Why appreciating what we have can make us happier

July 24, 2019
Filipe Bastos


For many of us, it seems as though we exist in a state of dissatisfaction for much of the time. Not content with life’s simple pleasures, we are always reaching for something ‘over there’ which we believe will make us feel happier and more content. Yet every time we manage to grasp the thing that’s ‘over there’, we soon become dissatisfied, and the cycle starts all over again. So, the question is, how do we break this cycle and feel happier and more content in the present moment? To answer this, we should first reflect a little on why it seems that contentment is only to be found in some elusive future moment rather than in the present.


In post-war Britain and America, advertising became a huge industry. It attempted to boost these depressed economies by encouraging people to buy products they didn’t really need. By generating a culture of desire, it increased people’s cravings for material objects by making them feel that either they didn’t have enough already, or that they themselves weren’t enough. While people in the West now have a higher standard of living than ever before, they are ironically less happy and more depressed and anxious than ever. An appreciation for the simple pleasures in life as experienced by previous generations has gradually been replaced by a desire for material things. However, the field of positive psychology has produced an abundance of ‘happiness’ studies which have shown that (contrary to popular belief), provided people’s basic needs are met (such as food, shelter, health, and some good relationships), people’s income levels have surprisingly little effect on their reported happiness. Instead, it is the simple things in life, like friendship, nature, and other, non-material things, that people around the world tend to derive the most happiness from.


Although we engage in social media because we want to feel more connected to our friends, a study by Hunt, Marx, Lipson, and Young (2018) found that it actually makes people feel lonelier and more depressed. Other studies have also found that the need to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ has been taken to a whole new level by social media. People feel compelled to post mainly photos of their holidays in exotic places, of luxury items and of perfect bodies, on their Facebook and Instagram accounts. The social pressure to create misleading personas and to misrepresent ourselves by exaggerating the more favourable aspects of our lives, maintains a vicious circle of envy, dissatisfaction, and desire, taking us further away from true happiness and the things which really matter.


The quality of our relationships and the gratitude we feel for them has been strongly linked to our wellbeing. The University of Virginia carried out a study regarding “Big Sister Week” (an annual event held at the university) and investigated how gratitude helps in both the formation and maintenance of relationships. During “Big Sister Week” sororities pick their new members and the “Big Sisters” anonymously give their new “Little Sisters” presents to welcome and help them bond with the group. At the end of the week, each Big Sister reveals who she gave her gift to. The psychologists found that the level of reported gratitude that each Little Sister felt for the Big Sister who bought her gift predicted how often she interacted with her Big Sister and the quality of their relationship a month later. It also predicted how well-integrated the Little Sisters felt with their new sorority. Similar studies have also found that people’s overt expressions of gratitude towards their friends and family help to improve their relationships and to maintain them over time.


Although being reminded to be grateful for the good things in our lives by writing a gratitude journal may seem a little corny or self-indulgent to some of us, there is now a good deal of scientific evidence which suggests that in doing so we are likely to feel happier and experience increased wellbeing. A study by Wood, Froh and Geraghty (2010) found that in addition to gratitude journaling, other simple exercises in which people habitually focus on the positive aspects of their lives can considerably improve their wellbeing. “Gratitude contemplation” exercises immediately improved participants’ moods, and similarly, “gratitude visits” or writing thank you letters lowered depressive symptoms and also enhanced participants’ moods. Therefore, it is likely that by practising some of these simple gratitude exercises ourselves, we will experience similar effects on our own happiness and wellbeing.

  • Keeping a gratitude journal

While it may seem a little cliched to some of us, at the end of each day, write a list of six things that we are most grateful for. The act of physically writing a gratitude journal is not only an immediate mood-booster that can contribute to a better night’s sleep, but it has also been found to have a profound effect on general wellbeing.

  • Gratitude contemplation

Spending as little as five minutes listing positive experiences and contemplating the gratitude we feel, and the positive emotions we experience can improve our mood and help to alleviate anxiety.

  • Gratitude visits

It sounds cliched but visiting or writing to someone with the sole purpose of telling them that we appreciate his or her friendship or something they’ve done is likely not only to improve that relationship but also to lower depression and enhance our mood.

  • Limiting time on social media

If we want to feel more connected to our real friends (rather than to our two hundred Facebook friends), the evidence would suggest that we should severely limit our time on social media, or even delete our accounts.

  • Cultivate present moment awareness

We can cultivate greater present moment awareness by engaging in activities that slow down our thoughts and anchor us in the here and now, such as spending time in nature, walking the dog, fishing or meditating.

It stands to reason that the more we concentrate our attention on the present moment, focus on the things we are grateful for and on what it’s like to simply be here now, the more the need to look ‘over there’ for some future fulfilment will diminish. It is once we have broken this cycle that we are likely to feel more content with our lives the way they are.

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