One Step Program for a Better Life

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A few years back, author and fitness guru Dr. Marcia Hootman was in a tailspin. She was headed for divorce, her health was suffering, and her teenage son had become increasingly distant.

But in the midst of it all she discovered something—a simple technique that changed her life.

It’s a technique that can change your life, too. It can improve your health, reduce your anxiety, increase your happiness, and renew your sense of optimism. No special skills are required. And it takes fewer than five minutes per day.

I know it works, because I use it myself. Like Dr. Hootman, I discovered it at a time when it seemed like the best part of my life was over. In my case, it was soon after I retired.

The “Three-Legged Stool” of Retirement

To have a fulfilling retirement, we need three things: financial strength, physical strength (good health), and psychological strength. It’s like a three-legged stool. All three legs have to be there. If one is weak or missing, it collapses.

The psychological leg of our stool is arguably the most difficult one to maintain. Which is why a core part of the Palm Beach Letter program is dedicated to this leg. Mark’s series on “living rich” while becoming rich is a prime example. It helps us resist the inclination to become cranky old geezers.

But it’s an easy trap to fall into.

In retirement, I noticed that I was becoming more irritable and self-absorbed. Less joyful. More negative. I often felt like a spent skyrocket falling back to Earth.

What was going on here?

Turns out there’s a branch of psychology that helped me make sense of it: hedonics. Hedonics is the study of what makes us happy and what makes us sad. One of the things researchers in this field have found is that people tend to habituate to the good things in their lives. In other words, over time, we tend to take things for granted.

A Simple Solution

“Reflect upon your present blessings—of which every man has many.”

Charles Dickens wrote those words more than 170 years ago. And the latest research in hedonics confirms that Dickens had it right: Gratitude is one of the keys to a rich and satisfying life.

But in our culture of entitlement, gratitude is underappreciated. And the benefits of cultivating it are largely ignored.

That’s where the technique that Dr. Hootman and I discovered—actively practicing gratitude—comes in.

The Science Behind It

Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, is the leading researcher and an acknowledged scientific expert on gratitude. His findings reveal a host of benefits for those that adopt an “attitude of gratitude.” Including a 25% increase in happiness.

In his book, Thanks!: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier, he dispels the myth that gratitude is just a simplistic emotion. He says:

While the emotion seemed simplistic even to me as I began my research, I soon discovered that gratitude is a deeper more complex phenomenon that plays a critical role in human happiness. Gratitude is literally one of the few things that can measurably change peoples’ lives. 

According to Dr. Emmons, people who actively practice gratitude:

  • Have stronger immune systems and are sick less frequently
  • Exercise more and take better care of their health
  • Sleep longer and feel more refreshed upon waking
  • Feel more alert, alive, and awake
  • Experience more joy and pleasure
  • Are more optimistic
  • Are more forgiving and compassionate
  • Feel less loneliness and isolation.

Why is the active practice of gratitude so effective? Dr. Rick Hanson tells us it has to do with the negativity bias of the brain. “Our brains are like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones,” he says. “Given that, it takes an active effort to internalize positive experiences and heal negative ones. When you tilt toward what’s positive, you’re actually righting a neurological imbalance.”

For most people, the best way to make that “active effort” is with some sort of gratitude ritual.

My Gratitude Ritual

I used to begin my day by thinking about all the things I had to get done and the problems I was going to have to deal with. That put me on the wrong path from the get-go.

My gratitude ritual has changed all that.

Here’s how I do it…

Every morning, with my first cup of coffee, I crack open my “Retirement Insight Journal” and jot down two or three things I’m grateful for.

They might be about my health… or about having a roof over my head, plenty of food to eat, and money in the bank… or about my family and friends… or about having seen a beautiful sunset or enjoyed a good night’s sleep. Sometimes it’s even about material things.

I used to think it wasn’t appropriate to be grateful for my possessions. Not anymore. Grateful is grateful. In my journal you’ll find entries for such things as my Nespresso machine, my carbon-fiber bike, and my TiVo (a digital-video recorder that allows me to record scheduled broadcast television programs).

Now, here’s the most important part of my ritual: As I make each entry, I think about what that person or thing really means to me… something very specific about how they have added to my life.

For example, one of the entries I made this morning was about JC, my first mentor in the securities industry. As I made that entry, I remembered how his encouragement and sage advice gave me the confidence I needed to succeed in that fiercely competitive environment. I told myself that I know I wouldn’t be where I am today, had it not been for him.

Thanks to my gratitude ritual, I begin my day with optimism and energy. I’ve found that gratitude begets happiness. And that feeling of happiness in turn fosters gratitude. It’s a virtuous circle, with the effects compounding over time.

And it is so simple I wish I had discovered it years ago. It has made an outsized contribution to my well-being. Way out of proportion to the time and energy I’ve invested in it. It’s like a stock that goes parabolic.

Dr. Hootman had a similar experience. After just three weeks of active gratitude practice she began to feel lighter. And happier. The dreariness dissipated. Today, she says she wouldn’t trade her life for anyone’s.

P.S. Another thing I’m very grateful for is my friendship with NY Times #1 bestselling business author Mark Ford and his business partner Tom Dyson. Recently, Tom told me about a unique way I (and almost any retiree) can generate more income in retirement. He recorded a short video so I could share this with my contacts. You can see it HERE.

[Ed Note: After working 30 years with two of the world’s top money managers, Bob Irish recently retired to his home in Palm Beach with his wife Tricia. He shares his in-depth retirement insights and secrets with thousands of readers in his monthly Retirement Insider. If you’re interested in adding your name to Bob’s distribution list, you can find out how to do so HERE.]
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  • Kevin

    Thanks for a good article! This is the perfect way to start the New Year-keep up the god work!