How to Be a Little More Grateful in Life
Reviewed by Dr. Kirsten Davin, OTD, OTR/L, ATP, SMS
So, you’re having a rough day. You woke up late, it’s raining, and your friend turned down your lunch invitation.
You pull up to work, and you realize there’s no time to grab a coffee. Your phone is almost dead, and you can’t find your charger. Of course it dies as you’re checking your email.
It’s one of those days where it feels like everything that can go wrong has gone wrong. It’s hard not to feel like the whole world is against you.
But is it, really? Be honest. What’s going on here?
Is this really the worst day you’ve had in weeks, or is it possible that this could be a decently good day in disguise—a chance to cultivate gratitude and make it just a little bit better for yourself?
It’s easy to feel stressed and overwhelmed in today’s world. We sometimes feel like we have no time for ourselves or peace of mind. It seems like without us even noticing, life can sweep us up and leave us without a moment to think about what matters most.
But when you feel like life is against you, take a moment and look around. Surely, there must be something to feel grateful for!
What is Gratitude?
Gratitude is a feeling of appreciation or thankfulness. It can also be a way of thinking, an outlook on life, and a mindset.
When you’re grateful, you’re essentially acknowledging the things in your life that you value—both big and small. You can be grateful for almost anything in life, but in general we can break these experiences of gratitude into three categories:
- There’s personal gratitude, like when you appreciate the people who matter most to you or the things that make your life better.
- There’s social gratitude, like when you’re thankful for humanity in general, including its cultural contributions and impact on history.
- And there’s global gratitude, which is based on how grateful you are for events that aren’t necessarily associated with people—like the existence of certain plants and animals, or natural phenomena like thunderstorms.
Gratitude is a powerful practice that can help you improve your relationships, health, and overall sense of well-being. It’s also an important part of many spiritual and religious traditions.
How Gratitude Is Felt
Research suggests that gratitude may have developed as an evolutionary adaptation for promoting better teamwork. We see this through the sharing tendencies of other primates—particularly chimpanzees.
Some psychologists suggest that gratitude can be an affective trait, meaning that it’s a characteristic or tendency of an individual’s personality. However, most experts agree that gratitude is more often experienced as a mood state or an emotion.
There are three main ways people typically feel grateful:
- As appreciation (for example, for things like good food or beautiful music).
- As contentment (in some cases, this can be referred to as “the state of being grateful”).
- As awe (in the sense of feeling deeply moved by something, like an act of nature or an incredible human feat).
What Gratitude Isn’t
Gratitude isn’t about always looking at the bright side of life, or only noticing and appreciating things that go your way. It’s important to acknowledge life’s struggles as well as its beauty.
Identifying the things in your life that you’re grateful for is a wonderful step toward happiness and lasting fulfillment, but being thankful doesn’t mean you have to ignore areas of life that could be improved.
It’s also important to remember that while we’re all grateful for certain things in life—like food, shelter, and our health—gratitude doesn’t mean you should always focus on how something has benefited your own life. In many cases, it’s appropriate to focus on your connection to others and choose to give back to them over seeking benefits for yourself.
The Benefits of Practicing Gratitude
Gratitude brings both psychological and physiological benefits. These include:
Increased happiness: Gratitude has been shown to be an important predictor of happiness. People who experience gratitude more frequently report higher levels of positive emotions and fewer negative ones, as well as greater life satisfaction.
Decreased feelings of envy: Research has found that gratitude can also help us overcome the “dark side” tendencies of emotional experiences like pride, greed, and anger. Specifically, studies have found that gratitude can help people accept their own success more readily, while also making them feel less envious of others who are perceived to be more successful than they are.
Stronger relationships with others: People who express gratitude are more likely to attract meaningful relationships. Likewise, gratitude can improve existing relationships by increasing closeness, satisfaction, supportiveness, and trust.
Being more helpful: Expressing gratitude for things other people have done—or simply appreciating the contributions they’ve made toward something you believe in—has been shown to make people more likely to act altruistically.
Greater resilience: Research shows that expressing gratitude can not only help people get through tough times, but also make it easier to bounce back from adversity. Gratitude helps people cultivate a strong sense of “self-efficacy,” or the belief that they have what it takes to persevere and overcome future struggles.
Increased optimism and positive thinking: Gratitude reduces the tendency to focus on negative outcomes. At the same time, it can open our minds to new possibilities and broaden our habitual ways of thinking.
Lower levels of depression: Gratitude may be an important part of keeping depression at bay. Conversely, depression has been shown to decrease the likelihood of experiencing gratitude.
Reduced stress: Research suggests that when we cultivate gratitude, we can move away from stress and toward a sense of personal control over our circumstances.
Greater exercise frequency and better sleep: Expressing gratitude can help people enjoy all types of physical activity more fully, making them more prone to want to engage in it regularly—and for its own sake—rather than strictly for weight management or health reasons. It can also help them develop a positive association with sleep, making it more likely they’ll prioritize it.
Greater control over emotions: Gratitude is associated with greater self-regulation. As a result, people who are grateful may act less impulsively. Practicing gratitude also has a tendency of reducing anxious thoughts about death and dying.
How to Practice Gratitude
No matter where you are or what you’re doing, you can always stop for a moment to be grateful. Here are a few ways you can practice gratitude in your everyday life:
Pause and reflect: Even a quick pause can help you get out of autopilot mode and remind yourself to be grateful for the present moment. You can use this mindfulness technique anytime, anywhere—while brushing your teeth, waiting in line at the supermarket, or stuck in traffic after work.
Write a letter: One way to practice gratitude is by writing letters to people in your life who have made a positive impact on you—even if you never intend to send it to them. Writing letters can help you reflect on the good things other people have done for you, and also allow you to clarify what effect these contributions had on your life.
Imagine a “gratitude visit”: At the end of every day, think about one person who has been particularly kind or helpful to you that day. Imagine that person’s face and voice in great detail, and pay attention to any positive feelings this evokes for you. Then imagine yourself visiting that person in the flesh to thank them for their help.
Look for little things: We often take the little things in life for granted, assuming they’ll always be there—like breathing fresh air or sipping our morning coffee. But when we find ourselves with these little pleasures lost or unavailable, we quickly realize just how much we appreciated them all along.
Ask yourself how you can help others: Gratitude should be focused outward, not inward—even though it often originates within us. Make it your goal to focus on how other people have helped you, rather than just reflecting on all the good things you’ve done for yourself.
Try a 30-day gratitude challenge: Each morning, write down three things you’re grateful for from the previous day. You can also choose to make these items “grateful reminders,” or situations in your life that evoke gratitude but aren’t inherently positive. This will help you focus specifically on what’s going well in your life, rather than simply noting the things that are generally good.
It doesn’t have to be complicated. WIth practice, gratitude can quickly feel as natural as breathing; but most of us could use a little reminder every now and then to ensure that we never take it for granted.
Having said that, if you’re constantly dealing with negative thoughts and feelings on an everyday basis, a simple daily gratitude practice may not be enough to help turn things around for you. Be sure to get help from a professional to explore whether you’re dealing with something more serious, like anxiety or depression.
Remember, your thoughts aren’t facts—they’re just your thoughts. And you can change them. Gratitude is always a great place to start.
Elise Burley is part of the therapist.com editorial team and has over a decade of professional writing and editing experience on a variety health topics. Over the years, she has written for several health-related ecommerce businesses, media publications, and licensed professionals. When she’s not writing, she’s usually practicing yoga or off the grid somewhere on her latest canoe camping adventure.
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