Gratitude, Forgiveness, and Happiness
Finding happiness through gratitude
A closer look at how reconciling the past can improve your overall happiness
How forgiveness and gratitude directly impact happiness
Being grateful—or having gratitude—for the past can positively affect your future. Research has shown that people who think about the past in an optimistic way have increased capacity for happiness.
You might experience a variety of feelings when thinking about the past—from pride, satisfaction and contentment to bitterness and anger. These feelings are all controlled by your memories, which you can manage. If you have bad memories, you might be able to change them to neutral or good feelings by challenging your thinking about those situations or through forgiveness.
This means that you have ultimate control over your feelings about the past. If you can control your thoughts and feelings, you can influence your happiness. This might not be easy at first. Talking to someone like a psychiatrist, psychologist, counselor or other mental health professional can be a helpful way to manage difficult experiences so that your feelings about them become neutral.
The past doesn’t dictate your future
Do you believe that your past determines your future? If you do, you’re reducing the amount of control that you have in what happens in your life. If you believe you have no control over your future, you’re also more likely to experience the feeling of “stuckness,”—like no matter what action you take, it won’t make a difference to your life.
Research suggests that childhood events don’t always determine the course of your life. You don’t need to be a prisoner of your past and it doesn’t have to determine your future. You can control your future, your thoughts about the past and present, and the way that you act on these feelings.
Incorporating gratitude into your everyday life
One way to change your feelings, thoughts, actions, and the course of your life is to keep a “gratitude journal”. You might find it useful to keep a daily or weekly diary where you write down everything that you’re grateful for. This can include things that happened to you, things you noticed about your own thoughts or progress, people, where you live, work, school, etc.
Controlled experiments have shown that people who record things they’re grateful for experience an increase in joy, happiness and overall satisfaction with their lives. This is because when you focus on things you’re grateful for, you amplify good memories about the past. Give it a try and see how it works for you!
Reminding yourself of what you’re thankful for every night before you fall asleep is another great way of incorporating gratitude in your life. Instead of letting your mind be flooded with the anxiety of all you have yet to do or what you couldn’t accomplish today, think of what you’re grateful for and what has helped you. They don’t even have to be big reasons—it could be something as simple as being grateful for the sun coming up to grow all the plants that gave you nourishment and energy or thanks for the blankets you have to keep your body warm as you sleep. There is always something you can find to be grateful for.
To get an indication of how grateful you are already, check out the Gratitude Quiz on the Greater Good Magazine website. After completing the quiz, they share your results and some suggestions to foster more gratitude in your life. You might want to re-take this test once you’ve kept your gratitude diary for a couple of weeks, and see whether keeping a diary has had an impact on your level of gratitude. If it has increased, you might want to continue keeping your gratitude journal for the long-term.
If you have intense and frequent negative thoughts about the past, it’s likely that these thoughts will block any positive emotions like contentment and satisfaction. Sometimes it might seem like there are good reasons for not forgiving and for holding on to bitterness. If you’re having trouble deciding whether to forgive, you might want to evaluate the pros and cons of forgiveness.
Your experience could be a very complex and difficult one. It might be especially difficult to forgive if you’ve been really hurt by someone. Forgiveness can take time, and it’s O.K. if at first it hurts too much to forgive. However, if you reach a point where you’re no longer feeling bitter, forgiveness can give you a much greater chance of moving on and enjoying life. Forgiveness transforms bitterness into a neutral feeling, or even a positive feeling, making you happier.
In addition to having a positive impact on your happiness, if you forgive, you’re more likely to be in better physical health, especially when it comes to your heart.
If you choose to reconcile with a person after you’ve come to terms with a situation, there might be even more benefits. Your relationship with that forgiven person is likely to improve greatly—and better relationships can lead to increased happiness.
To get an indication of how ready you are to forgive someone or something, you might want to take the Forgiveness Quiz on the Greater Good Magazine website.
As a disclaimer: it’s okay if you don’t want to forgive someone for what they did to you, now or ever. It’s not your responsibility to forgive someone for the actions they used against you and if you’re not feeling called to forgive them—don’t. The real healing comes from no longer allowing the hurt they caused you to control your life—which doesn’t necessarily require forgiveness. It does require self-compassion, love, and perhaps self-forgiveness for any blame you’ve given yourself in that situation. Allow yourself to feel what you need to feel and continue working on being the best version of yourself possible. Working closely with a mental health professional can help you reach your goals to move through trauma while feeling supported in a safe space. There’s no rush; you have every right to take this at whatever pace you need.
Challenging negative thoughts
In addition to forgiveness, challenging your negative thoughts about the past can be helpful. By challenging these memories, you might realize that the way you think about the event is not actually “correct” or accurate, and that this faulty thinking is making you feel negatively about something that actually deserves neutral or even positive feelings. For additional information, check out the Challenging Negative Self-Talk and Common Thinking Errors articles.
Other tips that might help
It takes practice to be able to identify and change negative thinking about the past and it might not be easy at first. Forgiveness is not always an easy choice. The following tips might also help you challenge negative thoughts and make decisions to forgive.
Find support. Talking to people you trust and respect about the way you feel can be helpful, particularly if you talk to people who have experienced a situation similar to the one you’re in. Try talking to a family member, friend, teacher or counselor.
If you’d rather talk to someone confidentially, try Lines for Life’s YouthLine at 1-877-968-8491. This hotline is free and staffed by trained volunteers who are available 24/7 to talk to you. They also have texting and online chat options available.
Keep a diary. Not only is a gratitude journal important, but having a place to put all your thoughts out of your mind can be really beneficial. You might be experiencing a whole lot of thoughts and feelings about the past, and it might help you keep track by writing them down. Once you identify negative feelings about the past, challenge them. See if you can re-write history.
Remember that the way you think about the past will influence the way you feel about it, and you can control this! Try out some of the suggestions, and see if you can re-shape the way you think and feel about the past, and increase your happiness.
Information for this article was provided by:
Authentic Happiness, Dr. Martin Seligman (Note: To access questionnaires on this website, you’ll have to register free of charge)
The Happiness Handbook by Dr. Timothy Sharp, The Happiness Institute
Berkeley University of California, Greater Good Magazine
Acknowledgments: This article was originally developed by youth and staff for us.ReachOut.com