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Gratitude is a surprisingly powerful force. But what does it mean to be grateful? Gratitude is often defined as the expression of a deep appreciation for something or someone that is given freely without expecting anything in return.

Showing appreciation and gratitude for the things and people in our lives can help us adapt to change, cope with difficulties, increase our academic success, regulate our emotions and improve our mental and physical well-being. Here are some benefits and tips to help you practice gratitude and lead a grateful life.

Benefits of practicing gratitude

Research studies have shown that gratitude can have a number of positive benefits for our lives. In fact, gratitude can:

  • Strengthen our relationships. Expressing gratitude for the people we care about can help us deepen and strengthen our relationships with friends, family, significant others and classmates. Giving thanks and acknowledging the contributions of those around us can also provide us with opportunities to build new relationships. For instance, you may show appreciation for a coworker who covered your shift or a classmate who helped you finish a group project.
  • Improve our mental health. Practicing gratitude can be an effective way to manage and reduce stress, improve our mood and foster optimism. It can also help us build resilience and better handle difficult situations as they arise.
  • Benefit our physical health. Over time, gratitude can also have positive effects on our physical well-being, including improved sleep, self-image, cardiovascular function and more. 

Ways to practice gratitude

Like most good habits, expressing gratitude can take some practice. Here are a few different ways you can incorporate gratitude into your daily routine. Try them all or choose the one that feels like the best fit for you.

Keep in mind that it’s okay to start small and build up your practice. You don’t need to dedicate a large amount of time to enjoy the benefits of expressing gratitude.

Mindful walk

With busy schedules, it’s easy to miss out on the little things taking place around us. For this exercise, set aside 15 minutes each day to take a stroll outside. It can be helpful to walk at the same time each day to help you stick with this habit. As you’re walking, make a mental note of all the positive things you notice around you, including sights, sounds, smells and other sensations. It could be as simple as the number of dogs you pass, how the breeze sounds or pleasant smells you notice passing by different shops.

Letters of thanks

Write a letter, card or postcard to someone in your life that you’re grateful for. When expressing gratitude, be sure to use specific examples. Be sure to include details in your letter such as what this person has done for you and what impact they have had on your life. If you haven’t seen them in a while, give them an update on what your life is like now. If appropriate, let them know how they have helped you get to this point. Try to write at least one letter each month.

Gratitude jar

For this exercise, you’ll need an empty jar or container, scratch paper and writing utensils. Each day, write down at least one thing that you’re grateful for. Encourage your roommates or housemates to write down their own pieces of gratitude (and don’t forget to include a few funny ones, too). Drop each slip of paper into the jar. At the end of the week, sit down together and read each item. You can make this exercise a weekly tradition by doing this over a shared meal, cup of cocoa or other social event.

Writing or journaling

Journaling is a great way to practice gratitude. If a blank page feels intimidating, you can use these ideas to gain practice and kick-start your journal. 

  • Write down 3-5 good things that happened today.
  • Write about 3 of your talents or qualities that you’re grateful for.
  • Write about the top 3 things you love about your home, neighborhood or town.

Appreciation notes

If journaling feels like too much, try keeping quick notes instead. You can use a notebook, phone app or Post-its to keep track of your thoughts. Jot at least one thing down every day. It can be as simple as something funny you saw today or something nice someone did for you. Write down any positive thought, memory or action that comes to mind (no matter how small). 

Loving-kindness meditation

Meditation can help us pause and take a moment to practice mindfulness and feel more present in the current moment. Loving-kindness meditations can also help us expand our sense of kindness, compassion and gratitude for ourselves and others. Follow along with this Loving-Kindness Meditation from the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.

Avoiding gratitude guilt

While gratitude has a number of benefits, it can also bring a sense of guilt if we don’t feel we are being grateful enough. Here are some common pitfalls to avoid when creating a gratitude practice.

  • Avoid comparisons. We may not always notice it, but it’s easy to fall into comparison mode when we are experiencing guilt about expressing gratitude. For instance, you may have had thoughts in the past like “others have it much worse than me” or “at least I’m not as bad off as so-and-so”. It’s important to remember that your experiences and challenges can exist alongside the experiences of others and still be equally worthy of validation and support.
  • Start small. If you’re struggling to think of something you’re truly grateful for, start small. Maybe you received a funny text from a friend or lit your favorite scented candle or your homework was easier than you expected. Becoming more aware of even these little things can add up and help you enjoy all of the same benefits that come with practicing gratitude more regularly.
  • Be authentic. Don’t try to “fake it ‘til you make it”. Sometimes life is hard, and it’s okay to acknowledge difficult feelings or situations. It’s also okay to not feel grateful all of the time. Masking your feelings or pretending to feel grateful when you’re not won’t serve you in the long run. In fact, it may cause you to experience even more stress.
  • Don’t get bogged down. Some people may find it helpful to keep up a dedicated practice of journaling or letter-writing. However, if these kinds of exercises make you feel stressed, it’s okay to practice gratitude more informally. For instance, you could try to be more mindful about the things in your life that you’re grateful for or practice expressing thanks more often in smaller ways. Finding a practice that works for you long-term is more important than creating the “perfect routine”.

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