Part two in our series on gratitude is all about feeling grateful, i.e., how to cultivate the feeling of gratitude before you set out to practice it. Need the gratitude basics? Check out part one for a quick crash course.
Are you feeling grateful that another year has just about flown by? Possibly not. Gratitude doesn’t always come easily, we get it. Especially when the days are short, work is tough, and you just want to hibernate under a nest of blankets.
But if you’re a regular around here, you’ll already have heard us waxing lyrical about the benefits of gratitude. For one thing, it’s scientifically proven to increase happiness. And isn’t that in itself something to be grateful for?
So for part two of our gratitude series, we’re digging into ways to cultivate that feeling of gratitude. In the next few weeks, we’ll show you different strategies to practice and express those feelings so you can really reap the gratitude rewards.
5 Secrets to Feeling Grateful, Even When You’re Not
Rather than saving your gratitude for one day a year, here are five simple steps that can get you feeling grateful any day this month—or any month, for that matter.
Step 1: Kick the comparisons
Comparing yourself to others is a fast-track to feeling inadequate. It’s also something of an epidemic in our social media-driven age. How can you feel thankful for what you have when everyone else’s lives seem happier, luckier, and bathed in a golden glow of perfection? (…Or is that just an Instagram filter?)
Research has our backs here. For example, take this study by positive psychology expert, Sonja Lyubomirsky. Lyubomirsky found that unhappy people based their self-confidence on how they performed at a task in comparison to others. So they felt better about doing poorly than about doing well, so long as they performed better than their peers. Happy people meanwhile got a bigger boost in self-confidence if they did well, regardless of how they compared to the others.
To set yourself up for a mindset of gratitude, focus on your own life rather than on the lives of those around you. You don’t want to be so busy looking next door that you miss what’s under your nose.
Try it like this:
Limit your scrolling time. Seriously. You can’t compare yourself to something you don’t see. Simple as that. Try some apps, like Focus.Me, that limit your social media time if you struggle with this.
Step 2: Count your blessings
Yeah, we know, but it’s a phrase for a reason. And the reason is that it works. What do you have to be feeling grateful and blessed for? Seems like a thousand things should flood into your head but sometimes they just… don’t. So if you’re not sure what kind of blessings you should be counting, here are some pointers.
- No blessing is too small. In fact, small is good. Even when it feels like nothing in life is going right, you can at least find some little pleasure, fleeting moment, or minute act of kindness to be grateful for. A meal you ate, a smile someone gave you, a happy memory—it all counts.
- Be specific. The more you drill down into the details, the better. Being specific helps you to recall and relive experiences or moments for which you’re thankful.
- Move away from the material. Research has continually shown that those who are more materialistic are less happy and less grateful. Cultivating an attitude of gratitude, therefore, works best when you cultivate a less materialistic worldview. In other words, your latest luxury purchases shouldn’t be taking up your whole gratitude list.
- If in doubt, use prompts. Another way to expand your thinking on what to be grateful for is to use questions as prompts. Try these on for size:
- What have I learned this week/month/year?
- Who in my life can I turn to if I need comfort or support?
- What made me smile today?
- What’s one thing I like about my job/my partner/the place I live?
- What’s something I’m good at?
Step 3: Count your challenges, too
In his seminal work Man’s Search for Meaning, Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote that “the last of one’s freedom is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.”
It may be difficult to think about hardships as things to be grateful for, but this change in attitude can help us get through those times. So when you’re counting your blessings, also think about what challenges you’re facing in life. What can you learn from those challenges? How can they help you grow?
Another upside to this is that being grateful makes you more resilient to future challenges. According to psychologist Robert Emmons, the world’s leading expert on gratitude, “Consciously cultivating an attitude of gratitude builds up a sort of psychological immune system that can cushion us when we fall. There is scientific evidence that grateful people are more resilient to stress.” His advice? “Remember the bad” as well as the good.
Step 4: Put your gratitude into practice
Feeling grateful now? Well, welcome to step four, because it’s time to put your gratitude into practice.
Thinking about what you’re grateful for is a start, but adopting gratitude behaviors will more effectively alter the way you feel. As Dr. Emmons says in his book Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier, “Do it now, and the feeling will come. There is a great deal of psychological evidence showing that attitude change often follows behavior change.”
Here are some ideas on how to put your gratitude into practice so you can really get those feelings of thankfulness flowing:
1. Get creative with a gratitude journal
Research shows that keeping a gratitude journal has positive effects on mood and happiness. You could stick to writing down three to five things you’re grateful for, either daily or a few times per week, but why not get more creative?
One idea: Every day this month, draw a little doodle of something you’re thankful for. It’s a fun thing to do and to look back on, even if your art skills are stick-figure level.
Another idea is to glue in or collage together little mementos that remind you of good things that happened that day or week. It could be anything: A ticket stub, a candy wrapper, a pretty leaf you found while out walking.
2. There’s an app for that
Prefer the high-tech route over ye olde pen and paper? There are plenty of gratitude journal apps that offer templates, prompts, mood tracking and more. Bonus: They’ll ping you with reminders so you won’t forget to fill them in.
Another tech alternative: If you feel like sharing your journal, how about taking a photo each day of something you’re thankful for and posting it as a series on social media? Include captions of why you’re grateful for that object or person. You never know—your gratitude might even spread.
3. Fill a jar with gratitude
Gratitude jars: they’re easy, cheap, and fun. They look great. Oprah loves them.
The idea is basically to get an empty jar and gradually fill it with little bits of paper on which you’ve written things you’re grateful for. One of the best things about gratitude jars is that you can incorporate other people into the process.
Keep the jar in an accessible place and get your family/housemates to add their gratitude notes. Or keep up a connection with friends and family further away by texting each other things you’re grateful for, then writing them into the jar. When you’re all together at a holiday gathering, open up the jar and read out loud the happy moments and blessings to the group.
4. Delay gratification
Isn’t it true that the more you want something, the more you appreciate it when you get it? Choosing to go without something for a while can be a path to feeling grateful, especially if you make a conscious effort to savor that thing when you do get it.
This is one of the reasons why fasting is a common practice in many religions. One gratitude activity might be to fast for a set length of time (the lead-up to that stuffed turkey, perhaps?) and then break the fast by sitting down to a meal that you mindfully savor. Note that you should fast only if your health permits—if it doesn’t you might try giving up your favorite food for the month before (mindfully) tucking into it again.
Another idea is to set deals with yourself. If there’s something you’re planning to buy, for example, don’t go for instant gratification but instead set a condition. It might be that you have to do so many small acts of kindness before you can order that shiny new iPhone. Or that you can only book that holiday after you’ve completed a personal project you’ve been putting off. Take the time to consciously appreciate the thing you’ve earned.
Bonus fact: This creates a positive feedback loop. Research shows that gratitude breeds patience. So delaying gratification can make you more grateful, and being more grateful in turn makes you better at delaying gratification. Win-win.
5. Choose and commit to gratitude
The next step? Commit to the process of both practicing and feeling grateful all year long. Consciously choose gratitude, and make it a habit or ritual to engage in practices that will cultivate feelings of thankfulness.
A few things to note:
Firstly, mix it up. We’re all human and we all get bored. That’s why you might choose to try one gratitude activity for this month and a different one next month. Experiment and find what works for you.
And finally, forgive yourself on days when you’re just not feeling it. You can’t always force yourself into feeling grateful; and gratitude, like anything, takes work. We refer back to Dr. Emmons: “Though experienced for the most part as a pleasant affective state, a felt sense of gratitude can require, at times, considerable effort.”
Just remember that the effort will be worth it in the long run, because the benefits of gratitude are, though at times subtle, both cumulative and powerful.
Your turn: Feeling grateful now? How do you express that gratitude and cultivate more of it in your own life? Share in the comments.
Author: Tania Braukamper
Tania Braukamper is an Australian-born writer and photographer. She believes in curiosity, kindness, and adventure as a state of mind.