Life is hectic and often we feel we must carve out time to reflect and feel gratitude. We do yoga, do a little meditation, splurge on retreats and book expensive spa treatments. These can all be wonderful ways to practice self-care, but if we want to sustain and grow happiness in our daily lives, we should incorporate gratitude into every possible moment.
Over time, we won’t even have to think about it, and we’ll see the effects in our frame of mind — and possibly in our brains.
Science shows we can train ourselves to experience thankfulness more often simply by paying attention to our lives differently.
“People who intentionally cultivate gratitude show greater neural sensitivity in the medial prefrontal cortex, a brain region associated with learning, rational thinking and decision making,” says Ellie Cobb, PhD, a holistic psychologist and the director of psychology for Thankful, a social enterprise and lifestyle brand focused on gratitude. “Science shows we can train ourselves to experience thankfulness more often simply by paying attention to our lives differently. Attention is like a spotlight in the brain, as whatever we repeatedly bring attention to becomes stronger and brighter over time.”
Marinelle Reynolds, a licensed clinical social worker, points to a study by Greater Good at UC Berkeley, finding that participants who practiced gratitude were happier and less depressed. “They even found that practicing gratitude can make lasting changes in our brains. Practicing gratitude is a skill, you don't have to be born ‘optimistic’; or have a life that's been free from problems to be able to use it. Little daily routines can be helpful at training your brain to see the world through with a grateful heart.”
Here’s a daily routine that does just that:
When you first wake up
Gretchen Rubin, a happiness expert and the author of many books, including “The Happiness Project” and host of the podcast “Happier with Gretchen Rubin”, finds that it helps to set reminders or prompts around gratitude.
This can be as simple as “setting the screensaver or passcode on your phone to be a reminder of gratitude,” she says. Perhaps your password is your child’s birthday, and/or the background image on your phone is a picture of you and your mom. You can change these up to keep refreshing the things you are grateful for.
When you leave the house
Gratitude prompts are also helpful when you’re in a hurry in the morning. You can choose practically anything that you see or pass everyday to be your signal for happiness.
“When you’re getting in your car or opening the garage door, use that as a catalyst to think about how happy you are to be going out in the world,” says Rubin, adding that these same habitual activities or landmarks can inspire a moment of appreciation when you’re returning home, too. “Have a specific threshold that you cross that reminds you of your gratitude.”
If you aren’t happy about say, going to work, then just “be grateful to be alive,” says Rubin, adding, “You can think about the past. What would my college-self think if I were to know where I am today? Look at all I’ve managed to do.”
When you sit down for a meal
Mindful eating is a great way to practice gratitude, but you can take it a step further by following the advice of Kristin Koskinen, a registered dietitian nutritionist, who recommends keeping a photo food journal, a technique she uses with her clients.
“Like many Americans, [my clients] are in the enviable position to choose what they eat. Even if they don’t love their choices, they can be grateful for the food that nourished their bodies and that — good, bad or indifferent — they were able to make that choice,” says Koskinen. “For those who do keep a food journal, consider using it as a place to note points of gratitude throughout the day. Who isn’t thankful for a cup of coffee in the morning? You may not love that you ate a piece of birthday cake at a party, but you can savor the blessing of being with friends and family.”
Rubin notes that the traditional religious gesture of saying grace before a meal is one of the oldest forms of daily gratitude — and you don’t have to be religious to practice it.
“At dinner, your family can go around the table and say a few things that they are grateful for,” says Rubin. “It’s a deliberate practice that cultivates gratitude. It may not work for every family, but it could for yours.”
At the gym, do a gratitude body scan
It can be tough to be thoughtfully engaged when you’re doing a tough fitness routine. So take a moment as you’re gearing up for a workout to recognize your fortune to be able to workout in the first place with a mental body scan.
“A simple, fast and effective way to connect with yourself and tap into your inner strength is a body scan,” says Laura Federico, a licensed clinical psychotherapist specializing in helping women learn their desires. “Start at your feet and work your way up, paying attention to and acknowledging each part of your body. To turn this into a moment of gratitude, thank each part of your body as you work your way up.”
Eliza Savage, a registered dietitian, takes a few minutes before her morning run to reflect by her favorite fountain in Central Park. “I find that I'm thankful most days for the blessing of being able to be healthy and active. I'm usually super grateful as well to be able to run in Central Park, which is such a calming environment as opposed to the frenetic streets of NYC.”
Note that you don’t have to be able-bodied to give thanks to your body. Mouth-painter, producer and app developer Peter Soby, who is quadriplegic, takes moments to be grateful throughout the day for what his body can do.
Interactions with strangers
“Many people have a tendency to apologize for their mere presence in this world,” notes Chelsea Leigh Trescott, a certified life coach and the host of the podcast “Thank You Heartbreak”.
Rather than apologize and bring the attention toward yourself, place the attention on the person extending themselves and say ‘thank you’.
“If someone opens the door for them on their way into a coffee shop, there’s this natural reflex to say sorry and look down at the floor. Instead, incorporate gratitude into these small and daily interactions,” she says. “Rather than apologize and bring the attention toward yourself, place the attention on the person extending themselves and say ‘thank you’. Not only will this make you feel better, it will make the person in front of you feel good about what they’ve done and they’ll likely be encouraged to continue it.”
When you get home from work
Many life coaches and therapists recommend writing in a gratitude journal at the end of the day. This is a fine activity for people who take naturally to it, but neither Rubin nor myself (for example), enjoy gratitude journaling. We both find it, to use her words, “very annoying.”
If it’s not for you, then do something else. Acts of gratitude should be honest and easy.
Rubin recommends again marking a threshold that prompts appreciation such as the last stop sign before you get home or wiping your feet on the welcome mat; anything that signals gratitude for having a home to return to.
Trescott suggests ending your day with a “ta-da” list, rather than a “to-do” list.
“Wrap up the day with a new list where you can acknowledge, and therein celebrate, every small and large undertaking that you’ve accomplished during the day. It’s a great way of reminding yourself about all you did do during the day, instead of jumping ahead and thinking about all there's left to do.”