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Elizabeth Scott, M.S.

The Link Between Gratitude and Happiness

By May 16, 2013

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There's an old adage that it's more important to want what you have than to have what you want. I love that phrase, and think of it often, as I see people experience stress over not having what they want. I've also sometimes wondered if the truth behind the adage could hold up to scientific scrutiny.

Apparently, psychologist Jeff Larsen from Texas Tech University and Amie McKibban of Wichita State University wondered the same thing, and set out to test the theory! They studied college students and their attitudes toward one major possession: their cars. Students with cars were asked to rate how much they wanted the car they had; students without cars rated how much they wanted the car they didn't have.

The results, published in Psychological Science, prove what we all know: that people can become accustomed to what they have, appreciate their possessions less as the novelty wears off, and therefore derive less happiness from their possessions as time goes by. However, they also found that it's possible to continue to want the things you have, and that doing so can, in fact, bring greater happiness! In short, they proved that happiness is both wanting what you have and having what you want.

"Simply having a bunch of things is not the key to happiness," Larsen said in a prepared statement. "Our data show that you also need to appreciate those things you have. It's also important to keep your desire for things you don't own in check."

So how does one maintain an attitude of gratitude for possessions already owned? In my experience, maintaining a gratitude journal is key. If you write down what you're grateful for at the end of the day, you get into the habit of noticing what you appreciate and why, strengthening your appreciation for what you have in your daily life. It also takes the focus away from things you want but don't yet have. If you don't keep a journal, there are other ways of developing an attitude of gratitude, which is so important for happiness and stress relief.

Also, let's not forget the other finding in this research: while happiness is connected with wanting what you have, having what you want factors in as well, so don't give up on your goal-setting! Going after a goal (with the right attitude) can be exciting, and achieving what you want has its own obvious rewards. Here are some effective goal setting tips to help you find happiness, get what you want, and do so with less stress.

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