How Forgiveness & 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 an 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 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 professionals 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.
Creating a gratitude practice
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
- The people you’re around
- Where you live
- Things at school
- Work related gratitude
- Your health
A personal challenge when keeping this gratitude journal is to try to write things that are relevant to that day specifically, versus general things you’re grateful for.
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!
Some people thrive on routine. If this is you, you might want to try beginning and/or ending your day with gratitude. As you start waking up and getting your day started, think of at least three things you are grateful for. This can easily be done as you make breakfast, get dressed, or when you’re on your way to school or work.
Then, as your day is winding down and you find yourself trying to fall asleep, think of at least three more things you’re grateful for. Sometimes just thinking of all the things you’re grateful for and saying that in your mind is enough to lull you to sleep.
Even if things are going horribly in your life, there are still things to be thankful for. In case you need some help coming up with things you can be grateful for, ponder some of these:
I am grateful for…
- The sun coming up today — keeping this world alive and warm
- The clean water in my community that keeps me hydrated
- The air in my lungs
- The food that nourishes my body
- All the work my body does to keep me safe, healthy, and alive
- The peace, serenity, wildness, and power that nature teaches me
- The clothes I have that keep me warm and covered
- Making sure my needs are being met
- Advocating for myself
- Speaking my truth
- Random acts of kindness
- Living in a world with so much potential
- All the people that have taught me to believe in myself, love myself, and/or stick up for myself
- The people that love me
- The beautiful art and inspiration in the world
Take a Quiz
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. After all, it would seem that if we hold onto the resentment we are less likely to be hurt by them again. By learning about what forgiveness really is about, maybe it won’t be so scary to forgive after all.
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.
What is forgiveness?
Forgiveness is the act of letting go of anger or resentment to welcome positive change in your life. More often than not, it’s about coming to terms with the past and shifting your thoughts on what happened so you can release yourself from the pain of the experience.
What is not forgiveness?
Remember, forgiveness isn’t necessarily about being okay with what the other person did, but more so about forgiving yourself or accepting what happened and releasing those attachments to suffering so YOU can be free. Maybe you’re forgiving yourself for not knowing any better, or for wanting love and having certain expectations. Maybe it’s accepting whatever happened to you, which has given you invaluable information that you’re grateful to have now. It’s not about saying what that person did was okay.
It’s also not about welcoming that person back into your life, if that’s not healthy for you. If you want to forgive someone and have a relationship with them, perhaps this time the relationship has stronger boundaries. You don’t deserve abuse, so ask yourself if it’s necessary for the person to be in your life after forgiving the experiences you went through.
Why Forgiveness is Important
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 okay 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.
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.
Health Benefits from Forgiveness
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. When your stress levels drop, you’re putting less strain on your heart and allow your body to enter its rest & repair cycle.
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.
Sometimes, trying to understand people’s motives or why they acted a certain way can help you have more compassion for what the person did. For example, if you thought you weren’t loved growing up because your mom or dad never really spent time with you, maybe looking to see how they were raised and how they were shown love growing up can help you understand how they tried to express love to you. This can help you challenge the negative thought about not being loved because you are, the love is just given to you in ways you don’t really recognize or aren’t in the ways you really need.
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
About Youth Era
Youth Era is a nonprofit that works with teens and young adults to become happy, successful, and contributing adults members of their communities. The organization creates solutions for communities across the country that look beyond short-term assistance for the few and toward sustainable support for the many. To learn more, visit www.youthera.org.