The Practice of Gratitude

As I discussed in my previous blog, The Gift of Gratitude, gratefulness is one of those gifts that keeps on giving.  When we embrace an attitude of gratitude, it does wonders for the health & happiness of both ourselves and others.

So where do we start?  It is helpful to talk about gratefulness as an active process or practice.  This reminds us that gratitude is like a muscle that gets strengthened through use.  It’s also worth getting clear on the difference between wants and needs: We often mistakenly use the word “need” for things we don’t really, well, need.

After we recognize our desire to embrace a spirit of appreciation, we have to pick a place to start and dig in.  Truth be told, we are all at different starting points on different gratefulness journeys. Some of us have been keeping daily gratitude diaries for years and are simply looking to reinvigorate our efforts.  Others are stuck in a negativity rut and may not be ready to jump straight into composing heartfelt thank-you letters. Sometimes it is more realistic to begin by recognizing one or two experiences you complained about each day and then reframing those experiences with a more positive perspective.  Even seemingly difficult situations can be reconsidered in terms of lessons learned and insights gained. Over time, our good habits become more second nature and build on each other. And since positivity begets positivity, the benefits are more exponential than simply cumulative.

1. Just Do It

Not all strategies will appeal to everyone.  Some of us gravitate to journal writing while others prefer to talk or express gratefulness through art or actions.  Whatever approach works for you, don’t save your thank-yous for expensive gifts, grandiose gestures, or holidays. I love this quote from author Robert Brault: “Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things”.  The takeaway message is to notice the day-to-day pleasures and start with a simple practice you are willing and able to sustain.

2. Get Inspiration from Others

It can be motivating to learn about other people’s experiences and expressions of appreciation.  In the blog, I described how wonderful it was to bask in the positivity of the social media-based gratitude challenge I undertook.  In addition to sharing my own thoughts, I was able to read about what the other participants were thankful for. Gratefulness has an infectious quality much like kindness.  The natural high or so-called ‘moral elevation’ we get from witnessing gestures of goodwill stimulates our desire to be better people ourselves. We hear a lot about cyberbullying and the horrific negativity propagated online.  Together, we can fight against this and harness the power of social media to spread gratitude and Sunshine.

If you are looking for some inspiration, check out some of the amazing TED Talks and articles listed below.   

3. The Plan: Schedule. Think. Savour. Express.

Pair your gratitude practice with a specific time of day or routine behaviour so that it happens regularly.  Consider using a smartphone gratitude app and setting an alarm with your favourite song. Some people combine gratitude with their morning coffee or tuck it into their nightly bedtime ritual.  At the scheduled time, think about something you appreciate. Ponder it, linger on it, and make an effort to savour it and the other gifts in your life. Then figure out how you will express your gratitude.  Do you want to do something to show someone you appreciate them? Perhaps today you would like to speak your gratitude aloud or write it in a journal or on a calendar or list. Preparing this blog inspired me to start a morning gratitude ritual as part of our family breakfast.  As we sit down to eat, we all state one thing we are grateful for. What an auspicious way to start the day!

4. Employ Your Senses

If you are still struggling to get into the gratitude groove, try focusing on your senses.  Stop to notice and savour the taste of your food; to hear and listen to the laughter of the children in the park as you walk the dog; to feel the pleasant aching in your muscles after a tough workout; and to inhale the wonderful aroma as you walk past the bakery counter at the grocery store.  Becoming more aware of your senses brings you into the moment. Use this mindfulness to acknowledge and treasure the life and beauty that surrounds you.

5. Talk Grateful

This simple strategy works on the principle of linguistic relativity.  The gist here is that how we think, feel and behave is influenced by the language we use.  When we talk about things in a favourable way, it helps us shift our perspective and train our brains to adopt a more optimistic worldview.  For example, I like to speak about the “gifts” in my day. I use this terminology whether referring to simple moments (the gift of some quiet time to write), more significant experiences (the gift of travel), or even people (I often tell my children they are true gifts to me).  Talking grateful reminds me how blessed I am and inspires me to embrace a sense of abundance not deprivation.  Similarly, one of my good friends intentionally peppers his language with positive descriptive words.  In the tranquil morning, he may be sipping a delicious cup of coffee while he listens to the beautiful songbirds outside his kitchen window.  Such embellishments encourage him to be mindful and appreciate life’s little pleasures.

6. Say Thank-You Every Day

We sometimes take for granted our nearest and dearest.  Make an effort to show appreciation for your spouse, your children, your mother-in-law, your boss.  Other days, stop to say thank-you to the people behind the scenes — your child’s teacher, the grocery store cashier, the parking attendant, waitress, or barista at your local coffee shop.  Consider reaching out to individuals from your past who made a significant impact on you (even if they don’t know it!).

7. Positive Habit Stacking

Once you have an established gratitude practice, feel free to build it up or switch it up!  If you have really embraced your current strategy, you may simply decide to expand it or involve family or friends.  Shared goals allow you to encourage one another and also provide an accountability framework for feedback and improvement.  Alternatively, if boredom has set in, perhaps you can breathe new life into your journey by trying something altogether different.  Consider the following:

  • Take a gratitude walk: Step out into fresh air and actually stop to smell the roses.  As Louis Schwartzberg reminds us (see the link to his film below), “Nature’s beauty is a gift that cultivates appreciation and gratitude.”

  • Get creative: Make a gratitude collage or scrapbook.  Write a poem about what you appreciate. Cook a special meal, paint a picture, or choreograph a dance to express your feelings of gratefulness.

  • Spend time with friends: Face-to-face time with positive people we care about can remind us how lucky we are.  Plus it’s fun and feels great!

  • Volunteer your time: Helping others opens our hearts and minds to different perspectives and possibilities.  It teaches us to be aware of both what we have and what we have been taking for granted.

Gratitude Articles, Talks & Apps for Inspiration

Amin, Amit.  2014. The 31 Benefits of Gratitude You Didn’t Know About: How Gratitude Can Change Your Life.

Amit Amin’s great article provides a research-based overview of the many benefits of gratitude in five important domains: personality, emotional well-being, social life, career and health.

Doyle, Brian.  Jan 2014. 365 Days of Thank You.  TEDx Talk.

This short talk describes the gratitude commitment made by Brian Doyle following his near death experience.

Schwartzberg, Louie.  June 2011. Nature. Beauty. Gratitude.  TED Talk.

This is a beautiful and inspiring talk featuring Louie Schwartzberg’s brilliant time-lapse photography.  

Steindl-Rast, David.  June 2013. Want to be happy? Be grateful.  TED Talk.

I love this TED Talk by David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk and co-founder of  Brother David discusses how expressing gratitude makes us happy.

Smartphone Apps

  • “Happier” - a free app that makes it easy to record and share little pleasures, gratitudes and photos

  • “Day One" - another free and easy-to-use journaling app for iPhone with custom reminders

  • "Gratitude Journal" and “Gratitude Journal 365" are other great inexpensive options

This article was originally published as a Resource in May 2017.