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The Super Simple Habit That Can Instantly Boost Your Mood

Try this as a cure for those down-and-out days.

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Yesterday was one of those days. I broke a glass unloading the dishwasher then got a splinter from the handrail on our deck. Wanting to make a peach cobbler for a friend’s dinner party, I drove over to the local grocery — and discovered they didn’t have any peaches.

“What else could go wrong?” I mumbled to myself. Three strikes and it was only 10 a.m. I marched out of the grocery store feeling excessively grumpy.

Given that I wrote a popular book on gratitude called The Gratitude Diaries, you’d think that I wouldn’t have days where I’m irritable — but no such luck. Fortunately, I’ve learned how to turn them around. We often think that it’s events that make us happy or not, but our own responses are far more important. We have more control over our own happiness than we realize and a few simple techniques can help us feel better every day.

Finding a way to feel more positive — no matter what chaos is happening around you — has huge benefits. Martin Seligman, director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, has done extensive research into what helps us flourish and find more meaning in life. “Of all the positive strengths we’ve looked at, people who are highest in gratitude are also highest in well-being,” he says.

Being more grateful sounds like something anyone can do — and maybe you’ve even decided to improve your own gratitude practice. You might keep a gratitude journal or write a letter of gratitude to a friend or colleague. But then you have a day when the coffee spills, you can't find your glasses, nobody is answering your phone calls, and keeping a positive outlook becomes more of a challenge.

As I walked out of the grocery store, I decided to try a very simple technique that I’ve discovered for improving your mood. I made myself stop — really physically stop — and think about one reason to be grateful. I took a deep breath and looked around. I noticed that the sun was shining and a tree nearby had bloomed with bright pink flowers. Without realizing it, I began to smile.

When you stop to feel grateful, your body relaxes and begins sending positive signals to your brain. Your mind gets the message that all is well and suddenly you’re in a different (and better) mood. Over a longer period of time, your stress levels go down and you don’t feel as many aches and pains.

When you start spiraling downward, it seems like there’s no way to recover, but that’s the perfect time to take a different view. Joshua Brown, a professor of brain sciences at Indiana University, found that people who wrote one gratitude letter every week for three weeks had higher levels of well-being for three months afterwards. And, that was true even if they were struggling with mental health issues. People who wrote about negative life experiences didn’t benefit at all.

We’re all the spinmeisters of our own lives and how we tell ourselves about our day or our experiences is how we see them. Instead of focusing on what’s wrong, reframe the events in your day to see the good. If you’re sitting in traffic and feeling irritated, appreciate that you have time to listen to an extra podcast or another chapter on your audiobook.

If it’s raining, and you are going to a social event and you forgot your umbrella, change your perspective to think about the funny story you can tell when you arrive with wet hair. You’re not necessarily going to make the world better, but you can feel better about the world.

I like to think of this as the Shakespeare advice because of the great observation in Hamlet that “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

The line comes up when friends come to visit Prince Hamlet at the palace in Denmark and while they think it’s a great place, he tells them it’s a prison. That’s when Hamlet points out that “good” and “bad” are a question of how we perceive events. It's how we think about them.

For some reason, most people trust misery more than happiness. We’re fascinated to see Hamlet wonder if life is worth living. “To be or not to be” seems a lot more profound than “Gosh, I’m one lucky guy.” What makes a great play, though, isn’t necessarily the poetic basis for a happy life.

When I give talks on gratitude someone invariably stands up during the question period and tells me that they have a right to be miserable and their positive friends are looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. “I’ll feel grateful when I have something to be grateful for!” they often say.

I try to gently explain that interpreting events from a positive view is just as realistic and genuine as seeing them negatively. Some people can find the good in everything — and others only find the bad.

The great Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast, sometimes called the grandfather of gratitude (maybe the great-grandfather since he’s 97), has said: “It’s not happiness that makes us grateful, but gratitude that makes us happy.”

Think about that for a moment because it’s incredibly powerful. You don’t have to look for circumstances to make you happy. You can use gratitude to be happier right now, whatever is going on.

After I took in the sunshine and flowers on my grumpy day, I also thought about how I might reframe what had happened. The splinter in my finger had a positive side because it reminded me to sand the handrail before the grandkids came over. The broken glass could easily be replaced, and instead of the peach cobbler I’d planned, I found a new recipe for plum cobbler. My friends thought it was delicious.

What's one thing YOU are grateful for today? Let us know in the comments below.

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