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Even the least chivalrous among society will toss a “thank you” at the stranger who holds a door open or the Uber driver before hopping out of the car. But there’s a massive difference between a casual, reflexive “thanks” and true gratitude.
Real gratitude is a deep feeling of appreciativeness — and when felt, cultivated, shared, and acknowledged, can bring a lot of real perks (read: health benefits!) to your life.
You’ve likely heard all sorts of murmuring about expressing gratitude, gratitude journaling, and more. But what does practicing gratitude really look like? Below, mental health professionals explain exactly what gratitude is, how to practice gratitude, and why you should.
Gratitude is defined as a feeling of appreciativeness or thanks. But it gets even simpler than that, according to licensed professional counselor Rebecca Phillips, M.S., L.P.C. with Mend Modern Therapy in Texas. At its most distilled, gratitude is acknowledgment because when you can take a moment to acknowledge what you’re feeling, you can acknowledge the good,” says Phillips. “Acknowledging that something is good is the essence of experiencing gratitude,” she says.
Gratitude is not toxic positivity. In fact, it’s the opposite. Toxic positivity is the act of invalidating and dismissing negative emotions with false encouragements (instead of empathy and genuine care), says Phillips. “Experiencing gratitude does not require that you skew reality or thoughts to a place of denial,” she says. The main pillar of gratitude is acknowledging what is good, not ignoring what is bad.
What Does It Mean to Practice Gratitude?
If being grateful is the feeling, practicing gratitude is the action. Practicing gratitude involves cultivating thankfulness in your life through a combination of healthy habits, coping mechanisms, and time management, explains certified stress management coach Stephen Light. The point, in short, is to help people enjoy their life a little bit more.
For the record, practicing gratitude is something anyone can do, says Light. “Anybody who has a desire to practice gratitude and engage with thankfulness has the potential to learn to build it into their lives.”
What’s the Point of Practicing Gratitude?
You’ll need some context to better understand the benefits of practicing gratitude IRL. “Evolutionarily speaking, the human brain is primed to seek safety,” explains Phillips. This requires you to be hyper-aware of any instances of danger or darkness. In ancient times, this kept people safe from animals or other threats, but in the modern world, “this safety-seeking response causes you to focus way more on the negatives than positives,” she says. (This is known as the “negativity bias”).
This perspective can affect not only your day but also your entire life, infusing everything you do with a sense of dread, she says. Practicing gratitude is the antidote to that negativity bias, according to Phillips. “A gratitude practice helps you balance out the impulse to focus on the negatives with a reminder to focus on the positives,” she says. This has the power of giving you a more realistic view of your life.
Unsurprisingly, this tilt toward focusing on the positive can improve mental well-being, says Phillips. In fact, practicing gratitude can help alleviate the symptoms associated with anxiety and depression, according to a 2020 study published in the Journal Of Happiness Studies.
On a physiological level, “practicing gratitude can help the brain send healing, regenerative messages to the cells in our bodies,” says celebrity holistic health expert and reiki master Serena Poon. Considering the fact the brain’s role is to interpret the world around you and use that intel to send signals to your gut, hormones, immune system, and beyond, altering what the brain sees can impact everything from gut health to hormone health and beyond, she says.
“Other studies show that practicing gratitude can improve sleep quality, which can result in more energy and in turn, allowing you to be more focused, enthusiastic, and have better clarity in your daily life,” she adds. And by helping you see the good in situations and people, “practicing gratitude can also enhance your social interactions with others, creating more compassion, community, and emotional and psychological resilience,” she says.
Exactly How to Practice Gratitude
1. Start and end your day with it.
An easy step one for learning how to practice gratitude? Do it first thing. “Beginning the day with a gratitude practice can drastically improve your life,” according to Poon. That’s a pretty big claim, but suspend your disbelief for a few days and start the morning with a brief gratitude session. “This practice can shift your energy towards love, joy, and abundance,” she says.
If you’re a writer at heart, she suggests jotting down three to five things you’re grateful for with the sunrise. If, however, you’re a painter, you might choose to get your paintbrush wet. Another option would be to say a morning prayer. (See More: The Best Gratitude Journals For Appreciating the Little Things)
Poon suggests doing your gratitude practice before bed, too. “Ending your date with a gratitude list or other gratitude practice will shift your energy and your mind into a place of love and a space to receive,” she says — and maybe even bleed those positive vibes into your dreams.
2. Get into gratitude journaling.
On the topic of writing down the things you’re grateful for… try gratitude journaling.
Popularized by self-help gurus, influencers, and celebs alike, gratitude journaling entails recording what you’re thankful for every single day, explains Phillips. In addition to bringing a little happiness and hopefulness into your everyday schedule, “this practice also gives you something to look back on,” says Light, which has the added benefit of helping you track your personal growth over time. (Related: How to Develop a Growth Mindset to Conquer Life)
Any journal can double as a gratitude journal, but sometimes treating yourself to a new notebook and pen set makes all the difference, says Phillip. So, if you can, “get yourself a nice journal that you would like to carry around with you and write and get some good pens that make you actually want to write.” (Or, go for a guided journal that will coach you through cultivating gratitude.) Then, use them. (Journaling not your thing? Try a gratitude run instead.)
3. Say thank you!
Indeed, recognizing what you’re grateful for on your own time is important. But learning how to practice gratitude isn’t just about self-awareness and introspection. When it’s other people — or the acts of service they’re providing you — that you’re grateful for, it’s important to tell them, says Poon. (On that note, you should also read up on the five love languages.)
“There is an intrinsic human desire to support your community, so it’s important to recognize the way people within your community show up for you,” she says. That recognition can be as simple as saying thank you. For example:
- I just wanted to thank you for making my coffee most mornings. I really, really appreciate how much care you bring to this job.
- Thank you for driving so safely! Wishing you safe travels as you pick up your next person.
- Hey! Just a little text to tell you how much I appreciate having you in my life. You fill my days with so much good.
Or, you can show them in some way that they are important to you.
- It meant a lot to me that you came to my work holiday party as my plus one. So I got you this little token of my appreciation.
- Check your mail today! I sent along a little (perishable!) good to thank you for all your hard work.
Not only can this create a positive feedback loop wherein they want to keep doing (or being) the thing(s) you’re grateful for, she says. But it also helps create a culture of gratitude in your relationship, where they are more likely to point out the things you’re doing that they’re thankful for, too. Sweet deal, huh? (More here: Ways You Might Be Practicing Gratitude Wrong)
4. Focus your gratitude inward.
Buckle in for a little tough love. “You cannot serve others unless you fill yourself up with self-love — running on empty will leave you bitter and exhausted,” says Poon. (See: What Happened When I Prioritized Self-Care for the Week)
Practicing gratitude on yourself, for yourself, can help circumvent those icky, sleepy feels, she says. So when you practice gratitude, make sure to explicitly thank yourself for the fruits of your labor.
That could mean saying “thank you, body for carrying me through my workout” out loud in the car after leaving yoga or CrossFit. That could mean treating yourself to the recovery modalities that help you feel best in your body. That could mean going to therapy because it feels like a hug for yourself.
Or, Pool says, that could look like simply journaling on the following gratitude journaling prompt: What have you done for yourself that you’re proud of? (P.S here are 75 more journal prompts.)