Aside from practicing kindness, practicing gratitude is probably one of the best things you can do to boost happiness in your life. The mental and physical health benefits of gratitude practice are impressive.
It seems so simple—can it really work? And what are some of the most effective ways of practicing gratitude?
We’re going to review the evidence supporting gratitude practice and then share some steps to easily get started. If you’ve been feeling less than great, you may be surprised at the difference practicing gratitude can make.
Trust me, this will be worth your time.
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What Is Gratitude?
Gratitude has been defined as “the appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful to oneself and represents a general state of thankfulness and/or appreciation.”
It can be considered both an emotional response (being thankful for something) and a personality trait (having a sense of appreciation).
The importance of gratitude was discussed by Greek and Roman philosophers thousands of years ago, and it is a foundational concept of the world’s religions.
“Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues, but the parent of all of the others” –Cicero
Indeed, gratitude is central to our humanity. It has been described as a “social glue” that strengthens the relationships between people.
Gratitude helps us acknowledge that we have received something good from a source outside ourselves, and it encourages us to pay this forward.
Benefits of Gratitude Practice
The connection between gratitude and well-being has been explored in numerous scientific studies. In one study of over 5,000 adults, researchers found that gratitude was strongly associated with life satisfaction.
Other studies have shown that people with more gratitude have greater happiness and lower levels of stress and depression.
Taking it a step further, researchers have tried to find out if practicing gratitude can have physical and psychological benefits, including for people who are struggling in life.
The answer has been a resounding “yes.” A broad range of benefits was found in people who regularly practice gratitude, including:
- More joy and happiness
- Greater optimism and pleasure
- Higher levels of positive emotions
- Feeling less lonely and isolated
- More resilience after trauma
- Stronger immune system
- Less bothered by pain
- Lowered blood pressure
- Healthier habits
- Better sleep quality
Practicing gratitude has even been shown to bring about changes in the brain.
People who practiced gratitude regularly showed greater activation in a region of the brain known to be associated with experiencing gratitude. This means they may be even more sensitive to future gratitude experiences, potentially resulting in mental health benefits over time.
Finally, gratitude has been shown to have social benefits, including improvements in relationships such as romantic relationships and workplace relationships. When you are grateful for what others have done for you, you’re more likely to want to do good deeds for others.
Scientific knowledge around benefits of gratitude practice continues to grow.
Like evidence-based positive psychology? See 11 Science-Backed Stress Relief Tools
How to Practice Gratitude
Great things about practicing gratitude are it’s free, easy, and can be done from anywhere. Anyone can do it.
There are many different ways you can practice gratitude. Let’s review a few of them so you can get started.
I love gratitude journaling. It’s so simple and yet so effective. See how I felt after 30 days of gratitude journaling.
All you have to do is set aside a bit of time each day to reflect on a few things you were grateful for over the past 24 hours. I think between 1 and 3 things is a good number. Aim for quality over quantity when journaling.
You can use a blank journal or one of the variety of gratitude journals available. I use this one. There are even journaling apps you can try that include gratitude prompts.
Think about specific things that happened, including anything that was surprisingly pleasant. They could be small things like a friendly barista or big things like getting a job offer.
Include enough details to savor the memory. For example, I might write “my son telling a funny joke” rather than just “my son.” As you’re writing, you’ll relive the experience and the positive emotions.
Try to incorporate a variety so you’re not listing the same things over and over again. However, you may start to see patterns and themes emerge over time, and that’s perfectly fine.
Even when it feels like everything is going wrong in life, pushing yourself to think of something you’re grateful for can help change your perspective.
Studies have even found that weekly gratitude journaling is effective, so do what works for you. I like a daily routine so I can stay in the habit, but I don’t stress if I miss a day. It should feel like an enjoyable experience rather than a chore.
Can you commit to trying gratitude journaling for 30 days?
Gratitude meditation may take a little bit of practice, but it’s easy enough even for those new to meditation. Don’t let the concept of meditation intimidate you; it can be quite a rewarding way to experience the benefits of gratitude practice.
The simplest way to get started with gratitude meditation is with a guided meditation. Start with a shorter length of time, say 5 minutes, and over time you may want to work up to longer, such as 10 or 15 minutes.
It all depends on your schedule and how the practice feels to you.
You’ll want to sit comfortably, relax, and close your eyes. Release your tension and focus on your breath. Let all other thoughts float away.
The guide will take you through a series of prompts to reflect on what you are grateful for. You can even be grateful for challenges you experience, because they provide opportunities to learn and grow.
You can try the guided meditation below or use a meditation app to look for one. Insight Timer is a free meditation app that’s great to try. Be sure to notice how you feel after your gratitude meditation.
Try gratitude meditation a few times a week for optimal benefit.
Write Letters of Gratitude
Remember the social aspect of gratitude we reviewed earlier? This method of gratitude practice really highlights it. You can brighten someone else’s day while experiencing a happiness boost yourself.
Again, the concept is simple: write a note to someone whom you appreciate. Try to be specific in a quality or action for which you are expressing gratitude. So, “Thanks for cheering me up on Wednesday night. I can always count on you” is better than a generic “You’re always there for me.”
You don’t have to write very much—just focus on sincerity.
Your note can be handwritten or sent via text or email. Think about friends, coworkers, neighbors, or any number of people in your life who deserve some gratitude.
Bestowing some kindness on another through your thoughtful words will help remind you how lucky you are. Give it a try.
Gratitude has been called a sister of mindfulness. Some of the gratitude practices we’ve already described include some elements of mindfulness. The first step of practicing gratitude involves paying attention, and that’s what mindfulness is all about.
I find mindfulness in particular helps me feel grateful for the natural world and all its beauty.
Practice slowing down and using your senses to experience everything around you. Feel the sun’s warmth on your skin or the wind’s gentle touch. Savor the taste of your morning coffee and pause to appreciate it.
By winding down your racing thoughts and noticing your surroundings, you have more opportunities to be thankful. You can be grateful for a tasty meal you’re having and its relief of hunger. If you awake feeling rested, you can be grateful for a restoring sleep.
Tune in to your body and your environment to recognize the many gifts you’re given throughout your day. Try to notice what might usually go unnoticed. The little things in life can be incredibly wonderful if you give them a chance to shine.
Say Thank You More Deeply
Have you ever noticed there are people who are really good at saying “thank you”? They don’t just throw away the words out of habit or politeness without a second thought. They stop and take time to express their gratitude. They make a real connection.
My aunt is one of those people. I’ve always admired this about her. It could be something as simple as a clerk helping her find something in the hardware store. Most people might think, “well, it’s their job.”
However, she would take the time to say, “Thank you for helping me. You didn’t have to be so nice, and you saved me a lot of time.”
The recipient might try to shrug off the words, but she helps them realize their small act meant something. “No, I really appreciate it. You’re good at what you do.”
Be like my aunt.
If you experience an act worthy of gratitude, let the person know. Think about what effect their gesture had on you. Then take the time to express your thanks in a meaningful way.
Don’t let your “thank you” be an empty afterthought. Put some feeling behind it, and you and the recipient will benefit.
Tips for Practicing Gratitude
To get the greatest benefits of gratitude practice, it needs to be a regular part of your life. If you’re like me, you might find the experience addictive.
You can try a variety of the methods here to see what resonates with you. Which method helps to shift your perspective to the positive?
I don’t think it’s possible to have too much gratitude, as long as you’re sincere and not just going through the motions. Challenge yourself to find some time each week to devote to practicing gratitude.
The methods we reviewed don’t take much time at all but can have a big payoff if done regularly.
Summary: Benefits of Gratitude Practice
There’s no guarantee that practicing gratitude will bring about beneficial effects for everyone, but there’s enough positive data to suggest it’s worth a try. What have you got to lose?
Even those in difficult situations, such as those with a serious chronic illness, have benefited from recognizing the good in their life. It might take time to see through to things you can be thankful for, but they are there if you look for them.
The science behind the benefits of practicing gratitude continues to mount in its favor. A variety of methods have been shown effective, several of which we’ve explored here.
Buddhist monks start each day with gratitude practice. But you don’t have to join a monastery to reap the benefits of gratitude practice.
Try some of the easy everyday methods we reviewed to bring about positive shifts in your mindset, and even potentially your brain chemistry.