Have you ever noticed how effortless it is to feel a wave of gratitude when you accomplish something specific you’ve had your sights set on? Whether you’ve landed your dream job, completed a half marathon, received recognition for volunteer work, or perfected your risotto, those fleeting moments of achievement are some of our highest highs.
But what happens the rest of the time? Why don’t we feel the same zing of gratitude when it comes to the little things in life?
“Gratitude hinges on outcomes,” says Nika Gueci, EdD, of Arizona State University’s Center for Mindfulness, Compassion and Resilience. “We’re often not grateful when we’re struggling through life, when nobody thanks us, and when we don’t get recognized or validated.”
But it’s precisely in these moments—when you feel as though your spouse or children are taking you for granted, when you’re passed over for the promotion you deserved, and even when you discover the barista got your order wrong after you’ve already left the coffee shop—that having an underlying attitude of gratitude can help.
Health Benefits of Gratitude
Practicing gratitude has numerous benefits to your mental and physical well-being, including:
Improving heart health
In one study, 186 individuals with some level of damage to their hearts (from chronic high blood pressure, heart attack, or infection) were asked to share how grateful they felt about various aspects of their lives. The results revealed that the more grateful the participant, the healthier they were in terms of mood, sleep, inflammation, and energy. Participants were then asked to keep a gratitude journal for eight weeks, and this practice resulted in a further reduction in inflammatory biomarkers.
A study of 401 people with clinically impaired sleep found a positive correlation between sleep quality and gratitude, possibly attributed to fewer negative thoughts at bedtime.
When’s the last time you expressed gratitude to your partner? One study shows that doing so enhances perceived communal strength of the relationship.
Gratitude can turn that frown upside down. During a study, one group of participants was told to write letters of gratitude every week, while the other group was told to write about what made them unhappy. The group that was told to write about what they were grateful for were more optimistic when hardships arose in their lives.
Enhancing overall health
According to one study examining the pathways between gratitude and physical health, grateful individuals have a greater propensity for participating in healthy activities and are more willing to seek help for health concerns—both of these traits lead to greater overall health.
“Shifting our focus to what we have to be thankful for can rewire our thinking away from the negativity bias toward a more positive way of seeing the world,” explains Gueci. “This isn’t an immediate process, and it’s not a way to put on rose-colored glasses and not see the hardships of the world around us. Just like mindfulness isn’t a means to eliminate action or gloss over negativity, gratitude doesn’t turn us into happy robots.”
8 Ways to Practice Gratitude
While it may feel weird or inauthentic to force yourself to feel gratitude for seemingly insignificant things, it will eventually become second nature. Debra Kawahara, PhD, of the California School of Professional Psychology at Alliant International University, suggests practicing the fine art of gratitude by doing the following:
- Be grateful once a day. Choose a specific time each day (perhaps when you first open your eyes in the morning, or before you fall asleep at night) to think of at least one thing in your life for which you are grateful.
- Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is a moment-to-moment awareness in which you observe your thoughts and feelings without judgement or interpretation. Try a guided body scan session, a short meditation in a quiet place, or even a yoga class where you really tune into your breath.
- Express appreciation to others. Express thanks to others for what they mean to you, what they have done for you, how they have made you feel, or for just simply being in your life.
- Make a gratitude jar. Fill a jar with little pieces of paper that document people, things, and moments that you’re grateful for. Whenever you’re feeling down or doubtful, you can return to the jar to read all the things to be grateful about that you may have lost sight of.
- Leave sticky notes. Choose a person in your life and write a note stating why you are grateful for them. Then stick the note somewhere for the person to unexpectedly find (e.g., on the bathroom mirror, in their lunchbox or purse, or on their car’s windshield).
- Have a thankful ritual at mealtime. In Japanese culture, for instance, people give thanks for the meal and for all who contributed to the meal—from the farmer who grew the food to the person who prepared and served it.
- Set a phone reminder. Program your alarm to remind you to take a moment to think of two or three things to be grateful for each day.
- Gratitude journal. A blank journal can be helpful for writing your thoughts and feelings associated with gratefulness. If you prefer more of a guided activity, choose a gratitude journal with daily prompts.