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How to be grateful, even when you don't feel like it

When you’re down, science says gratitude may be exactly what you need to lift you back up.
Image: A woman holds a thank you card
“Thank you” are two incredibly powerful words that can go a long way. Kohei Hara / Getty Images

Thanksgiving is here again; an entire holiday-cum-food ritual celebrating the importance of gratitude. Yet, through the lens of our everyday struggles — or when the chips are exceptionally down — it can feel like yet another struggle to be grateful when all you really feel is let down.

Interestingly enough, when you’re down, science says gratitude may be exactly what you need to lift you back up. Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, editor-in-chief of "The Journal of Positive Psychology," and author of three books, including, "Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier," has authored studies examining the various physical and psychological benefits of its practice.

Science Says Gratitude Makes Us Feel Better

One such study required random groups of people, some with neuromuscular disease, to list what they were grateful for. Emmons found the gratitude groups to have “exhibited heightened well-being,” suggesting staying focused on the good in life may have long-lasting benefits.

Gratitude can also help you sleep better at night, according to a recent study. “Gratitude promotes better sleep quality, shorter falling asleep latency, longer sleep duration, less need for sleep medicine, and less daytime dysfunction caused by lack of sleep, because gratitude short-circuits the stress response,” says Emmons. “Given how sleep-deprived we collectively are, and how vital sleep is for healthy functioning, this is huge.”

That study also confirmed that highly grateful individuals have fewer symptoms of depression. Emmons says grateful thinking can help people to better rebound from stressful events, because it’s contradictory to focus on feelings of gratitude while consumed with fear, stress and anxiety.

Yet another study links gratitude with improved heart health. For two months, patients suffering from heart disease and heart failure had to write down three things they were thankful for. Those who did showed an increase in heart rate variability while they wrote, which means their hearts were more responsive and were thus, in better shape.

Gratitude has also proven to boost our sense of connectedness to others. “By focusing on the benevolence of others, gratitude helps us feel more connected and nourished by a supportive network of relationships,” says Emmons. “This sense of security enables us to feel calm and contented, especially in adversity when we need assistance from others. A grateful response to life keeps memories of cherished relationships and the kindnesses of others ‘psychologically alive’ longer, and therefore we are less likely to take people for granted. When we focus on the good people do for us, it strengthens our sense of self-regard.”

So now that we know being grateful is good for us, not only ethically but physically, how can we learn to “practice” gratitude if we’re just not in the mood?

1. Consider your words

Emmons says paying attention to the words you use — even with yourself — is the simplest, yet most profound way to get in the grateful mindset. “Grateful people use words like gifts, givers, blessings, blessed, fortune, fortunate, and abundance,” says Emmons. “Less grateful people are preoccupied with burdens, curses, deprivations, entitlements and complaints, and their words reflect this negative focus.” Try to spin your thoughts more positively. For example, instead of saying ‘I deserve this or that,” say, ‘I get to do this or that.’

2. Start a gratitude journal

When you start to feel consumed with thoughts about what you don’t have or what isn’t going right, write down three things you do have, or that are going right — even in the Notes app on your phone. Seeing these things written down might help you to recognize them as tangible pluses in your life.

3. Just give thanks

Thank you” are two incredibly powerful words that can go an awfully long way. Take a second to acknowledge what the people you love bring to your Thanksgiving table, both literally and metaphorically. Let them know how grateful you are for them. You might make someone’s day — and sleep a little better at night.


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