a huge resource, especially in challenging times.
Nature helps to understand the continuity and perspective of life and the world.
Gratitude does not prosper with envy and dissatisfaction. The main source of envy and dissatisfaction is comparing yourself to other people. If you recognize comparing yourself to other people in your own life, you should consciously stop it, because it prevents you from enjoying your own life.
How can you not compare yourself to others? Gratitude is the antidote to envy. Start writing a gratitude journal. Any notebook will do, you can even use Word.
- Write 2-3 things you are grateful for right now in your gratitude journal a couple of times a week.
- To find things to be grateful for, think about what you have and think about what your life would be like if you didn't have them.
- Read your journal after four weeks and you will see how much there is you can be grateful for.
- You may also notice that you no longer compare yourself to others.
- When you start to realize what gratitude is all about, start writing down future thanks as well – thoughts tend to become concrete.
Consciously practicing and deepening gratitude helps to appreciate your own life and experience more satisfaction. In everyday life, it equals happiness.