Gratitude, coined the mother of all virtues by Cicero, has suffered the misfortune of relentless commercialization and become the byword du jour for candle-lit social media posts and calligraphed wall art. But as superficial a byword as it has become, the practice of true gratitude is a deeply enriching endeavor. It is an essential part of our social framework and is one of those rare things that fortifies not only our mental well-being but our physical health as well. It requires humility to recognize that there are many gifts we enjoy that have come from beyond our own doing, and gifts us with happiness, peace, and a sense of belonging in return. These benefits even extend to measurable improvements in our immune systems, heart rates, and rest.
Unfortunately, fake it ’til you make it doesn’t work here. Earnest, concerted effort is the only way to gain the benefits of gratitude — it is specifically this emotion which triggers the beneficial biochemical responses. Nevertheless, it is something that can be learned, enhanced, and refined. Gratitude is also something that is entirely personal to you, and how you express it or what makes you feel it is for you to determine. Wherever you are in your gratitude practice, here are some tips and ideas to help you along the way.
- Get specific
Vague notions of good things easily fade from our minds and are difficult to anchor on, especially when considering who or what to be grateful to. Instead of “I’m grateful for good food,” maybe try “I’m grateful to my brother for surprising me with my favorite cookies.”
- Keep it fresh
Look for little things each day that you can be grateful for. Our brains get bored easily with repetition, making things that were once novel and exciting fade over time. Recognizing and focusing on different blessings helps keep the practice from becoming rote and losing its luster.
- Take a moment
When you can, try to pause and savor the feeling of gratitude when you have the opportunity. This helps cement the feelings of gratitude and appreciation in the mind which creates a memory you can draw from in the future, effectively multiplying the benefit of a singular moment.
- Be realistic
Not all things are do-able at all times by all people. Each of us will have our own challenges, internally and externally, to deal with when trying to work more gratitude into our lives. Give yourself some leeway and accept from the start that there will be days that go by that fall short of your ideals. Set some check in dates for the future to evaluate how you’ve been doing and to reset if necessary.
- Schedule the habit
This may sound counterintuitive to some of the previous points but planning to practice gratitude helps make sure that even if we miss the opportunity to appreciate something in the moment, we have a designated time to reflect on it later. Prioritizing gratitude in this way ensures that you have time to focus on developing it; every day, every other day, once a week — whatever you can commit to. What you focus your gratitude on each time and how will vary, but a regularly dedicated bit of time is the key.
- Write and send a letter of gratitude
One of the most commonly referenced studies regarding gratitude led by Martin Seligman, a leader in the field of positive psychology, revealed that simply writing a letter expressing gratitude to someone and delivering it was greatly beneficial. Interested but need some help getting started? Here’s a great step by step from Positive Perscription. If you’d like to see a reproduction of the study, check out this video by SoulPancake.
- Keep a gratitude journal
In that same study led by Martin Seligman, journaling gratitude was also shown to have measurably positive results. If journaling is not something that comes naturally, here are some options for journals with prompts designed to keep it quick, easy, and on track:
1. Five Minute Journal
2. The Happiness Project One Sentence Journal
3. 52 Week Guide to Cultivate an Attitude of Gratitude
4. Alleyoop Gratitude Journal
- Try guided gratitude meditation
The HeartMath Institute has been pioneering research and techniques to help people lead healthier, more fulfilling lives by tapping into the heart-brain connection through very intentional breathing and mental focus exercises. Here is a three and a half minute video for a guided meditation using the Heart Lock-in technique, which helps amplify appreciation and gratitude.
- Gratitude Jar
If you think you’d enjoy something a little more spontaneous than a journal, a gratitude jar may work for you. As you go about your life, keep a lookout for those grateful moments. Scribble them down on a piece of paper and drop them in a jar. At the end of the month or year or whenever you need it, dump out all those little bits of gratitude and soak them in. Better yet, if there’s one that truly stands out to you, use it as a prompt to write (and deliver!) a letter of thanks.
- Create a ritual
Sometimes it helps to have an activity that allows us to turn our thoughts inward, kind of like a physical accompaniment to meditation. This can be as demanding as a long run or as gentle as a warm bath, whatever helps soothe your mind so you can recall and enjoy the blessings in your life and remember to give thanks for them.
- Say “thank you”
Probably the easiest thing that anyone can do — remember to give a simple, heartfelt expression to those to whom we are grateful.