In last week’s insight article, we explored the research-based benefits of gratitude. This week, we take our exploration further into how we can grow our gratitude. As discussed in last week’s article, research from Kini et al., shows that practicing gratitude makes individuals more sensitive to feelings of gratitude and provides unique neurological effects. This research finding paired with the concept of neuroplasticity—the ability of the nervous system to change—concludes that practice makes perfect. Continue reading for practical ways we can all practice and grow our gratitude.
Strategies for generating gratitude
Keep a gratitude journal
In research conducted by Emmons and McCullough (2003), it was found that writing down what you are grateful for can have several benefits including increased optimism, greater life satisfaction, increased likelihood of exercising, reduced physical complaints, better sleep, and increased likelihood of helping others. Keeping a gratitude journal can be a highly impactful way to make gratitude a habit. This can be done through technology such as a note application on a phone or laptop, or traditionally through pen and paper. According to Greater Good in Action, there “is no wrong way to keep a gratitude journal” and the goal is “to remember a good event, experience, person or thing in your life—then enjoy the good emotions that come with it.” Here are the guidelines they provided.
“Write down up to five things for which you feel grateful…don’t just do this exercise in your head”
“Be as specific as possible”
“Go for depth over breadth”
“Try subtraction, not just addition. Consider what your life would be like without certain people or things…”
“See good things as ‘gifts’”
“Revise if you repeat”
“Write regularly” (Greater Good in Action, n.d.)
With the theme of a gratitude journal, you could also follow Severin Sorensen, the Host and Curator of the Arete Coach Podcast, in creating a “Book of Bests.” For example, write down your best days, memories, foods, experiences, trips, and things that matter to you. Consider why they are the best days, then go out and see how to live your best days.
Share with those you are grateful for
Is there someone in your life that you are grateful for or has made a positive impact in your life that you haven’t told? Using the example from Seligman et al’s (2005) research, writing a letter of gratitude to an individual, delivering it to that individual, and discussing that letter can increase levels of happiness and reduce depressive symptoms. The Greater Good in Action also has general advice on how to do this exercise:
“Write as though you are addressing this person directly”
“Don’t worry about grammar or spelling”
“Describe in specific terms what this person did, why you are grateful to this person, and how this person’s behavior affected your life. Try to be as concrete as possible”
“Describe what you are doing in your life now and how you often remember their efforts”
“Try to keep your letter to roughly one page”
“Plan a visit with the recipient”
“Let the person know that you are grateful to them and would like to read a letter expressing your gratitude”
“Take your time”
“Be receptive to their reaction”
“Give the letter to the person when you leave” (Greater Good in Action, n.d.)
Create savoring habits
From PositivePsychology.com’s article “3 Gratitude Exercises,” “creating savoring rituals” is a way to increase gratitude. They explain that “when we contemplate the things that would make us happy, we tend to think of extraordinary and memorable events…yet consistently noticing and savoring small, everyday positive moments can have a significant effect on happiness, resilience, well-being, and overall life satisfaction (Bryant, 2003; Quoidbach et al., 2010)” (PositivePsychology, 2021). They believe that “increased awareness of pleasurable sensations lies at the very heart of savoring.” They outline two steps in this gratitude exercise.
“Step 1: Identify everyday activities that bring you pleasure and list them”
“Step 2: Experience pleasure as it happens. Choose to savor two enjoyable experiences each day for at least two weeks. These should be ordinary activities from your daily routine that you might typically rush through.” Using all your senses, fully invest in your chosen savoring ritual. Avoid outside distractions. Use all of your senses and take notice of all the sensations and details of your experience.
It is also encouraged to reflect each week on your daily savoring rituals. Some questions to use during this moment of reflection include the positive emotions felt during the week, how the week has compared to others, and how savoring rituals have changed your daily perspective or habits (PositivePsychology, 2021).
Start a gratitude jar
This exercise is similar to listing things to be grateful for, but also gives a visual representation of all the things one has to be grateful for. Using a jar, pen/pencil, and paper, make it a point each day to write down “at least three things throughout your day that you are grateful for” and add them to the jar. It’s important to do this every day. After several days, you will have a visual reminder of all the reasons you have to be grateful. Additionally, “if you are ever feeling especially down and need a quick pick-me-up, take a few notes out of the jar to remind yourself of who, and what, is good in your life” (Oppland, 2017).
Use gratitude prompts
When starting a gratitude journal or list, gratitude prompts can be a useful tool. Consider the following gratitude prompts that address a variety of senses and categories:
I’m grateful for three things I hear…
I’m grateful for three things I see…
I’m grateful for three things I smell…
I’m grateful for three things I touch/feel…
I’m grateful for these three things I taste…
I’m grateful for these three blue things…
I’m grateful for these three animals/birds…
I’m grateful for these three friends…
I’m grateful for these three teachers…
I’m grateful for these three family members…
I’m grateful for these three things in my home…
I’m grateful for these three people who hired me… (Oppland, 2017)
Take gratitude walks
Exercise can have a variety of benefits for the body and mind. Because of this, going on a gratitude walk is a great way to harness the power of exercise and gratitude simultaneously. “The goal of the gratitude walk is to observe the things you see around you as you walk.” While walking, practice awareness of “nature, the colors of the trees, the sounds the birds make, and the smell of the plants. Notice how your feet feel when you step onto the grass.” You can also take a gratitude walk with a partner or friend showing them “an appreciation for being able to spend time walking together” (Oppland, 2017). Greater Good in Action also has a guide for a gratitude walk available here.
Make a gratitude collage
Similar to making a list or keeping a journal, take photos of all the things you are grateful for. “Try taking a picture of one thing you are grateful for every day for a week. Notice how you feel. Take a look back at the pictures every week.” After a while, put all your photos together in a collage and admire your visual reminder of all the things you have to be grateful for (Oppland, 2017).
Have a gratitude conversation
In a conversation with another person, “take turns listing 3 things you were grateful for throughout the day. Spend a moment discussing and contemplating each point.” Don’t rush but instead go into detail and make this a daily habit (TherapistAid, 2021).
Individuals can increase their levels of gratitude by spending time intentionally practicing mindfulness. According to research from Sawyer et al., “state mindfulness, via positive affect and perspective taking, prompts greater levels of gratitude, prosocial motivation, and, in turn, helping behavior at work.” They discovered this through “two experimental studies, a semiweekly, multisource diary study, and a 10-day experience sampling investigation.” The core of mindfulness is being present and being aware. Consider the “mindful gratitude exercise” below from Mindful.org:
“Start by observing. Notice the thank yous you say. Just how habitual a response is it? Is it a hasty aside, an afterthought? How are you feeling when you express thanks in small transactions? Stressed, uptight, a little absent-minded? Do a quick scan of your body—are you already physically moving on to your next interaction?
Pick one interaction a day. When your instinct to say “thanks” arises, stop for a moment and take note. Can you name what you feel grateful for, even beyond the gesture that’s been extended? Then say thank you.” (Domet, 2018).
Consider also the following mindfulness exercise for gratitude that uses the hand from art therapist, Susie McGaughey… “Pause on each finger for at least 20 seconds and reflect on the five topics below.
Hold your baby finger. Think about someone in your everyday life who you appreciate like a grandparent or friend. It could even be a pet. Imagine that person and why you are grateful for them.
Hold your ring finger, bring something ‘BIG’ to mind that you appreciate like your family, your strong body, or a warm home. Think about why you appreciate this big thing.
Hold your middle finger, bring to mind something ‘small’ that you appreciate like a sunny day, your favorite outfit, or a lick from your dog. Think about why you are thankful for this small thing.
Holding your pointing finger, think of an ‘activity’ you enjoy like going for a walk... Think of why you enjoy this activity.
Hold your thumb, think of a possession you are grateful for… Think of what makes this possession special to you.” (McGaughey, n.d.)
While this exercise is initially intended for children, this can still be a useful tool for adults and executives alike looking to become more mindful of what they are grateful for. Additionally, Greater Good in Action also supports the use of mindfulness to increase feelings of gratitude. They provide a “Gratitude Meditation” exercise that encourages participants to become more aware of their present physical state and emotions and then reflect on what they are grateful for. Regardless of the path you choose, it appears a prayer of gratitude is not only desirable, but also healthy.
Volunteer and help others
Research from Llenares, Sario, Bialba, and Dela Cruz indicates that students who volunteered experienced “significantly higher resilience and gratitude scores than peers who were non-volunteers.” Additionally, they found that “the more hours they spend volunteering, the higher their sense of resilience and gratitude” (Llenares et al., 2020). By volunteering and helping others, we can increase our feelings of gratitude and enjoy the benefits of increased gratitude. There are a variety of ways that individuals can volunteer in their communities. Consider what causes and charities are most impactful to you or hold special meaning to you. Search for ways in which you can serve these charities through volunteering your time and efforts. Alternatively, consider how you can give back to your community's service members (teachers, firefighters, police officers, nurses, doctors, military members and families, ER techs, etc.).
Practice gratitude regularly
As indicated in the research from Kini et al. (2016), The more we practice gratitude, the more our brains change and we increase our ability to respond with, and notice, gratitude. Because of this, we can conclude that gratitude practice makes perfect. Consider keeping a record of how often you feel grateful and express gratitude in your gratitude journal. Alternatively, set a goal each week for the number of gratitude interactions you want to have.
The main takeaway
Just as the research above shows that gratitude practice makes perfect, the research also proves the phrase, “A grateful heart doeth good like a medicine.” With this in mind, we can apply a variety of gratitude strategies to make it so in our own lives.
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