Focusing on the good things in your life has many positive side effects. For example, it can improve your mental health and strengthen your relationships. In this article, you’ll learn more about the benefits of gratitude and how to feel more grateful. We’ll also look at common barriers to gratitude and how to overcome them.
- What is gratitude?
- How to practice gratitude
- The benefits of gratitude
- Barriers to gratitude
- Common questions
Gratitude is a positive state of appreciation. According to gratitude expert Professor Robert Emmons, gratitude is made up of two parts: recognition of something positive and the realization that this goodness comes from outside sources.
Here are some tips and exercises to try if you want to cultivate more thankfulness in your life.
1. Start a gratitude journal
In a notebook, keep a record of the things you are grateful for. Try to note down 3-5 things each day. You could also try a gratitude journal app, such as Gratitude.
If you feel stuck, think about the following:
- Things that give you a sense of meaning and purpose, e.g., your work, your closest relationships, or your faith.
- Lessons you’ve learned recently, e.g., from mistakes at school or work.
- Small things that make you smile, e.g., your favorite team winning a game.
You don’t have to use your journal daily to see the benefit. According to psychology professor Sonja Lyubomirsky, writing in your gratitude journal once per week could be enough to boost your happiness levels.
2. Ask someone else to share their gratitude
If you have a friend who wants to practice gratitude, you could get together to talk about the good things in your lives. For example, you could take it in turns to talk about something you’re grateful for until you have listed five things each, or agree to text each other every weekend with the best thing that happened to you during the week.
This exercise works well with kids as well as adults. If you have children, you could encourage them to share what they are thankful for, perhaps around the dinner table several times per week.
3. Create a gratitude jar
Decorate an empty jar and place it within easy reach. For example, you could keep it on your kitchen window sill or on your desk at work. When something good happens, note it down on a small piece of paper, fold it up, and put it in the jar. When the jar is full, read through the notes and remind yourself of the positive things in your life.
4. Write a thank-you letter or email
A 2011 study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies found that writing and sending three letters of thanks over a 3-week period can improve measures of depressive symptoms, improve life satisfaction, and boost happiness.
In the study, the participants were told to make sure their letters were meaningful and to avoid focusing on material gifts. For example, a letter thanking a family member for ongoing emotional support would be appropriate, but a letter to a friend thanking them for a birthday gift would not.
You could write to someone you see regularly, such as a friend or colleague, or someone who has helped you in the past, such as a college tutor who inspired you to pursue a particular career path. If you need some inspiration, check out our list of thank-you messages for friends.
5. Listen to a guided gratitude meditation
Guided meditations can prevent your mind from wandering and keep you focused on the things you are grateful for. They encourage you to think about and appreciate the positive people and things in your life and to give thanks to those who have helped you. To get started, try Tara Brach’s guided gratitude meditation.
6. Keep a visual gratitude journal
If you like the idea of keeping a gratitude journal but don’t enjoy writing, try taking photos or videos of things you are grateful for instead. You could also make a gratitude scrapbook or collage.
7. Give meaningful thank yous
When you next say “Thank you” to someone, put some thought into the words. Taking a few seconds to tell them exactly why you are grateful might make you appreciate them even more.
For example, instead of saying “Thank you” when your partner makes dinner, you could say, “Thank you for making dinner. I love your cooking!”
If you want to go beyond a “Thank you” and show your appreciation in other ways, check out our article on ways to show appreciation.
8. Remember the difficult times in your life
Try to be grateful not only for the things you have today but for the progress you’ve made or the ways your situation has improved.
For example, you might feel grateful that you have a car, even if it’s old and occasionally breaks down. But if you think back to the days when you didn’t have a car at all and had to depend on unreliable public transport, you might feel extra-grateful.
9. Use visual reminders
Visual cues can remind you to practice gratitude throughout the day. For example, you could write “Gratitude!” on a sticky note and leave it on your computer monitor or set a notification on your phone to remind you that it’s time for a gratitude practice.
10. Feel gratitude for unexpected positive outcomes
You can feel grateful not only for the things that turned out exactly as you hoped but also for positive outcomes you didn’t expect. Try reflecting on setbacks that later turned out to be blessings in disguise.
For example, perhaps you didn’t get a job you desperately wanted, but you later heard from a reliable source that the company wasn’t a very nice place to work anyway. Even though you were very upset at the time, you can now feel grateful for the company’s decision to reject you.
11. Identify exactly what you are grateful for
Try to be specific when you are writing down or reflecting upon the things you are grateful for. This technique helps to keep your gratitude practice fresh and meaningful. For example, “I’m grateful for my brother” is a general statement that could lose its meaning if you repeat it often. “I’m grateful that my brother came over at the weekend to help me fix my bike” is more specific.
12. Take a gratitude walk
Go for a walk alone. Take the opportunity to savor and feel grateful for the things around you. For example, you could feel grateful for fine weather, beautiful plants, green space, or just the fact that you have the ability to go outside and move around.
If you are walking a familiar route, make an effort to notice things you normally overlook, such as an interesting detail on an old building or an unusual plant.
13. Create a gratitude ritual
Gratitude rituals can help you build gratitude into your day. Here are some examples of gratitude rituals to try:
- Take a few seconds to feel gratitude for your food just before you eat a meal. Think about all the people who grew, manufactured, prepared, or cooked your food.
- Just before you go to sleep, think about the best thing that happened to you that day.
- On your evening commute home, try to feel gratitude for the things that went well for you at work. For example, perhaps you had a productive meeting with your team or learned that you’ll be moving to a more comfortable office.
14. Give something up to appreciate it more
Sometimes, we can take the positive things in our lives for granted. Giving up a regular treat or pleasure can help you to appreciate it. For example, a bar of chocolate may taste even better than usual after a week with no candy.
15. Avoid minimizing your negative emotions
You don’t have to suppress your negative thoughts and feelings when you practice gratitude activities. Research shows that trying to push them away can be counterproductive and make you feel worse. You can focus on what you have to feel grateful for right now while still acknowledging that your life isn’t perfect.
Do not compare your situation to anyone else’s when you practice gratitude because comparisons can invalidate your feelings. For example, try to avoid telling yourself things like, “Well, I should feel grateful despite my problems because many people are worse off.”
If you struggle with emotions, you might like this article on how to express your emotions in a healthy way.
Gratitude has numerous benefits, and you don’t have to practice it for a long time to see results. Here are a few research findings that show the power of gratitude:
1. Improved mood
Gratitude interventions (for example, keeping a gratitude journal or writing thank-you letters to someone who has helped you) can make you happier, lift your mood, and boost your overall life satisfaction.
In a 2015 study titled, The effects of two novel gratitude and mindfulness interventions on well-being, 65 participants were asked to write down and reflect on things they were grateful for three times per week for four weeks. Compared to a control group, the participants were significantly less stressed, less depressed, and happier at the end of the experiment.
2. Improved relationships
Research suggests that grateful people may have higher quality relationships. This might be because grateful people are more likely to feel comfortable raising problems with their partners, which means they can tackle issues as they come up.
3. Fewer depressive symptoms
According to the results of 8 studies published in the journal Cognition & Emotion in 2012, gratitude is linked to lower levels of depression. The researchers behind the studies suggested this might be because gratitude triggers positive emotions and encourages us to reframe events and situations in a more positive way.
4. Increased academic motivation
If you’re a student, gratitude practices could increase your motivation to study. In one trial carried out by researchers from Osaka University and Ritsumeikan University in 2021, college students were asked to log in to an online platform six out of seven days of the week and enter five things that made them feel grateful. After two weeks, they reported significantly higher levels of academic motivation compared to a control group.
It’s normal to feel cynical about gratitude practices. According to the Greater Good Science Center at the University of Berkeley, there are multiple barriers to gratitude, including:
- Genetics: Twin studies suggest that due to genetic differences, some of us are naturally more grateful than others.
- Personality type: People who tend to be neurotic, envious, cynical, or materialistic may have problems feeling gratitude.
You may also find it difficult to feel gratitude if you frequently compare yourself to other people who appear better or more successful than you in some way. Adaptation may be another barrier. For example, if you start to take the good things in your life for granted, you might not feel grateful for them after a while.
The good news is that even if you aren’t naturally grateful, you can train yourself to appreciate the positive things in your life. Even if you feel that the exercises in this article won’t work for you, why not try them for a few weeks? This article on how to set goals and persevere with them can be helpful.
In a 2017 study named The cultivation of pure altruism via gratitude: A functional MRI study of change with gratitude practice, scientists discovered that a daily 10-minute gratitude journaling session increased activity in the part of the brain associated with feelings of gratitude.
How do you practice gratitude daily?
Choose a time of day to practice gratitude. With repetition, your practice may become a habit. For example, you could spend the first few minutes of your day thinking about things you are grateful for or make a habit of writing in a gratitude journal immediately after dinner.