If there’s one time of year to start a gratitude practice, Thanksgiving seems like an excellent choice.
But it’s about so much more than just a meaningful holiday. Whatever joys and challenges you’re facing this season — and in the year to come — a simple gratitude practice can steady you.
“When people focus on a few phrases of gratitude, their mood shifts. The ‘happy chemicals’ in their brain go up. Their reported quality of life tends to improve,” says Alex Zima, a HopeHealth grief counselor who specializes in mindfulness and meditation.
Like any habit, though, it takes practice.
Why start a gratitude practice?
Research suggests we remember negative experiences five times more clearly than positive ones.
As a result, “Negative memories tend to accumulate and have an outsized role in our life and in our perception of ourselves,” says Alex. “We’re an anxious species. It’s a universal, human challenge.”
The good news is that, with a little practice, you can shift how your brain sees the world. “Gratitude practice is a cognitive, neurologically-based exercise to counter that negativity bias,” Alex says.
And there are many ways to go about it.
1. Write it down in a journal
“A gratitude journal is a basic but powerful practice,” says Alex.
It’s as simple as it sounds: Each day, set aside time to jot down a few things in life that you’re grateful for. You can write one line, or several. You can set aside two minutes, or 20. The key is consistency and intentionality.
Hint: Over time, you may find your entries become redundant. Maybe you always gravitate to writing about family, or work, or specific people in your life. That’s perfectly OK, says Alex. Go ahead and repeat those things. But if you want to change it up, try reflecting on smaller, concrete details from your day — like a delicious lunch or a friendly exchange with the mail carrier.
2. Look for gratitude in the moment
At random times as you go about your daily routine, pause to acknowledge what you can be grateful for in that moment.
“A way of expanding a gratitude general practice is to really start thinking about the smaller things,” says Alex.
Hint: “Think about the invisible supports: The chair you’re sitting in. The roof that isn’t leaking,” says Alex. “The things we may take for granted can be very powerful in shifting our perspective. These are real aspects of our life that help us remember that we are supported even by our environment, and that we have made good choices.”
3. Connect enjoyment and gratitude
Every time you find yourself enjoying something, pause to acknowledge it. For example, “This apple tastes amazing. Thank you.” Or, “The sunlight is so pretty streaming through the window. Thank you.”
“You’re taking pleasure and enjoyment one step further, and transforming it into gratitude,” says Alex.
Hint: Reminders help! Alex puts sticky notes throughout his home reminding him to look for these opportunities. On your bathroom mirror, fridge door or another high-traffic area, try leaving yourself a note: “What am I grateful for right now?”
4. Extend your gratitude practice to other people
Pick a person — any person — and tell them something you appreciate about them.
“We often have these thoughts about other people, but don’t share them,” says Alex. “Realizing how we’re interconnected socially is so important in our mental health.”
Hint: This can be a family member, a colleague or a random stranger. No matter who you choose, you’ll reap the same gratitude benefits — and you’ll probably make their day. “Externalizing gratitude and creating a positive force socially with other people is powerful,” says Alex.
When (and when not) to use gratitude
An asterisk to all of this: “Gratitude should never be used as a way to repress or ignore difficult emotions,” says Alex. Honor those feelings too — they’re important. Reach out for support from friends, professionals and support groups.
But in the moments between, see if you can create a little more space for gratitude.
If you make a habit out of some or all of the above, you’ll probably find positive thoughts arising more spontaneously as you go about your life.
“It opens you up to an in-the-flow gratitude practice,” says Alex. “Gratitude helps us remember what we have, what has gone well, and what we’re doing right. It’s important to know that to build on the positive.”