With Thanksgiving right around the corner, it’s a good moment to reflect and to remind ourselves of the power of gratitude.
What is gratitude?
Gratitude is a positive emotion generated as the result of feeling thankful for things in your life. It can be big things, like important relationships or significant acts of kindness, or it can be small things like the smell of fresh coffee or the view from your kitchen window on a sunny day.
Gratitude is a complex emotion, and to fully experience it requires three elements:
- you must recognize something you are thankful for
- you must acknowledge you feel grateful for that thing
- you must express that appreciation.
It’s not hard to master the art of giving thanks, but before we dive into the ways you can cultivate this powerful emotion, let’s start with the “why.”
Why Practice At All?
The science is in, and the benefits are clear – gratitude is good for you. Practicing gratitude can boost your immune system, strengthen your relationships, improve your mood, help you sleep better, and leave you feeling more vibrant and alive.
Neuroscience shows that when the brain feels gratitude, specific parts of your brain matter are activated, including the ventral and dorsal medial prefrontal cortex. These parts of your brain relate to interpersonal bonding, positive social interactions, and the ability to understand what other people are thinking and feeling. The brain also creates a surge of feel-good chemicals such as serotonin, oxytocin, and dopamine. This activated gray matter with a wave of natural chemicals contributes to a natural high and feelings of closeness, connection, and happiness.
How To Begin an Effective Gratitude Practice
The key to any effective daily practice is consistency, so it’s important to find what works for you. From meditations to journaling, and from personal reflection to writing thank-you letters, there are lots of options to experiment with as you find the best way for your brain to experience gratitude. Let’s explore a few.
- Start a gratitude journal.
A gratitude journal is a great way to cultivate feelings of appreciation as your focused attention goes to these feelings at least once a day. Some people are comfortable with a free-form journaling approach but if you want something more structured, try this 5-Minute Gratitude Journal by Sophia Godkin.
- Do a daily meditation.
There are many meditations that focus on the topic of gratitude so find one that works for you and commit to it for 40 days. These meditations typically focus on your breath and take you on a guided journey to cultivate feelings of gratitude. Not sure where to start? Here are three gratitude meditations that are under 15 minutes.
- Gratitude Meditation
- Meditation to Cultivate Gratitude
- Meditation Journey: Cultivate Gratitude for All Things.
- Write a single handwritten thank-you letter every day.
In his book “365 Thank-Yous: The Year a Simple Act of Gratitude Changed My Life” John Kralik shares how, during a period of personal crisis, he decided to write a daily thank-you letter. This practice completely transformed his life, and his book offers you a roadmap to do the same.
If sending a daily thank-you letter feels too intimidating, you’ll be happy to learn that you gain many of the same benefits from the process of just writing the letter. Even if your message goes unsent, the act of writing one will start to point your thoughts to more positive patterns. But if you can find it in yourself to send the letter, you might be pleasantly surprised by the positive impact it has on others.
- Incorporate gratitude rituals into your day.
Gratitude rituals are a great way to weave some appreciation into your daily life. It can be as simple as a daily affirmation, a prayer before a meal, or writing down three things you are grateful for before you go to bed each night. Simple rituals are often the most effective, so don’t get too elaborate. The key is to be consistent and find something you can easily incorporate every day.
It is impossible to feel gratitude and negativity at the same time, and in this way, gratitude squeezes out darker emotions. If you find yourself in a negative thought loop, try to focus on something within the situation you can feel grateful for. This helps break the cycle, and once the seed of gratitude is planted, it expands on its own, creating more positive emotions and rewiring your thought patterns.
A few tips for establishing your daily gratitude practice:
- Try to do your practice at the same time every day.
Routine helps you maintain consistency, and consistency is key in getting the most from your habit of gratitude. If you can do your gratitude practice in the morning, even better, as this will help ensure you don’t miss a day because you are tired or out of time.
- Try to attach this new habit to an existing habit.
Habits are developed, and one of the best ways to be successful when forming a new habit is to attach it to an existing one. If you had a ritual of drinking your morning coffee before you start work, tack your gratitude practice on to the final sips of your coffee. Or when you brush your teeth each night, add your gratitude practice immediately after. Find what works for you, but use an existing habit to jump start this new one.
- Focus on experiences instead of things.
Research shows that feeling thankful is more effective when it is directed towards experiences rather than material things. This may be partly because experiences, unlike material possessions, are unlikely to trigger comparison among others. It may also be because experiences tend to weave in human connection. Whatever the reason, make a conscious effort to focus your mind on experiences you feel grateful for. This will give you more long-term happiness and satisfaction.
- Be gentle with yourself.
Establishing any regular practice or habit can take a few attempts. Be kind to yourself as you add this element to your life, and don’t let this new practice become a source of guilt. Guilt is energetically blocking and generally unhelpful. Instead, congratulate yourself on your honest effort and work with yourself to become even more consistent.
The benefits of gratitude may take some time to manifest, but they accrue over time. Begin today and watch your positive thoughts develop and grow.