The Road to Happiness-Optimizing Mental Health with Gratitude and Agency

There are many fallacies that exist around the topic of happiness and mental and emotional health. Research has dispelled the idea that happiness is associated in any way with money; in fact, lottery winners are no happier than people who live in modest financial circumstances. Beauty, fame, those of genius intellect are likewise not made happy by these, what some perceive, desirable attributes. Through the Huberman Lab Podcast Stanford professor Dr. Andrew Huberman met with Dr. Paul Conti, a Stanford and Harvard educated psychiatrist, to discuss the science and practice around how to optimize mental health. Dr. Conti presented that the most salient variables associated with mental health are agency and gratitude. A sense of agency refers to the feeling of control over actions and their consequences, and gratitude involves a conscious awareness of people, places, and things that we knowingly and actively appreciate and may even consider blessings. Dr. Conti went so far as to say—show me a person who lives their life from a place of gratitude and agency who is unhappy, and you will be showing me something that I have never seen (paraphrased).

If we dive more deeply into the construct of agency, we find that it is bolstered by a sense of empowerment—defined as the process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in navigating one's life.  Empowerment in the workplace, family, or community is evidenced when everyone is given a voice, they are valued, and they are aware of it. The sense of strength that comes from empowerment contributes to the sense of purpose and helps someone to take ownership of their process towards achieving desired outcomes—be they physical, emotional, behavioral, spiritual, career or otherwise. Through the inevitable difficult times, empowerment, supporting agency, contributes to our ability to be resilient, weather storms and even become grateful as we reach the other side of each trial. People of faith derive much of their empowerment from their belief that God hears and values them, and from that foundation they cultivate agency and gratitude.

The research on gratitude is prolific demonstrating that people whose lives are imbued with the awareness and practice of being grateful are more optimistic, enjoy elevated mood states, recover from adversity more quickly, may have improved immune function and overall physical health, and suffer less from anxiety and depression.  Humility undergirds gratitude in that we are aware of the vastness of our world, and we appreciate that we are here and have an opportunity to contribute good things. Humble people tend to be less preoccupied with themselves and are more altruistic, serving others. The science behind altruism and service suggests that those who practice these attributes live longer and enjoy a healthier and a higher quality of life when compared with people who are predominantly self-focused.  We can approach our mental and emotional health as we do our physical health, incorporating science-based practices that positively impact us, and this may include the faith and science supported understanding of a life lived with agency, gratitude, humility, and altruism.