Practicing gratitude is important. It can be very easy to focus on the negatives in life. Our society is built so that we see problems and fix them, before moving onto the next problem we can fix. Although it can be a good thing that some of us are programmed to keep striving to improve, it can also be limiting and lead to depression or anxiety. The fast-paced world in which we live in and what seems like a flood of tragic and bad news makes it difficult to stop, be in the moment, and appreciate all the good things in our lives. The focus on the negative can make us feel sad and hopeless about ourselves and the world around us, especially when there are issues that we feel like we can’t control. However, it is important to take time to practice gratitude and focus on the good things going on around us, and accept the feelings that come up when there are things we feel we can’t change.
Focusing on the good doesn’t mean avoiding difficult emotions or reality, it’s simply taking time to recognize the good things in our lives so we have a balance. Life is about balance. It is also not about eliminating all the bad things, that’s not possible. It’s about letting in the good. Accepting difficult emotions and what we have in our power to control is also important to do in conjunction with practicing gratitude.
Often when we think about practicing gratitude and the things we’re grateful for, or even things that brighten our day, we think about bigger or more general things. Like what people say when at Thanksgiving if they go around and share what they’re grateful for: things like family or friends. Or even news that people share that improves their day or week, like getting a good grade, getting a promotion, or going on vacation. While these are all positive things to take time to celebrate and appreciate, there are so many great things around us every day that we take for granted. When we’re mad or upset, it can feel like even not making a green light is the end of the world or causes the “why does this always happen to me?” thought. Why don’t smaller good things have the same impact on our happiness? Why do we only focus on when we don’t make the green light and not when we do? Minimizing the positives and maximizing the negatives are actually also a common trait of depression and anxiety. These are also thought patterns that can become ingrained in our minds and therefore be difficult to change. Although this can show up in smaller ways that are hard to notice, this thought pattern and small negative thoughts can add up.
Practicing gratitude, slowing down and noticing the good in the world and in life are important. It is important to slow down our thoughts and our actions, to give ourselves a break from being “productive” or trying to fix things or even just from doing what’s next on our schedules or to-do lists. As Ferris Bueller said, “life moves pretty fast, if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Additionally, it can help to slow down and look at the good things so you can prevent burnout, feel some hope, get inspiration, and generally pull yourself out of what can seem like a really dark world we live in.
How to Practice Gratitude
Many of the exercises listed below to practice gratitude differ only in how to incorporate the practice of gratitude into your life. However, they involve the same key concept: practicing gratitude. So let’s first begin with how to think about things you are grateful for.
You can start by reflecting on your day, looking at your surroundings, or thinking about things or people that you turn to for comfort if you had a bad day. These can be big or little things. It can be loved ones or pizza or your blanket. It is almost more important to recognize the small or everyday things than the big things.
Additionally, remember that things don’t have to be perfect to be grateful for them. Maybe your job isn’t perfect and you have complaints or things you would change about it, but think about the things you are grateful for. Maybe you like some of your coworkers, maybe you like some of your projects, or maybe it’s close to work or you just like that you get paid for it. Nothing is perfect, but there can be good in it regardless.
Practicing gratitude can be difficult at first. We’re not used to doing it and it may feel like learning a new skill, because, well, it is. You may not be able to come up with a bunch of things you are grateful for at the beginning, and that is okay. The practice of thinking about things that you are grateful for is what is most important and what will make the difference at the end of the day.
Practicing Gratitude Exercises
Practicing Gratitude: Gratitude Mindfulness
List a few things, even just in your head to yourself that you're grateful for. This can be out loud, to yourself, or quickly when you wake up or on your way to work. It can also be a longer practice of reflection when you’re in bed about to go to sleep. What’s important is taking time to think about what you’re grateful for, whether it be your pillow, your loved one, pizza, or your health. Just make sure it fits with and is realistic with your routine and what works for you.
Practicing Gratitude: Gratitude Journal
Similar to gratitude mindfulness, gratitude journaling is when you write down a few things you are grateful for. Try to eventually get in the habit of doing this once a day, but you can do it more if you want, or ease yourself into it. It can be helpful to try to do this at a set time every day, maybe when you wake up or are about to go to sleep.
Practicing Gratitude: Ta Da List
At the end of each day, write down what you accomplished in that day. This can be anything from waking up, to showering, to finishing a project. Perfectionism and stress can make us feel like if we don’t fix everything or get everything on our to-do list done, we failed. However, just trying and just doing those things that society expects us to do is enough.
Practicing Gratitude: Intentionally Look for the Good Around You
Mr. Rogers once said that during tragedies to look for the helpers, because you will always find people helping. Be intentional about seeking out and noticing things around you that are good or beautiful. This may be looking for blogs, social media profiles, or organizations of people traveling to the location of a natural disaster to help those located in the area, the beauty of a skyline, or a dog wagging its tail enjoying its walk. It can be noticing the trees outside your window or that your paper cut healed. Being intentional about looking for good or beauty around you or in the world, can help balance out some of the negatives. (Following good news social media accounts is an easy way to incorporate this!)
Practicing Gratitude: Praise/Appreciate Others Regularly
Praising others or telling them what or when they did something well that you appreciate is very powerful. It can help you get in the routine of acknowledging positive and helpful actions and people, and it feels good to give back and brighten someone’s day. It can also encourage others to continue to do good. Challenge yourself to go out of your way once a week or once a day to tell someone they did something well. This can be anything from telling a barista thank you and that you enjoy your coffee, to telling a coworker they did a good job on a project, to telling a family member you appreciate a text they sent or did a great job making a dish they cook. Telling others that you appreciate the big and small things they do can help you get in the habit of noticing and appreciating the small things and can brighten others’ days, which, in turn, can help brighten yours.
Practicing Gratitude: Gratitude Walk
A gratitude walk is similar to the prior exercise and can even be done in unison. Go on a walk and make a point to look for good things around you. These can be anything from it being a nice day to seeing children playing or watching dogs play at the park. You can also incorporate a friend and make a point to talk about things you’re grateful for. Going outside, getting some exercise, and some vitamin D are all proven to boost mood. Adding in intentional gratitude practices can further help boost that. A gratitude walk can be done on your way to work, on a lunch or coffee break, with a friend, or alone. Whatever works best for you.
Practicing Gratitude: Gratitude Conversation
A gratitude conversation can also be incorporated into a gratitude walk, or any existing social situation, as well as a stand-alone exercise. Have a conversation with a friend about the things that you are grateful for. This can help keep you accountable, as well as get another perspective or new things to be grateful for. Social connection can also help boost mood. It can be helpful to make a standing conversation with a friend or to start or finish off a phone call, coffee date, lunch, etc. by discussing things that you are grateful for. Try not to compare or judge what you both are grateful for, just accept that your lives and perspectives may be different, and maybe try seeing things from their perspective.
Practicing Gratitude: Gratitude letter
Write a letter to someone or something in your life that you are grateful for. This can be someone you know, a public figure you admire, someone you love who has passed away, an activity you love, your favorite restaurant, or your favorite food. You can send or give the letter to the recipient or not. The point is to take time to recognize and explore the things in your life you are grateful for.
Practicing gratitude: 5:1 ratio
For every negative thought, challenge yourself to think of five positives. If you go out to eat and your food comes cold and you find yourself ruminating on that or you find that that is the thing that sticks out to you about the meal, challenge yourself to think about some positives. Was the food good? Was the company good? Just because one thing went wrong or just because you didn’t enjoy something about the experience, doesn’t mean that it is all bad. Both things can be true: the food was cold but it was also good; the food was bad but the company was good. It’s hard to live in the gray area, but life is not all in black and white. Also, just because one bad thing happened or someone did something you didn’t like, doesn’t mean that everything is all bad or that person is all bad. Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater, as they say. Additionally, it can feel hard to think of 5 positives, so it’s okay to work up to it and start with less.
Tips to success
Try to make doing one or more of these things a habit. You don’t have to do all of them. If one doesn’t work or doesn’t fit, that’s okay, try another one or tweak one to better fit.
Look for practices that can easily weave into your existing routines. Maybe you have a commute to work that you can incorporate a gratitude walk or gratitude mindfulness in. Maybe you go to the same coffee shop every day and you can start incorporating the practice of appreciating when others do well.
It can be helpful to intentionally “schedule” these practices. This doesn’t have to be formal, it can just be incorporating one or more of them at the same time every day or week. Maybe it’s doing a gratitude journal every morning, or having a gratitude conversation with a friend or loved one every other Saturday.
Try making a gratitude spot. This is similar to putting medicine or keys in the same spot to help you remember them. When you see the space or when you’re in it, whether it be your bed, a chair, a room, etc., try to intentionally reorient your mind to practice gratitude. That way, if you’re feeling down, you can spend some time there to help feel better. It’s also helpful to make this place somewhere you see a lot to remember to practice gratitude.
Easing into practicing gratitude and removing some pressure from it can help make the practice stick. From there, you can move on to some of the more involved practices if you want.
Give yourself grace. It’s okay and expected to miss a few days of doing them or to struggle. All that matters is that you are trying.
If you are struggling with symptoms of anxiety or depression, or want to strengthen gratitude skills, a good solution is to seek therapy. The Center for Growth offers anxiety, depression, and gratitude therapy at our offices in Philadelphia, PA, Mechanicsville, VA, Ocean City, NJ, and Santa Fe, NM. We also offer virtual therapy in GA and FL. Please call 215-922-5683 or self schedule an appointment with one of our therapists.