Gratitude: Your number one shortcut to happiness


Today I want to share a video with you first. It brought me to tears. 

It was a social experiment by Spanish photographer Paola Calasanz, who asked two strangers to sit separated from each other by a wall. They could hear each other but didn’t know who was on the other side. 

They were asked two questions: “If your could make one wish, what would it be? ” and “what makes you happy?”.

I invite you to have a go yourself at these two questions before you read on.

The answers from the people on the right side of the wall were generally the same: they wanted to travel to places they hadn’t been, have a better job, build their own business, and achieve success.

And then they hear the strangers from the other side of the wall:

” I wish my daughter could have a normal life”

” I wish I could walk”

” What makes me happiest is the air touching my face”

” I wish there would be no disease in the world”

” What makes me happiest is to wake up in the morning and see my sister is well”


These answers left the people on the right side surprised, or in tears. People on the two sides finally met, and those on the right were told that the strangers on the left were cancer patients and their family.

Calasanz created this video in collaboration with Association of Adolescents and Young Adults with Cancers. His goal was to show how drastically an illness can change one’s perspective on life.

Last month, I went through one of the most difficult periods of my life.  Whilst  it was challenging and exhausting physically and emotionally, it also gave me a great opportunity to spend more time with my family, and to appreciate small things in life which I took for granted (such as being able to step outside to the balcony for some fresh air, or smelling the lovely scent of flowers in my room).  I also felt lucky to have met an amazing team of doctor and nurses, and to have had the loving support from my husband and my family. I am happy to report that I am now on my way to a smooth recovery.

Seeing this video just reminded me to be grateful to even the smallest things in life and to be appreciative of what life has to offer, even when life through a curve ball at you.  Being grateful is one of the most important qualities that we can have to live a happier and more fulfilling life. It connects us, inspires us, and lets us see a different perspective on life, even when things are difficult or challenging.

Why gratitude is the shortcut to our well-being and happiness

The word “gratitude” is derived from the Latin word “gratia”, meaning grace, graciousness, or gratefulness. In psychology, gratitude is defined as a felt sense of wonder, thankfulness and appreciation for life.

The root of gratitude can be traced back to many religious traditions, where it is one of the most common emotions those religions seek to evoke or sustain in their followers. The link between gratitude and spirituality is described beautifully by Streng (1989): “In this attitude (gratitude) people recognise that they are connected to each other in a mysterious and miraculous way that is not fully determined by physical forces, but is part of a wider or transcendent context.”

In this well-known theory of self-actualisation, American psychologist Arabram Maslow also views the sense of appreciation as a core characteristic of a self-actualising person. He suggests self-actualisers have the capacity to “appreciate again and again, freshly and naively, the basic goods of life with awe, pleasure, wonder and even ecstasy, however stale these experience may have become to others”.

Psychologists have found that gratitude has a wide range of benefits on people’s physical health and psychological well-being. For example, in a recent study on gratitude by Robert Emmons and Cheryl Crumpler at University of California, participants were divided into three groups. One third (“neutral”) were asked to record up to five major events that most affected them during the week, another third (“stressor”) were asked to write down five minor stressors that occurred in the week, and the final third (“gratitude”) were asked to write down five things for which they were grateful or thankful.

The results showed significant difference between the three groups in terms of emotional and physical well-being. Compared to the stressor group, those in the gratitude condition felt better about their lives as a whole and were more optimistic about their expectation of the upcoming week. In addition, similar patterns were observed in the participants’ physical well-being, with the gratitude group reporting fewer physical complaints than the stressor group (although it did not differ from the neutral condition). The most interesting difference comes from the amount of time spent on exercising. The gratitude group spent over 4 hours in exercise compared with just over 3 hours for the stressor group.

Similarly, other evidence also supports that gratitude can enhance positive emotions, improve the level of satisfaction in life, and even improve our sleep qualityAs we acknowledge the importance of gratitude on our physical and psychological well-being, what can we do cultivate more gratitude in our lives? Here are a few ideas for you to try:

 1. Create a ritual to remind yourself the things you feel grateful about.  As our brain is hardwired to focus on negatives rather than positives, we tend to get trapped by things that we are not satisfied with instead of things that we can feel grateful about. The social and business environments we live in also condition our mind to pay more attention to what we don’t have (that’s most marketing is about), so we tend to lose sight of what we already have and take those for granted.

Therefore it is helpful to set up your own ritual to remind yourself of things you are grateful for. It might be writing a gratitude journal every week, incorporate gratitude in your meditation practice, or posting pictures of things or people you feel grateful for on a board so that you can see them every day. Whatever it is, make it your own and something you can keep doing without feeling too much hassled. Reminding yourself not to take anything you have for granted will change your perspective and allow you to perceive your life in a more positive way.

2. Identify your non-grateful thoughts, and replace them with gratitude-supporting thoughts. As mentioned earlier, human brain has a habit of emphasising negative things, so it is useful to recognise this pattern and try to replace it with gratitude-supporting thoughts.

For example, if you’ve had a bad day at work perhaps due to an argument with a difficult colleague, you may want to replace your frustration by appreciating the incident as a good opportunity for you to grow by learning how to deal with difficult people. You make your reality in your mind. By changing your thoughts, you change your own reality.

3. Do something to show your appreciation. Action speaks louder than words. When you express your appreciation to others, you will also gain a sense of happiness as the positive energy is mutual and interconnected.  It could be small things such as sending a thank-you note to someone who has helped you in the past; or you may want to spend some time on volunteering work in your community to help those in need.

The more you give, the more you receive. Please also remember to do something to thank yourself, for showing up every day and doing the work despite all the challenges and difficulties along the way. It is very easy to let our inner-critic take over and have the feeling of “not doing enough” or “not good enough”. Instead, thank yourself for being who you are and know that you are good enough as you are.

Now I’d like to hear from you. What is your reflection after watching the video clip? What are three things you feel grateful for in your life? and What are you doing or planning to do to bring more gratitude in your life? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

With much love and appreciation,


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