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How to feel more grateful

Reviewed by Monika Cope-Ward

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You’re having one of those days where everything that can go wrong has gone wrong. It’s hard not to feel like the whole world is against you—and wonder what you could possibly have done to deserve it.

Pause for a second. Take a breath. Then ask yourself, “Is this honestly the worst day I’ve had in weeks? Or could it possibly be a decent day in disguise?” Maybe this is really a chance to cultivate gratitude and make life feel a little better.

What is gratitude?

Gratitude is a feeling of appreciation or thankfulness. It’s also a mindset. When you’re grateful, you’re acknowledging everything you value, big and small.

Keep in mind that gratitude isn’t about always looking on the bright side or only valuing things that go your way. Ultimately it asks you to look for beauty alongside struggles.

When practiced regularly, gratitude can help you improve your relationships, health, and overall well-being. It can also help you feel more connected to others, to nature, or to a higher power, which is why gratitude plays a key role in most spiritual and religious practices.

How we feel gratitude

Research suggests that gratitude may be an evolutionary adaptation for promoting better teamwork. We see this through the sharing tendencies of other primates, particularly chimpanzees.1

Some psychologists believe that gratitude can be an affective trait, meaning a characteristic or tendency of an individual’s personality. However, most experts agree that gratitude is commonly experienced as an emotion or a mood state.

People typically feel gratitude in one of three ways:

  • As appreciation (for example, for good food or beautiful music)
  • As contentment (sometimes referred to as “the state of being grateful”)
  • As awe (being deeply moved by something, like an act of nature or a human feat)

The benefits of practicing gratitude

Gratitude can offer a number of psychological and physiological benefits, including:

Greater happiness: People who experience gratitude report higher levels of positivity and lower negativity, and they tend to feel more satisfied with their lives.2

Less envy: Gratitude can help people accept their own success more easily and feel less envious of others whom they see as more successful.3

Stronger relationships: Those who express gratitude are more likely to attract meaningful relationships while improving their current relationships through increased closeness, satisfaction, supportiveness, and trust.4

Helpfulness: Expressing gratitude for other people’s actions has been shown to encourage people to act altruistically.5

Resilience: Research shows that expressing gratitude not only helps people get through hard times, but also makes it easier for them to bounce back.6

Optimistic and positive thinking: Gratitude makes us less likely to focus on negative outcomes while opening our minds to new possibilities outside our usual ways of thinking.7

Lower levels of depression: Gratitude can help reduce symptoms of depression.8 People who struggle with depression also tend to find it harder to experience gratitude.

Less stress: Research suggests that when we cultivate gratitude, we feel a stronger sense of personal control over our circumstances.9

More exercise and better sleep: People can enjoy all types of physical activity more fully when they practice gratitude.10 This motivates us to engage in exercise regularly—and for its own sake—rather than strictly for physical health reasons. It can also help us develop a positive association with sleep, making it more likely we’ll prioritize getting rest.

Emotional control: When we feel grateful, we tend to self-regulate better and may act less impulsively.11 Gratitude can also help reduce anxious thoughts about death and dying.12

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 to practice gratitude in your everyday life:

Pause and reflect. Try this while brushing your teeth, waiting in line at the store, or sitting in traffic after work. Taking a moment to remind yourself what you truly value in your life can help you get out of autopilot mode and make you more present in the moment.

Write a letter to someone in your life who’s made a positive impact on you, even if you never intend to send it to them.

Imagine a “gratitude visit.” Think about a person who’s been particularly kind or helpful to you. Imagine their face and voice in detail, along with any positive feelings this evokes for you. Then imagine yourself visiting that person to thank them for their help.

Notice the little things. Appreciate simple pleasures that you typically take for granted, like breathing fresh air or sipping your morning coffee.

Ask yourself how you can help someone else. Gratitude should be focused outward, not inward, even though it often originates within us.

Try a 30-day gratitude challenge. Every morning for 30 days, write down three things you’re grateful for from the previous day. This will help you focus on specific positive moments in your life, rather than what’s going well in general.

With practice, gratitude can feel as natural as breathing. But sometimes being grateful isn’t enough to help us through difficulties. If you’re struggling with negative thoughts and feelings every day, consider talking with a therapist to get support.

Remember, your thoughts aren’t facts—they’re just thoughts, and you can change them. Gratitude is a great place to start.

About the author

Elise Burley is a member of the therapist.com editorial team. She has more than a decade of professional experience writing and editing on a variety of health topics, including for several health-related e-commerce businesses, media publications, and licensed professionals. When she’s not working, she’s usually practicing yoga or off the grid somewhere on her latest canoe camping adventure.

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