Have you ever reflected on your life and felt fortunate? That’s gratitude. And research says it does you good.
Sometimes, gratitude comes easily. Other times, it can be hard to find, especially when you’re stressed, exhausted, or burned out.
Because some people tend to give more importance to negative thoughts and experiences — something called negativity bias — gratitude may not always flow naturally.
Gratitude is a skill that you can develop with practice. Why is it worth it? Repeatedly, research shows that feeling grateful has a positive impact on your mental health and quality of life. Its practice is also a way to love yourself more.
Gratitude can feel like a mood, emotion, state of being, attitude, or behavior.
Pioneering gratitude researchers Robert Emmons, PhD, and Michael McCullough, PhD, at the University of California in Davis and San Diego, respectively, define gratitude as a two-part experience.
- It’s the recognition that something good has come your way.
- It’s the realization that someone or something, including nature or a divine entity, is responsible, at least in part, for that good thing or experience.
Practicing gratitude isn’t the same as practicing toxic positivity. The idea is to focus on the good but not ignore hard feelings and negative thoughts. Instead, you are simply reminding yourself that good things can happen, even amidst stress and hard times.
You can cultivate gratitude at any age using strategies for accessing joy and expressing thanks. This can help you feel more optimistic, focused, and free to ask for support.
The following steps take only a few minutes each day but can significantly boost how grateful you feel.
1. Try to notice when you feel grateful
This simple mindfulness practice can help you bring awareness to moments of gratitude.
When you feel thankful for something or someone, try to pause and notice what it’s like to sit with that feeling for even just a few breaths.
A 2021 study of 133 Chinese mindfulness practitioners showed that this practice can lead to a significantly greater sense of life satisfaction.
2. Consider reflecting on what you’re grateful for
Journaling at the end of the day can help you highlight positive experiences and recognize that things are going better than you might think.
In Emmon’s original 2003 study on how gratitude practices relate to overall well-being, study participants who listed what they were grateful for on a weekly basis had a more optimistic view of life and fewer physical symptoms of stress.
A 2019 study with 1,337 participants suggests that writing a daily gratitude list for 14 days can lead to:
- more positive emotions
- higher subjective happiness
- higher satisfaction with one’s life
- fewer negative emotions
- a decrease in symptoms of depression
In other words, saving some time each day to identify all you’re grateful for will help you be more grateful in the long run.
3. Practicing mental subtraction can help
Mental subtraction is a thought experiment that can amplify and promote gratitude.
When something positive happens, try to imagine what it would have been like if it hadn’t, or if an alternative, less desirable outcome would have happened.
Expressing gratitude to the people in your life or even higher power can help strengthen a sense of well-being. To be more grateful you may need to show more gratitude in your life.
Consider experimenting with these practices:
Writing gratitude letters
From the heart, try to write down how grateful you are for a loved one, place, thing, or event. Try to address them directly, letting them know how you feel. You don’t need to send the letter if you prefer not to.
If you do, you can mail or hand-deliver these notes to people who have positively impacted your life in the past or even decades ago.
Practicing gratitude prayers
Many spiritual traditions incorporate gratitude into prayer or chanting to give thanks to a higher power, and research from 2021 shows that these practices can, in turn, enhance feelings of gratitude and well-being.
Even if you aren’t religious, you may want to explore connecting to something else that you consider greater than you, like nature. Try to find a way to honor that connection through song, poetry, or even contemplative silence.
Several studies on gratitude have used writing prompts over the course of days and weeks to see if a regular practice of gratitude journaling can boost mood.
The mentioned prompt can be included in your routine. To use it, try to take a few minutes every night before bed to reflect and write your thoughts about these statements:
- There are many things in our lives, both large and small, that we might be grateful for.
- Think backover the past day and write down five things in your life that you are grateful for.
Research suggests that gratitude can improve your overall sense of well-being in various ways — from mood to meeting personal goals.
Gratitude can promote joy
Researcher Brené Brown of the University of Houston Graduate School of Social Work has spent years researching gratitude.
Her data shows that people who identify as joyful tend to practice gratitude without fail. Brown found that practicing specific gratitude exercises every day invites joy into your life.
A 2017 study also found that the tendency to appreciate the positive in life, called dispositional gratitude, was related to an increased state of joy.
As you become more grateful, you might feel more joyful.
Gratitude may improve your sense of life satisfaction
- more satisfied with their lives
- more likely to report subjective happiness
- less likely to experience low mood and symptoms of depression
In a 2019 study of women with breast cancer, participants listed reasons they felt grateful every day for 2 weeks. This gratitude practice resulted in:
- women feeling more supported
- greater and more effective use of coping strategies
- better mental and emotional functioning
Gratitude could help you stay focused
Research from 2016 also shows that people who regularly practice gratitude experience more energy and are more alert and focused.
In the study of 110 college students, 50 of them received daily text reminders to practice gratitude.
Those students later reported improved ability to focus during their classes and remain more attentive when class material felt challenging.
Mindful awareness of the things in your life you are grateful for can go a long way in supporting your mental and emotional health.
To be more grateful, you may want to incorporate a daily gratitude practice where you identify what you’re grateful for and sit with this feeling for a while.
Gratitude is a practice that can take time and dedication to build. But once you do, you may feel more joyful, at ease, supported, and satisfied with your life.