If you’re a polite person, you probably say “thank you” several times a day without thinking much about it. But when was the last time you truly felt grateful for something or someone and took a moment to think about it?
Some people are naturally inclined to focus on the good in their lives, but that’s not the norm, says Cortland J. Dahl, PhD, a research scientist at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “It goes back to our biology and our evolution,” he says. “We evolved not to be happy but to survive, and focusing on the negative is what helped us survive in the past.” But today, stress-related problems – including insomnia, depression, digestive disorders, heart disease and more – are among our biggest threats. Practicing gratitude can help.
So what does gratitude actually mean? Definitions vary, but experts generally define it as the affirmation of goodness in our lives as well as the ability to attribute these positive things to a source beyond ourselves (such as other people or a higher power ). Practicing gratitude means acknowledging gratitude, either by writing it down silently or by expressing sincere thanks to others.
If you’re not particularly spiritual or thoughtful, the notion of intentionally practicing gratitude may seem silly or unimportant. But there are good reasons to try. Studies have shown that grateful people tend to be happier, sleep better, and have lower levels of inflammation. They are also less likely to be depressed and more resilient after trauma. Research even found that people with one type of heart disease (asymptomatic heart failure) who started keeping a daily gratitude journal had lower levels of CRP, a marker of inflammation, just 8 weeks later. These studies don’t directly prove that gratitude causes these benefits, but the link is clear.
There hasn’t been much research into the impact of gratitude on the brain. But in one small study, researchers observed participants’ brains using an fMRI scanner during a gratitude exercise. Analyzes have shown that when people feel grateful, there is an increase in activity in areas of the brain that are also linked to empathy and social connection.
A larger study involved nearly 300 people who used a university psychotherapy service. Some of them did only psychotherapy, others did psychotherapy and expressive writing, and a third group did psychotherapy and wrote letters of gratitude to other people . Those who wrote letters of gratitude in addition to psychotherapy reported better mental health, a change that was still present 12 weeks after the study ended.
Practicing gratitude doesn’t require maintaining a sunny disposition at all times, says Dahl. In fact, he notes that people who are struggling are among those who could benefit most from cultivating gratitude. “Gratitude and a sense of belonging are precisely what helps us get through difficult times,” says Dahl.
Remember that you can be grateful for things that most people consider important – perhaps a loving family or a job you can rely on – as well as those that may seem relatively minor. “For example, you may appreciate that someone has a sense of humor. If you go further and recognize that this person made you laugh and lifted your spirits, that’s gratitude,” Dahl says.
You can aim to be more grateful as your day goes on, but most people find it helpful to set aside specific time for a gratitude exercise. “Gratitude is a skill that you can turn into a habit,” says Dahl.
To get started, try one or more of the following approaches.
Name three things you are grateful for and why.
Dahl and his wife recently started doing it before bed, and they’re already reaping the rewards. “We noticed we were going through a period of stress at work and we used to lie down and complain,” he says. “Now we take turns choosing a different focal point and naming three things about it that we are grateful for. It’s the simplest thing, but it puts us in a better mood before bed.
Write a letter to someone you are grateful for.
Grab a pen and write a note to someone you’re grateful to have in your life, suggests Amy Morin, LCSW, psychotherapist and author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do.
Be as specific as possible. “Share that you appreciate that they took the time to do something nice for you, or that you appreciate the times when they really helped you in life. If you are brave, read the letter to them; it will benefit them too.
Not feeling so bold? Write the letter anyway but keep it to yourself.
Soak up stories about gratitude.
Many books have been written about gratitude, as well as podcasts and TED talks, Dahl says. Spending a few minutes each day reading or listening to them can help change your mindset. Try reading a book like The Gratitude Project or watch a TED talk on the power of “living eulogies.”
Create a bulletin board of things you are grateful for.
Think of it as a mood board focused on gratitude. Pin photos of people, experiences, and things you’re grateful for and keep them in a visible place, like your kitchen or home office. “Just seeing this bulletin board every day can give you a boost,” Morin says.
Think like a ritual.
“I think daily rituals are really helpful and I meditate every day,” says Dahl. You can develop your own gratitude meditation; all you have to do is sit quietly and spend a few minutes thinking about what is good in your life, big or small.