How to Practice Gratitude
June 14, 2021
- How to Practice Gratitude
- Daily Practices
- Starting a Journal
- Gratitude and the Brain
- Science of Gratitude
Practicing gratitude can be a game-changer: it has far-reaching effects, from improving our mental health to boosting our relationships with others. Living your life with gratitude helps you notice the little wins—like the bus showing up right on time, a stranger holding the door for you, or the sun shining through your window when you wake up in the morning. Each of these small moments strings together to create a web of well-being that, over time, strengthens your ability to notice the good.
Building your capacity for gratitude isn’t difficult. It just takes practice. The more you can bring your attention to that which you feel grateful for, the more you’ll notice to feel grateful for!
- Start by observing. Notice the thank yous you say. Just how much of a habitual response is it? Is it a hasty aside, an afterthought? How are you feeling when you express thanks in small transactions? Stressed, uptight, a little absent-minded? Do a quick scan of your body—are you already physically moving on to your next interaction?
- Pick one interaction a day. When your instinct to say “thanks” arises, stop for a moment and take note. Can you name what you feel grateful for, even beyond the gesture that’s been extended? Then say thank you.
How Do I Practice Gratitude?
Robert Emmons, psychology professor and gratitude researcher at the University of California, Davis, explains that there are two key components of practicing gratitude:
- We affirm the good things we’ve received
- We acknowledge the role other people play in providing our lives with goodness
Most of us know it’s important to express thanks to the people who help us, or silently acknowledge the things we are grateful for in life. Research has linked gratitude with a wide range of benefits, including strengthening your immune system and improving sleep patterns, feeling optimistic and experiencing more joy and pleasure, being more helpful and generous, and feeling less lonely and isolated.
Interested in reaping some of these benefits? Get started with a gratitude practice.
Practicing Daily Gratitude
10 Ways to Practice Daily Gratitude
As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “The little things? The little moments? They aren’t little.” Saying thank you, holding the door for someone, these little moments can change the tone of your whole day.
One of the most powerful ways to rewire your brain for more joy and less stress is to focus on gratitude. Here are 10 simple ways to become more grateful:
- Keep a Gratitude Journal. Establish a daily practice in which you remind yourself of the gifts, grace, benefits, and good things you enjoy. Recalling moments of gratitude associated with ordinary events, your personal attributes, or valued people in your life gives you the potential to interweave a sustainable theme of gratefulness into your life.
- Remember the Bad. To be grateful in your current state, it is helpful to remember the hard times that you once experienced. When you remember how difficult life used to be and how far you have come, you set up an explicit contrast in your mind, and this contrast is fertile ground for gratefulness.
- Ask Yourself Three Questions. Meditate on your relationships with parents, friends, siblings, work associates, children, and partners using these three questions: “What have I received from __?”, “What have I given to __?”, and “What troubles and difficulty have I caused?”
- Share Your Gratitude with Others. Research has found that expressing gratitude can strengthen relationships. So the next time your partner, friend or family member does something you appreciate, be sure to let them know.
- Come to Your Senses. Through our senses—the ability to touch, see, smell, taste, and hear—we gain an appreciation of what it means to be human and of what an incredible miracle it is to be alive. Seen through the lens of gratitude, the human body is not only a miraculous construction, but also a gift.
- Use Visual Reminders. Because the two primary obstacles to gratefulness are forgetfulness and a lack of mindful awareness, visual reminders can serve as cues to trigger thoughts of gratitude. Often times, the best visual reminders are other people.
- Make a Vow to Practice Gratitude. Research shows that making an oath to perform a behavior increases the likelihood that the action will be executed. Therefore, write your own gratitude vow, which could be as simple as “I vow to count my blessings each day,” and post it somewhere where you will be reminded of it every day.
- Watch Your Language. Grateful people have a particular linguistic style that uses the language of gifts, givers, blessings, blessed, fortune, fortunate, and abundance. In gratitude, you should not focus on how inherently good you are, but rather on the inherently good things that others have done on your behalf.
- Go Through the Motions. Grateful motions include smiling, saying thank you, and writing letters of gratitude. By “going through grateful motions,” you’ll trigger the emotion of gratitude more often.
- Think Outside the Box. If you want to make the most out of opportunities to flex your gratitude muscles, you must look creatively for new situations and circumstances in which to feel grateful. Please share the creative ways you’ve found to help you practice gratitude.
Try A 5-Minute Gratitude Meditation
- Savor the good. On days when gratitude feels difficult to find, tune into your senses. This meditation invites you to cultivate thankfulness by slowing down and noticing what you can see, hear, touch, smell, and taste. There doesn’t have to be anything special going on in order to practice gratitude—maybe it’s as simple as feeling grateful for your morning coffee, or for a good book. Explore this simple practice to appreciate the little things.
- Use the breath to anchor yourself in the present moment. Our minds are always so easily pulled to busyness. Bring particular attention to feeling the breath, or something in the body, as you bring your shoulders down and orient your attention toward gratitude.
- Next, bring to mind a sight you are grateful for. Move through your senses, and find one thing to start with that you appreciate that comes to you from the world of sight, if you have this available. It could be a color…a shadow…a shape…a movement. Remember, it will never be like this again. What do you see right now, and can you feel grateful that you get to see this, whatever it is?
- Now, shift to a scent you appreciate. As you continue to work with your senses, now take time to tune in with appreciation to an aroma. What do you notice? What about that glorious or interesting or subtle smell is making you smile? It could be gratitude for something familiar: a scent that brings comfort, upliftment; or maybe it’s something you’ve never smelled before, and it just piques your curiosity, ignites you, enlivens you.
- Moving on, tune into any sounds around you. Allowing the world of smell to gently recede into the background, on an in-breath, shift your attention to your ears and the world of sound. Maybe notice what it feels like to really listen. How many sounds can you notice, and can you feel grateful that you’re able to experience sound, if you are? What can you notice about these sounds—far away? close? Perhaps you could play a piece of music that brings you joy, and have gratitude that it’s so available? Or maybe it’s the sound of children laughing, the sound of loved ones breathing, the sound of the beating of your own heart.
- The world of touch and texture beckons us next. We find so much to be grateful for in touch! If there’s someone near who you can hug or who can hug you, notice how this makes you feel filled with gratitude for the joy of human contact. Or perhaps you have a beautiful pet that you can stroke and cuddle, or some lovely material with a texture that feels warm to the touch, soft, evocative. Let your senses ignite your gratitude! There’s so much to be appreciative of.
- Shift to noticing and appreciating objects around you. Now take a moment to look around: Look down, look up, and from side to side. Appreciate how much effort must have gone into anything at all you own or use. Someone conceived of the need and many people worked on the details of the design. Much care even went into the packaging to deliver your item to you safely. What do you feel when you let yourself be grateful that all that talent went into making your life a little easier?
- As you end this practice, carry this attitude of gratitude with you. One last little grateful tip: Why not offer your thanks to each person who does anything at all for you today? Even if it is their job to help you? When you’re grateful, when you let your heart open up and be filled with appreciation, notice how being grateful makes you feel.
- Close with gratitude. I’m so grateful that you tuned in to this gratitude practice, and I appreciate your time, your effort, and your energy to be present, awake, and alive to your precious life. Have a beautiful day.
Daily Gratitude Journaling
How to Do It
There’s no wrong way to keep a gratitude journal, but here are some general ideas as you get started.
Write down up to five things for which you feel grateful. The physical record is important—don’t just do this exercise in your head. The things you list can be relatively small in importance (“The tasty sandwich I had for lunch today.”) or relatively large (“My sister gave birth to a healthy baby boy.”). The goal of the exercise is to remember a good event, experience, person, or thing in your life—then enjoy the good emotions that come with it.
9 Gratitude Writing Tips
As you write, here are nine important tips:
1. Be as specific as possible—specificity is key to fostering gratitude. “I’m grateful that my co-workers brought me soup when I was sick on Tuesday” will be more effective than “I’m grateful for my co-workers.”
2. Go for depth over breadth. Elaborating in detail about a particular person or thing for which you’re grateful carries more benefits than a superficial list of many things.
3. Get personal. Focusing on people to whom you are grateful has more of an impact than focusing on things for which you are grateful.
4. Try subtraction, not just addition. Consider what your life would be like without certain people or things, rather than just tallying up all the good stuff. Be grateful for the negative outcomes you avoided, escaped, prevented, or turned into something positive—try not to take that good fortune for granted.
5. See good things as “gifts.” Thinking of the good things in your life as gifts guards against taking them for granted. Try to relish and savor the gifts you’ve received.
6. Savor surprises. Try to record events that were unexpected or surprising, as these tend to elicit stronger levels of gratitude.
7. Revise if you repeat. Writing about some of the same people and things is OK, but zero in on a different aspect in detail.
8. Write regularly. Whether you write every other day or once a week, commit to a regular time to journal, then honor that commitment. But…
9. Don’t overdo it. Evidence suggests writing occasionally (1-3 times per week) is more beneficial than daily journaling. That might be because we adapt to positive events and can soon become numb to them—that’s why it helps to savor surprises.
Gratitude and the Brain
4 Ways to Train Your Brain to Practice More Gratitude
1. Take time to notice what’s around you
Practicing mindfulness helps you tune in to the present moment. It is possible that if you are a grateful person, you are more mindful of others’ gestures. The more often you tune into your awareness, the greater the chances you will notice all the good that’s around you to feel gratitude for, which can then bring satisfaction and happiness. Our ability to pick up on the beauty of nature, kindness from one another, the chance to make a living via a job, all require our ability to be cognizant of ourselves and our surroundings. Being mindful of help in the kitchen, or the color of the sky allows us to generate gratitude by simply noticing them.
2. Practice gratitude for the little things
We often remember to be grateful for big events, like graduating from university or getting married, but it can be more difficult to feel grateful for the small things we do every day. Reminding yourself that eating a meal, for example, is in itself special can be very powerful. Your immediate awareness of the food in front of you, combining flavors while removing hunger, is a great way to enjoy gratitude as often as you eat! Another example is feeling grateful in the morning for being able to comfortably sleep at night. We gain comfort, satisfaction and peace by practicing mindfulness and gratitude in this repeated fashion.
3. Share your gratitude for your loved ones
Most of us are a little bit guilty of taking our loved ones for granted. The next time you notice a kind act by a loved one, why not show gratitude by simply saying ‘thank you’ , or giving a hug? We ought to show appreciation and not let kind acts go unnoticed. Training yourself to show your gratefulness for loved ones can strengthen your relationships with others.
4. Spread gratitude via your social media platforms
Social media can feel so negative at times, but using it to share your gratitude can help create a more positive online atmosphere. For example, share an uplifting moment from a recent event or a lesson you learned from a book you read, or a photo of a place near you that you’re grateful for. Spreading good, and in a unique and uplifting way, is one way we each can do our part in this digital age to remind each other that we have a lot to be grateful for. Let us each inspire one another in this way.
Training our minds to practice gratitude more often is possible if we are mindful of ourselves, each other and our environment. Let us widen our circle of appreciation. Please share your ideas for reminding yourself to be grateful.
3 Ways Gratitude Benefits Our Brains
- It can help relieve stress and pain. The regions associated with gratitude are part of the neural networks that light up when we socialize and experience pleasure. These regions are also heavily connected to the parts of the brain that control basic emotion regulation, such as heart rate and arousal levels, and are associated with stress relief and thus pain reduction. Feeling grateful and recognizing help from others creates a more relaxed body state and allows the subsequent benefits of lowered stress to wash over us. (We recently published a scientific paper elaborating on these ideas.)
- It can improve our health over time. They are also closely linked to the brain’s “mu opioid” networks, which are activated during close interpersonal touch and relief from pain—and may have evolved out of the need for grooming one another for parasites. In other words, our data suggest that because gratitude relies on the brain networks associated with social bonding and stress relief, this may explain in part how grateful feelings lead to health benefits over time.
It can help those with depression. Perhaps even more encouraging, researcher Prathik Kini and colleagues at Indiana University performed a subsequent study examining how practicing gratitude can alter brain function in depressed individuals. They found evidence that gratitude may induce structural changes in the very same parts of the brain that we found active in our experiment. Such a result, in complement to our own, tells a story of how the mental practice of gratitude may even be able to change and re-wire the brain.
The Science of Gratitude
Taking a moment to be thankful for the good things in life can help you cultivate a healthy work life, manage stress and develop a deeper connection to people, especially in tough situations. Researchers at the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley have even commissioned a three-year project, Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude, to dig deeper into the health benefits behind the art of appreciation.
What are the effects of practicing gratitude?
- It boosts your mental health. Those who write letters of gratitude reported significantly better mental health four weeks and 12 weeks after their writing exercise ended. While not conclusive, this finding suggests that practicing gratitude may help train the brain to be more sensitive to the experience of gratitude down the line, and this could contribute to improved mental health over time.
- It helps you accept change. When we are comfortable with the way things already are, it can be difficult to accept when things change—let alone feel grateful for that difference. But when we make it a habit to notice the good change brings, we can become more flexible and accepting. Here are four ways to practice gratitude when change arises.
- It can relieve stress. The regions associated with gratitude are part of the neural networks that light up when we socialize and experience pleasure. These regions are also heavily connected to the parts of the brain that control basic emotion regulation, such as heart rate, and are associated with stress relief and thus pain reduction. Feeling grateful and recognizing help from others creates a more relaxed body state and allows the subsequent benefits of lowered stress to wash over us.
People who practice gratitude report:
- Fewer physical symptoms of illness
- More optimism
- Greater goal attainment
- Decreased anxiety and depression, among other health benefits.
Gratitude also positively impacts our brains.
Practicing gratitude lights up the brain’s reward center. One study found that practicing gratitude by keeping a gratitude journal lights up the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a key brain region associated with reward processing in the brain.
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