I used to give the most gigantic eye rolls at the idea of “daily gratitude”, “gratitude journals”, or people who claimed they had a “gratitude practice”. I felt grateful…what difference would it make to say it out loud or write it down?!
Turns out, being more intentional about recognizing gratitude in your life can change your brain, creating a positive impact on your mental and physical wellbeing. Being grateful can actually make you happier. Learning this and understanding the neuroscience was motivation enough for me to formalize my gratitude.
Now, starting a daily gratitude practice (oh god, I’m one of those people now!) can still be a bit awkward. You might find yourself blankly staring at a page, feeling silly for the little things you’re grateful for, or finding it impossible to come up with anything. These tips should help!
How to Start a Gratitude Practice
The good news here is that there is really no right or wrong way to do this. You could simply habit stack it to make it part of your daily routine. For example, “Each evening while I brush my teeth, I will think about three things I am grateful for.”
You could also start a document on your phone where you’ll list something each morning when you wake up. Or, you can try a dedicated gratitude journal or notebook. The Daily Page has gratitude integrated into all of its designs.
Understanding How it Works
I’m the type of person who needs to understand how something works before I commit. Once I understand the how and why behind it, I’m way more likely to make it a habit.
Have you ever bought a new car and then a day after driving it you suddenly feel like everyone in your city also went out and bought the same car? Or maybe you just purchased your first red car, and suddenly you feel like every parking lot you pull into is full of red cars? That’s because the your car is at the front of your mind. So now you are hyper-aware every time you see one.
That’s sort of how gratitude changes the brain, and these changes can be seen on an MRI. Researchers have observed that people who practice gratitude have greater activation in the medial prefrontal cortex. It's a striking discovery that suggests gratitude can have a lasting effect on the brain, potentially training the brain to be more sensitive to gratitude in the future—which can essentially make us happier and healthier over time.
Keeping a gratitude journal causes less stress, improves the quality of sleep, and builds emotional awareness. Gratitude is positively correlated to more vitality, energy, and enthusiasm to work harder. (Seligman, Steen, Park, & Peterson, 2005).
So essentially, if you make it a habit to be aware of the good things in your life and write them down each day as something you are grateful for, you will suddenly start to see good things everywhere. You’ll pay attention to the good things—even if they are small or fleeting—rather than dwelling on the bad or difficult things.
What the Heck to Write
If you find yourself thinking “I have no idea what I’d write down,” it’s probably more because you already feel like you’re grateful for everything, more so than if you had nothing to be grateful for. But feeling generally grateful for everything is part of the problem. The idea of a gratitude practice is to bring consciousness to the specific things you feel grateful for so that you are more aware of them in your daily life. To help these things rise to the surface, you can try these tips:
Keep it simple. Your gratitude entry doesn’t always need to be complex. It’s perfectly fine to feel grateful for things that are simple or maybe even silly. “I’m grateful for the window by my desk”.
Make a list. Sometimes you’re just hung up on the words, so try sticking to a simple list. “The sunshine” “My dog” “My warm bed”.
Be as specific as you can. Simple is fine, but it can also make get repetitive. Instead of just saying you are “grateful for my spouse”, drill down into what exactly they do or have done that makes you grateful so that you capture more detail on the day-to-day things that make you grateful. “I’m grateful for an attentive partner who knows my favorite snack on movie night.”
Reverse engineer the situation. On days when I really struggle to think of something, I reflect on any obstacles or challenges from the day because hidden within those is usually something to be grateful for. Or maybe you just had a terrible day and are struggling to find anything good in it. Think of that challenging or difficult thing that happened, and be grateful for how you navigated it or simply that you survived it. “I’m thankful for my ability to listen and to stay calm when I am frustrated or feeling defeated.”
Be present. If you still find yourself staring at a blank page with nothing to write down, try giving yourself 30 seconds to just be truly present and absorb your surroundings. What is something, right now, in this moment that is giving you comfort or joy? What’s something you could change about your current environment to make you more grateful for it? Maybe move closer to that sunny window or light a candle.