Appreciating-A Key to Happiness

People who are happy express gratitude

In my last blog I talked about what science teaches us about how to feel happy. I also introduced the ABCs of happiness—Appreciating, Becoming, and Connecting as three patterns of happiness that I’ve identified from my research on this subject. In this article, I want to talk about strategies related to appreciating, an important key to happiness.

Another word for appreciating is gratitude. I could have called this theme gratitude but then my model would be the GBCs rather than ABCs. It didn’t sound quite as good so I’m sticking with the ABCs. But I do use the terms appreciating and gratitude interchangeably.

Appreciating is a Key to Happiness

Appreciating is recognizing and honoring the worth of something. In this case, we’re talking about the worth of life, more specifically, the worth or value of your life. So, I define appreciating as cultivating an inner gratitude and expressing thanks for the goodness of your life and recognizing what has made it so.

Appreciating is a mega-strategy, one of the most important keys to happiness. Research tells us that people who have grateful hearts are happier, less depressed, and less stressed than those who are less grateful. They report a greater sense of purpose, more control over their lives, greater self-acceptance, and more optimism. They are more empathetic, more forgiving, less materialistic and have more positive ways of coping with difficulties.

In short, appreciating, or gratitude, is more highly linked with mental health, happiness, and well-being than any other character trait. Think about the power of that statement. More highly linked with mental health and happiness than any other trait. This scientifically proven fact makes developing appreciation and gratitude one of the most important things we can do to live a good life. And, the best news is that we can learn to be more grateful through deliberate practice.

I’d like you to take a moment. Think of three things you are grateful for right now. These don’t have to be big things. They could be very small and simple things. Take just a moment to either say them aloud or, better yet, jot them down.

Good. What do you notice? How did shifting your focus, just a little bit, change your feelings?

Pay Attention as a Pathway to Happiness

I asked you to do this because appreciation can be learned…and it is learned by training ourselves to pay attention. Remember a few articles back I talked about a scarcity vs. abundance mindset. We put ourselves into a state of abundance by paying attention to the goodness and fullness of life. This is really what developing appreciation and gratitude are all about. You get what you pay attention to and so you have to learn to pay attention to the good.

Most of the time we don’t pay attention. We go through life half awake and allow our attention to flow to what screams most loudly for our attention whether it be internal (aches and pains and body sensations or emotions like anxiety, boredom, resentment, etc.)  or external (what is happening around us). But the idea is that you can actually choose what you pay attention to and you can learn to pay attention to that which will bring you the greatest joy. Doing so is a pathway to happiness.

Start a Virtuous Cycle

People who experience more gratitude don’t have better things happening in their lives but, rather, they are more attuned to the good that happens which starts a virtuous cycle. They are attuned to the good so they see the good, so they attract more good, and so they become even more attuned to the good and see more good and attract even more good and on and on. That’s what I want you to learn to do. I’m going to give you some strategies for doing this. Don’t think of this as a comprehensive list. Add to it. Make it your own. Figure out what is going to work for you. In fact, you have to make this your own if it’s going to work for you.

Expressing Gratitude

One happiness strategy is to start your day with gratitude. First thing, as soon as you wake up. Offer a prayer of gratitude or make some gratitude statements before you get into your normal routine. You don’t have to feel happy or upbeat to do this. The discipline of these strategies leads to well-being and happiness so we do them whether we feel happy or not.

Your list might sound like: I’m grateful for a night of rest. I’m grateful to be alive. I’m grateful that I can see and hear and breathe. I’m grateful for the beating of my heart. I’m grateful that I can stretch and move my body. I’m grateful for work and a paycheck… and so on.

My wife and I do the same at the end of each day. We each share three things we are grateful for. These are simple things related to our day. We alternate taking turns. I’m thankful for the sunshine today. I’m grateful that I could talk with such and such a friend. I’m grateful for the progress I made on my project. And so on. Three things. It is great to do this just before going to sleep. It is a great way to end the day and program ourselves for sleep.

We have a daughter who does a similar kind of process with her family at dinner time. Her kids range in age from 13 to 5. They go around the table each evening and each person shares three things. Worst part of my day; best part of my day; what I’m most grateful for today. It is a great way to stay connected, open up communication and stay focused on gratitude.

Gratitude Journal

Keeping a gratitude journal leads to happiness

A related idea is to keep a gratitude journal and write down, at the end of every day, examples of all the good things that have happened in your life this day. Doing this daily, week after week, will help your mind become attuned to all the good and help you develop a mindset of abundance.

There have even been some scientific studies done on this practice. One intervention required a group of participants to keep a “gratitude journal” and write down three things they were grateful for every day for a week. The control group kept a diary or journal of daily/weekly events. At the end of the study, those who kept the gratitude journal had higher happiness scores than the control group. Although the participants were only asked to keep their journals for a week, most of them continued long after the study was over. The experimenters continued testing them at regular intervals and found that their scores continued to increase each time they were tested following the experiment. In fact, the greatest benefits didn’t even occur until around six months after treatment began.

In another study, a group of participants were asked to write down five things they were thankful for once a week for ten weeks. The control group was asked to think about either hassles or events that occurred during the week. At the end of ten weeks the experimental group reported feeling more optimistic and satisfied with their lives than the control group. They also had better physical health (fewer headaches, acne, coughing, or nausea) than the control group.

Gratitude Visits

You’ve probably heard me mention Martin Seligman before. He is considered the father of Positive Psychology and has conducted research on happiness, written books on the subject, and created a webpage entitled Authentic Happiness.”

In one study, Seligman and his staff randomly assigned participants to one of six therapeutic interventions designed to improve quality of life. The biggest short-term benefit came from an intervention known as a “gratitude visit” in which participants wrote and then personally delivered a letter of gratitude to someone in their lives. This single act raised the average “happiness score” of these participants by 10%. The results were still in effect a month after the visit.

I have tried this in my life in different ways and on a number of occasions. A few years back I wrote a letter to a man who I knew going back to our days in high school. Although I’ve not seen or associated with him since, I wanted to express appreciation for being an outstanding student, a student leader, and example of kindness to everyone. He was a role model for me and I have thought about him often through the years. He called me after he received my letter. We had a nice visit by phone and have not talked since. That is okay. I simply wanted to thank him for the role he has played in my life and the lives of so many fellow students.

I had a similar experience recently with my father-in-law. He just turned 90 and is in declining health. I wrote a letter expressing my gratitude for him. On a visit, just a few weeks ago, I was able to sit face to face and tell him that he had been a great father-in-law to me. I was able to thank him for his role in my life and share what I admired about him. It was a sweet moment as we shed tears together. I’m hoping it blessed him and lifted his day. I know I came away feeling a greater measure of happiness and joy.

There are variations of this. I sometimes write notes to people with whom I work or have worked in which I express thanks and appreciation for the influence they have been in my life. These are not long, just short notes which I send in a card.

I have a friend who tries to reach out to someone every day to have a positive connection and express his appreciation, support or admiration to them. He is one of the most loved men I know.

Those who receive such notes or words of acknowledgement are inevitably grateful for the kind words and, in each case, I also get a big boost in my happiness. Recognizing the gifts (most intangible) others have given me helps me recognize and acknowledge those gifts in myself. Extending gratitude to others brings joy to ourselves as well as the people we acknowledge.


Research shows that reminiscing is a key to happiness. Here are a couple of ways to do this. Make a list of happy memories two times each day for one week. Just pause a few times a day. It could be morning and night or in the middle of the day and write down some of your best memories from the past. You’ll feel better at the end of this week.

A second way to do this is to pull out mementos that are significant to you. Hold them. Think about the memories associated with them and also what they represent. Perhaps even carry one of these mementos with you so you can remember it more often and let it take you back to an earlier positive experience or something that has special meaning in your life. Mementos can be anchors that help us access a value or principle or experience that has meaning and can literally cause a shift in our mental state in this moment to a state that is more joyful or empowering.

I have a lighthouse that was a gift from a friend. It sets on my desk and I periodically pick it up and reflect on it—the symbolism of the object and also importance of this person, who has since passed away. I have other mementos from special experiences. I don’t take time with them daily but do so periodically. They take me back to a nice or meaningful moment. I find greater joy as I connect with these experiences.

Envision a Positive Future

envision your future self

Optimism is like gratitude but it is forward looking rather than backward looking. Laura King, a professor of psychology at University of Missouri, invited participants into her lab for four consecutive days. She divided her participants into two groups. The experimental group was instructed to spend 20 minutes writing an essay entitled “My Best Possible Future Self.” They could do so thinking about a year, five, or ten years in the future. The control group was asked to write details about their daily lives.

Those who wrote about their future selves experienced immediate increases in positive moods. They experienced fewer physical ailments and were happier six months later.

I want to challenge you to do this. Write about your best possible future self. You can do it on consecutive days or even periodically. Doing so will put you into a positive, empowered mindset that will not only result in greater happiness but also make it more likely you’ll obtain the future you desire.

Happiness does not just Happen

We so often think that happiness is a function of our life circumstances. But we really know that it is something we create from the inside-out, in part, by shifting our focus. Waiting or hoping for a big life change to make us happy does not work. We feel better as we look at our lives through a different lens. That is what much of happiness is about.

So, now it’s your turn. I want you to think about which of these strategies you can incorporate into your life and then begin to use them. Or consider other strategies that you can use. Adapt these ideas to your own personality. In fact, I recommend that you bring some variety to your appreciating strategies. Sometimes a strategy can become stale if we rely on it too much or for too long a period of time. There are lots of variations of each of these strategies and I encourage you to experiment and mix them up, always remembering the power of a grateful heart.



  1. Aleesha Marshall

    Well I will start by expressing my gratitude for you and your work. Even just seeing your name come up on my email when you send these posts automatically brightens my day because you embody what you teach and you’re a force for good in my life. I deeply appreciate you continuing to share your depth and knowledge. It helps me so much!

  2. Ed Engel

    Aleesha said it perfectly! I agree with everything she said. So now I’m grateful for Aleesha and for you – I doubled my gratitude. Unfortunately, today’s media and our social and political climate tends to always be sounding the alarm about how bad things are, and impending doom and gloom. Rarely are the good things and good people highlighted. This tends to make some people have a negative outlook, which is unfortunate. I still believe that there is far more good than bad around us. By focusing on the good, we are less focused on the bad. Being grateful for things large and small makes a huge difference in my life.

  3. Esther

    I woke up this morning with the question of happiness and appreciation and I was struggling with the two and their meaning, I was questioning do I truly appreciate the things in my life because they no longer bring me happiness, I understand that happiness comes from within and outside resources (material things) or people can’t fully bring happiness, maybe it’s just me but I’m struggling with happiness and appreciation.

    • Roger Allen

      Hi Esther. Thanks for your comment. Are you struggling with the relationship between happiness and appreciation? Appreciating (or being grateful) requires of me that I slow down in life and notice the good things. It’s something that I cultivate over time as I make this a regular practice, not only noticing but expressing my gratitude in various ways. I don’t see it as a quick fix for happiness but, with practice, it changes my perspective on life which results in greater peace and joy.


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