Gratitude: The Decision to Be Happy

I’ve been thinking a lot about gratitude lately, both because it has been a respite for me from the climate of fear that has surrounded us this past year, but also because it’s Thanksgiving.

I’ve decided that gratitude is so much more than the spontaneous rush of thankfulness we feel when good and joyful things happen to us.

Gratitude is a decision that we make and practice every day, that becomes a constitutional way of being within our lives.

Gratitude is a choice that is available to each one of us that shifts our perspective to what is good, to what fills us with love and light, even in the face of suffering and disappointment.

Gratitude is a decision–that leads to less suffering, greater happiness, improved health, and a better world.

Our Minds are Powerful

We have the power to make decisions about our emotions–including the most difficult ones.

I am so struck by the words of the Dalai Lama, as he reflected on the excruciating suffering of his people and his own exile from Tibet in the 1950s. During his treacherous escape from Tibet through the unforgiving Himalayan mountains in wintertime, he had to make a decision about managing his difficult emotions.

The Dalai Lama set himself to the task of a simple practice he learned from a teacher: if you experience tragedy, think about it, but if there’s no way to change it, then there’s no use worrying about it.

Recounted the decision he made to follow his teacher’s advice–to practice careful observation of his emotions and use of his mind to create a positive shift in them: “If something can be done about the situation, what need is there for dejection? And if nothing can be done about it, what use is there for dejection?

He makes it clear that this approach is not a denial of pain and suffering, but rather a shift in one’s perspective about it.

What the Dalai Lama’s experience says to me is that, even in the face of suffering, positive states of mind are decisions that we make, perspectives that we choose, stories that we create, and choices we make for the sake of moving our lives in a better direction.

Suffering is a story. Happiness is a story. Which do we choose? If we knew we had the choice, why wouldn’t we choose happiness over suffering?

Our Emotions are All Wise

Choosing gratitude does not mean we deny the emotions that cause us to suffer. Our emotions enlighten us about the state of our lives–our inner lives and the world around us. Our emotions are the internal flow of our deepest, truest wisdom–including the negative emotions that trouble us in the face of our chaotic world. We need the entire spectrum of our emotions to guide and enlighten us.

But how do we move toward the more positive emotions–love, joy, gratitude–that inspire us, make us feel happy, and (as the scientific literature tells us) make us better and healthier people?

Positive Emotions are Good for Us

The work of research psychologist, Sonja Lyubomirsky, who studies happiness, has found that happy people are happy because they look at life events in a way that engenders happiness, while unhappy people look at things in ways that reinforce their unhappiness.

Happy people choose happiness.

Her review of all the available scientific literature on happiness revealed that happiness has important benefits for people, their communities, and the larger world: greater work satisfaction, enriched personal and social relationships, increased activity and energy, better health (healthier immune systems, less inflammation, less pain, lower stress levels), and longer lives.

Lyubomirsky notes, “the literature, my colleagues and I have found, also suggests that happy individuals are more creative, helpful, charitable, and self-confident, have better self-control, and show greater self-regulatory and coping abilities.”

Gratitude Begets Happiness

The Dalai Lama spent his entire life, from the age of two, practicing control of his mind and response to his emotions through meditation and deep contemplation. But he still feels and welcomes the deep breadth of emotions we all experience, and is widely known for his joyful exuberance and playful spirit. He has worked hard to choose how to respond to his emotions rather than being carried away by them.

But what about the rest of us? How do we get to happiness in the face of struggle and tumultuous times?

Gratitude–the most powerful inroad to happiness is gratitude.

Gratitude is accessible to all of us. It’s easy to practice. We don’t have to feel grateful to practice and reap the benefits.

Gratitude is a simple decision we make to tune in to the good things in our lives and the positive attributes of what makes life tough. With practice, gratitude leads to an expansive, ennobling, positive neural network (positive shift in our brain’s operating systems) that shines the light of positive perspective on everything.

Five Gratitude Practices

  1. Make a list of ten things you are grateful for, whether you feel grateful or not. There is always something to express gratitude about:  My bed is soft and warm. The tree is beautiful. My car is in good working order. The sun is warm. I have indoor plumbing. Take time every day to make this list.
  2. Think of someone you love–a child, partner, parent, or pet. Let your thoughts of them fill your heart. Think of them and breathe into your heart. Let that feeling of love expand and permeate your body and your consciousness.
  3. Think of someone, or a situation, that challenges you. Consider the benefits of being challenged–how it expands you, teaches you, makes you stronger and more resilient. Express your gratitude for that person or situation whether you feel it or not.
  4. Is there someone in your life who you feel grateful for right now? Tell them. Even if you don’t feel brave enough to directly express your gratitude, say it or write it. I am grateful for you.
  5. Learn to receive expressions of gratitude from others. Next time someone thanks you, rather than deflecting it away (Oh, that was nothing.), accept it fully.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

I am grateful for you all.



Karyn Shanks, MD. Optimism: The Key to Starting Over When We’ve Failed. 2017.

Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Douglas Carlton Abrams. The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World. Avery, 2016.

Liberman, Boehm, Lyubomirsky, & Ross, 2009; Lyubomirsky, Layous, Chancellor, & Nelson, 2015; Lyubomirsky & Ross, 1997, 1999), Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005.

Karyn Shanks MD


Karyn Shanks, MD, is a physician who lives and practices in Iowa City. Her work is inspired by the revolutionary science of Functional Medicine, body-mind wisdom, and the transformational journeys of thousands of clients over her twenty-eight year career. She believes that the bones of healing are in what we do for ourselves.

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