Hands up if someone in your life recommended that you practice gratitude this year. Hands up if you’ve been that person. And for good reason—gratitude is scientifically proven to boost your health in all kinds of ways from your happiness levels to how much your headache hurts and more. But it’s about more than just saying thank you. It’s a specific feeling of appreciation that we need to cultivate, express, and practice. Before we can do that, however, we have to know how to define gratitude in the first place.
So we’re going to do just that. Let’s take a look at how to define gratitude and how you can use it to make a measurable difference this year. Even, and perhaps especially, if your year is more hectic than harmonious.
More Than Thankful: How to Define Gratitude
Gratitude isn’t just saying “thank you” to anyone who holds a door open or lets you skip ahead in the line at Trader Joe’s. It’s more than that. Here’s how some positive psychology researchers and experts define gratitude.
In The How of Happiness, Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky gives a broad view of how to define gratitude, saying:
it is wonder; it is appreciation; it is looking at the bright side of a setback; it is fathoming abundance… It is savoring; it is not taking things for granted, it is coping.”
By definition, she adds, the practice of gratitude “involves a focus on the present moment.”
Psychologist Robert Emmons, who’s basically the guy when it comes to gratitude research, sums up his perspective on how to define gratitude as “a felt sense of wonder, thankfulness, and appreciation for life.”
Gratitude can be a feeling that pops up from time to time, but it can also be a trait. One study’s definition of gratitude is more dispositional, stating that gratitude is “part of a wider life orientation towards noticing and appreciating the positive in the world.”
How to Practice Gratitude This Holiday Season
Now that we know how to define gratitude, we can get on to the good stuff—actually figuring out how to do it. And this is important because the benefits of gratitude are huge. Even if you tend to be more irreverent than appreciative, you should still give it a shot. Here are five ways you can add more gratitude to your life. Some of them might surprise you.
1. Thank someone in writing…and then deliver it
Giving someone our fullest and most heartfelt thanks can feel a little… awkward. Or maybe we just didn’t appreciate their actions at the time, but looking back we can see they did their best (oh hey, Mom and Dad). Whatever the reason, we often neglect to fully express our gratitude to people who have made a difference in our lives. Enter gratitude letters.
How to do it: The idea is simple: Just sit down and write a letter to someone you want to thank more fully. It doesn’t matter if you hand write it or type it, if it’s formal or fun, messy or neat: what matters is that you use it as a form of expression. The mere act of writing the letter is beneficial in itself, but actually sending or delivering the letter is even better.
Science says gratitude letters can:
- Increase happiness in as little as 10–15 minutes. In one study, participants wrote and sent three gratitude letters over an 8-week period. Their happiness levels increased consistently and significantly in comparison to the control group, who didn’t write letters. What’s more? It only takes 10–15 minutes of writing to feel the benefits.
- Lead to bigger positive changes if delivered. In another study that tested five different wellness activities, delivering a gratitude letter in person was found to be particularly effective. The authors noted that “participants in the gratitude visit condition showed the largest positive changes in the whole study.”
2. Keep track of the things you’re thankful for
How to do it: What do you have to be thankful for today? Think of five things and write them down. Be specific. Don’t just say “my partner”, say “my partner making banana pancakes for breakfast this morning.” You can be grateful for a thunderstorm, a compliment from a stranger, the hilarious meme going around. Whatever, write it down.
Science says keeping a gratitude journal can:
- Boost your mood. Researchers looked at the benefits of daily versus weekly gratitude journaling and its effects on emotional and physical health. Both were connected with better moods and increased optimism.
- Improve your sleep. The daily writers saw an added benefit—better sleep. That’s enough of a reason for us.
That said, the authors theorized that doing the activity daily over a long period of time could lead to boredom. This works in your favor because it reduces the times per week you have to journal to reap the goods. The researchers recommend doing the exercise one to three times per week for maximum benefits. Doable, right?
3. Go on an adventure—big or small
Having a positive, memorable experience can be a way to cultivate gratitude—even generosity, according to research.
How to do it: Rather than getting the newest model of iPhone, spend your dollars on things you’ll remember, things you can relive. So what’ll it be? A night at the theatre? Dinner at that new Thai place? An extended trip to Rio De Janeiro during Carnival? Whatever you choose, don’t forget to reflect on the experience afterward. (For example, include it in your gratitude journal. Double dose of gratitude.)
Science says cultivating memories can:
- Increase feelings of gratitude more than buying things. “People are more grateful for what they’ve done than what they have,” say scientists. Research found that “reflecting on experiential purchases (e.g., travel, meals out, tickets to events) inspires more gratitude than reflecting on material purchases (e.g., clothing, jewelry, furniture).”
- Make you a more selfless person. It also found that in comparison “thinking about experiences leads to more subsequent altruistic behavior.”
4. Take a walk in a new way
Not just any kind of walk: a savoring walk.
How to do it:
- Find 20 minutes each day to go out for a walk.
- Instead of texting or thinking about work, actually pay attention to your surroundings.
- Tap into your senses: What are you seeing? What are you hearing? Literally, stop and smell the roses, you know, if there are any.
- Pause and take in each positive sensation. It might be the texture of a tree, a beautiful piece of architecture, or the passing smile from a neighbor.
- Simply to notice and acknowledge the good in what’s around us, in order to build gratitude.
Science says taking a savoring walk can:
- Up your happiness. Fred Bryant and Joseph Veroff, researchers and authors of Savoring: A New Model of Positive Experience, instructed some study participants to go on a savoring, picking-out-the-positive walk every day for a week, while others were told to go on a regular old distracted walk. Those who focused on the positive and savored their surroundings reported a greater increase in happiness than those who didn’t.
See? It works.
5. Give something up
Okay, gratitude doesn’t usually involve torture, promise. But it turns out that temporarily quitting something you enjoy can lead to a boost of gratitude.
Why? Because when we get used to something, we kind of stop appreciating and enjoying it, a phenomenon known as hedonic adaptation. Giving that thing up for a while allows you to really savor it when you get to have it again.
How to do it: To try it for yourself, simply give up something pleasurable for about a week. When you have or do that thing again, really try to enjoy and appreciate the experience. To do the activity regularly, you might give up a different thing for one week of each month.
Science says giving something up can:
- Make you enjoy it more. Imagine cold turkey giving up chocolate for a week. That’s exactly what researchers made participants do in a 2013 study (leaving us to question their ethics). Turns out they weren’t being cruel, though: The participants who’d temporarily sworn off chocolate “savored it significantly more…
- Improve your mood. “…and experienced more positive moods after eating it” than people who were told to either eat as much as they wanted or make no adjustments to their chocolate habit.
But what if I just don’t feel that grateful?
Sometimes all the talk about gratitude makes it sound like a cinch. Like all you have to do is be thankful for the good things in your life, and all the bad things will magically disappear. Of course, that’s not the case.
Gratitude isn’t something you can force. So don’t feel bad if you’re not beaming with happiness, even if you know logically you have plenty to be grateful for. Gratitude practices can be highly valuable—but they’re not a quick fix to every low mood or a replacement for professional help with mental health issues.
By incorporating these practices into your life, it’s really important to note that they’ll work better for some people than others. And if you just don’t feel that grateful, that’s okay. Everyone is different.
If you do find that gratitude practices are a positive thing for you, keep experimenting with them. Mix them up. And do your best to stick with them—well through the holiday season and beyond.
Your turn: How do you define gratitude and make your appreciation known—either to yourself or others? Share in the comments.
If you like this post, you’ll also like How to Increase Happiness with Science-Backed Strategies
Author: Tania Braukamper
Tania Braukamper is an Australian-born writer and photographer. She believes in curiosity, kindness, and adventure as a state of mind.