These days, with social and political upheaval all around us, finding peace, contentment, and happiness amidst the chaos seems almost impossible. No doubt you yearn to escape the confusion, but you may not know how to break out of it. The key, however, is in your hand — and that key is called gratitude.
Though the word “gratitude” may be reaching saturation point — it’s everywhere, from social media to billboards to coffee mugs — real gratitude, the internalized kind, is the farthest thing from a cliche. It is, simply put, the practice of turning your attention to the goodness that is already in your life. It’s a simple but often overlooked idea and it’s an extraordinarily powerful way to reframe your perspective on life.
When you start viewing your world through the lens of being thankful, more good things start to happen — for real! Just like the African proverb says — “give thanks for a little and you will find a lot” — researchers have found that gratitude contributes to more positive emotions, a deeper enjoyment of good experiences, increased ability to navigate difficult circumstances, better health, and stronger relationships. As a clinician, I have been struck many times by the way that patients who are grateful for something in their lives tend to handle health problems more smoothly and rebound from illness more easily.
Learning to be more appreciative sounds easy enough, but gratitude is considered to be a practice because it takes practice — and awareness — to get good at it. Without awareness, our worldview can easily shift to the daily negatives. The more time we spend in that negative space, inventorying what’s missing or imperfect, the less time we spend acknowledging all the other stuff in our lives that’s good.
When you practice gratitude, you make a conscious decision to feel satisfied with what you have, instead of longing for what you don’t. Like any new practice, you strengthen your gratitude muscles by using them, directing them to a new way of working until it becomes a habit. At the core of the gratitude philosophy is the idea that each moment of each day presents you with an opportunity to appreciate something, be it as simple as your kid’s smile, your dog’s wagging tail, the smell of coffee brewing, or a shared joke with a colleague.
That said, appreciating every moment doesn’t mean that you pretend that something is good when it’s actually hurtful or challenging. It’s not about embracing a state of denial or delusion — it’s about training yourself to see the good that actually exists alongside the challenges, and to notice the ripple effect of this positive perspective.
Just as one positive thought often triggers another, as your gratitude practice grows, it will positively influence many aspects of your daily life, as well as boosting that sense of calm and connection that can be elusive in challenging times. So how ’bout that cup of gratitude? Here are a few tips on how to get yours.
1. Make a commitment to practice gratitude.
As a newbie, chances are, you’ll be happily riding along on the gratitude train and then, inevitably, you’ll slide off the track. You’ll find yourself complaining or comparing yourself to others. But then, with practice, you’ll recognize what you’re doing, stop, and return to the thankfulness perspective. This will happen over and over. Your commitment to practicing gratitude will bring you back each time.
2. Start the day with a gratitude ritual.
Before you brush your teeth each morning, pause. Take ten seconds to look at yourself in the mirror, breathe calmly, become present to yourself, and commit to seeing the good throughout your day. (A sticky note on the mirror might remind you to do this daily.) Whether you call it gratitude, appreciation, or thankfulness, become accountable to yourself by deciding to appreciate what you have instead of lamenting what seems to be lacking. Commitment made, brush your teeth! Then, before you fall asleep at night, take thirty seconds to review your optimism habit: How did you do today? Did the complaints outweigh the appreciation? Simply take notice, then let it go. Tomorrow is another day.
3. Keep a gratitude journal.
This can be as simple as making a quick list dashed off before bed each night or it can be a lengthier recounting of the positive experiences and feelings that crossed your path during the day. Nothing is too big or too small. You may have passed a beautiful flower on the way to work or indulged in a delicious bit of dark chocolate after lunch. You may have nailed the presentation or shared a sweet moment with your child at bedtime. There is always a moment of goodness. You just have to look for it.
4. Recite gratitude prayers.
Many spiritual traditions include prayers of gratitude. You can make up your own and recite it upon waking and before going to sleep. Simply express your gratitude for the gifts that are in your life, such as your health, loved ones, home, financial security, creative expression, and career opportunities. You can express gratitude for anything and everything that is positive, and you can even be grateful for the gifts that are yet to come with this simple affirmation: “I am grateful for unknown blessings already on their way.”