How a daily dose of gratitude will make you smarter, richer and happier.

Updated to Habits on March 24, 2019.

I was in a car the other day with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon talking about hypertension. 

This conversation is actually not as unusual as it might sound. I volunteer for a local society that does trail clearing in a popular hiking and mountain bike park and many of the volunteers happen to be recently retired doctors. 

Back in the car, one of the doctors happened to mention that recently his medical partner, who is in his early 60’s, had a mild stroke. As we wound our way further up the dirt road to our work site my education continued. 

I learned that strokes are the second biggest cause of mortality worldwide and the third most common cause of disability. The scary statistics get worse. As you age your chance of a stroke doubles every 10 years after 55

There’s a checklist of health conditions that make you more susceptible to a stroke, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But the biggest culprit – six times out of ten – is hypertension or high blood pressure. In my books, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s interesting is that stress, in itself, is not the direct cause of high blood pressure. It’s what we do when under stress that leads to nasty results. We eat too much, drink too much, and move too little. Basically, we deal with stress by making unhealthy choices.

For me, stress starts with worry.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a lot of worries

There is a world of problems you can worry about – take your pick. You can worry that Ukraine will be pummeled into a tiny province of rubble, or that we’ve passed the tipping point with global warming, or the tiny spot on your chin is cancer. 

Or not.

“I’ve had a lot of worries,” quipped Mark Twain “most of which never happened.” Our mind loves a good worry. Like a dog chewing a bone, we want to turn our worry around, looking from all angles, poking and prodding until it swells up into something bigger than it really is.

I used to worry incessantly before every keynote speech. I’d worry I’d miss my flight or wasn’t prepared enough, or I would be greeted by the “audience from hell.” Trust me, when you have 60 minutes to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, and get laughs from an audience you’ve never met before, any sane person would invent a long list of worries.

It was at one of those events when a fellow speaker opened an exit door for my worries. He suggested that audiences don’t want you to fail – in fact, they want you to succeed. “They want to see you having fun—enjoying yourself. That way,” he explained, “they can enjoy the ride with you.”

When I accepted the long list of what I could never control – my flights, the audience, the speaker before me going overtime – I was free to focus on what I could control.

Enjoying the moment. 

What your life will have been

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of delighting in the preciousness of every single moment.

A woman is running from lions. She runs and she runs, and the lions are getting closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds onto it. Then she looks down and sees that there are lions below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks a the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Learning what to focus on, and what to ignore, seems to be the ultimate secret to living a healthy, stress-free life. “Whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment,” writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (a must-read for anyone over 50), “is simply what your life will have been.”

So, what are you focussing on?

What to focus on

You can learn a lot when you’re the dumbest one in a car full of doctors. I learned that strokes are a silent pandemic. And that hypertension is the leading cause of that pandemic. And I learned the leading cause of hypertension is stress. 

I was also reminded that stress is a choice.

We all have lions and tigers in our life. Maybe even a mouse or two gnawing away at something we value. Meanwhile, we have the moment.

Choosing what to focus on (and what not to) might just be the healthiest choice you can make.

Got this far? You might also like these posts:

Photo of eggs by Nik on Unsplash
Photo of Ngoc Son Temple by author
Photo of tigers by author

“When I started counting my blessings, my whole life turned around.” – Willie Nelson

I’m going through a shit show.

And I’m happy.

Let me explain. A younger, dumber me would look at my project plate right now and freak. This week alone I added four people to my team and took on seven new clients. Meanwhile I’m leading a non-profit that is exploding in growth, managing the two properties (one I live in) and training every day in preparation for race season. Oh, and I’m going through a separation with my wife of 28 years.

But, I’m happy.

You see I’ve written about choice, blocking and goals in other articles. And those are all great strategies – this article is about a state of mind.

I have a lot on my plate. Sure, I filled my own plate, none the less, the pile is high enough to bring on a panic attack and make me want to escape to the mountains.

Instead, I’m here, showing up every day, putting in the work and feeling on top of it all. It’s almost surreal.

I give a lot of the credit to gratitude. Every day I have been reflecting on what I have – the freedom of choice, my health, my friends and family.

Before, I share how I’ve been doing this, I want to share some of the science behind gratitude.

Boost your Brain Power

“Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.” – William Arthur Ward

There’s some strange mental magic that happens when you experience gratitude. In one study, by Joel Wong and Joshua Brown at Berkeley, just writing letters of gratitude to friends, or even people who have hurt you, resulted in “significantly better mental health four weeks and 12 weeks after their writing exercise ended.”
It seems that feeling grateful, or expressing it leads to improves the functioning of your medial prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain we use for learning and decision making.

And here’s two key points about letter of gratitude: it turns out it’s not so important you actually mail the letter, and the real results happen when you use fewer negative words.

Fire up a Feeling of Freedom

“I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder” G.K. Chesterton

What would you rather experience a desk cluttered with the crap of a crazy busy week or sitting in your favourite coffee shop with just a laptop and cup of your favourite brew? I know that, like me, you’d always vote for letter clutter.

If fact, I work hard every day to create a working environment that attracts me, not repels me.

Practicing gratitude shifts my focus to what I can do, not what is behind me. I think more about choices I have, not what other people want. When I take just few minutes to think of all that I’m grateful for it fires up my feeling of freedom.

Make more Money

“Gratitude turns what we have into enough, and more.” Melody Beattie

It turns out the practice of gratitude (more about that below) can make you money. Whaaaat?

In a study by professor of psychology David DeSteno, participants who were feeling gratitude showed nearly double the self-control when it came to making money decisions. This is all about the delayed-gratification (think: marshmallow test for adults) that drives so many of our decisions around money, food, sex, Netflix-binging and stale Doritos.

In other words, when you feel grateful you’re less likely to need that expensive coffee and pastry and more likely to be happy with a cup of tea.

4 Simple Gratitude Practices that could Change your Life

“Developing an ‘attitude of gratitude’ is one of the simplest ways to improve your satisfaction with life.” – Amy Morin

Here’s the good news. This won’t hurt a bit—in fact, your practice of gratitude can be a quick as five-minutes of journaling or quiet moment in our car commuting to work.

  1. A morning gratitude journal. I’m a fan of the format in the Five-Minute Journal by Alex Ihonn and U.J. Ramdas (you can get it here). A simple mole-skin notebook will also work. My routine is while water is boiling for my morning tea, I fill in “3 amazing things that happened today…” at the bottom of yesterday’s entry. And then complete: “3 things I’m grateful for”, “3 things that would make today great” and “daily affirmations.” This exercise rarely takes longer that the time it takes for the kettle to boil and my tea to steep.
  2. Let it go. It’s easy to be critical of how long it took for your meal to be served of the way another person drives. That’s giving up your control. Gratitude is noticing you have the money to be served in a nice restaurant and have a working car that you can drive. Look around you – there are hundreds of reasons to be grateful.
  3. Thank a friend. When was the last time you thanked a friend for their advice, their caring – their friendship. We can go through life hoping people figure it out…or express our gratitude. That way we both win.
  4. Fix the crap in your life. I am constantly learning how a quick phone call, short lesson, or 10 minutes of concentrated effort improves my life. Start by clearing your life of clutter and then start tackling repetitive frustrations that hold you back, like a computer that’s past it’s due date, a team member who’s not fully committed or your own habit of  getting lost in email-hell.

Don’t dismiss the practice of gratitude the way you might have dismissed yoga, mindfulness and scented vaporizers. The science doesn’t lie.

A dose of daily gratitude can make you smarter, richer and happier. It has for me.

Enjoyed this article? Here some more articles that dive into related topics:

How to get rich by spending less money (it’s easier than you think)
3 daily rituals that will make you rich
Why I am quitting stupid, petty, small thinking


How Gratitude Changes You and Your Brain”, Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. Joel Wong and Joshua Brown. It’s interesting to note the delayed benefits of gratitude discovered by the researchers “It’s important to note that the mental health benefits of gratitude writing in our study did not emerge immediately, but gradually accrued over time.”

The Only Way to Keep Your Resolutions, David DeSteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, is the author of the forthcoming book “Emotional Success: The Power of Gratitude, Compassion, and Pride.” This article was written about NY resolutions, but the application of gratitude described by the author is more global.

7 Scientifically Proven Benefits Of Gratitude That Will Motivate You To Give Thanks Year-Round. If you need more evidence of the power of gratitude, Psychotherapist and author of 13 Things Mentally Strong Women Don’t Do, Amy Morin will convince you in this Forbes article.

Photo by Thom Holmes on Unsplash