Keeping your gratitude tank full is a vital aspect of self-care.
Robert Emmons, the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude, has studied more than 1,000 people from ages eight to 80 and found that people who practice gratitude consistently report a host of physical, psychological, and social benefits including stronger immune systems, lower blood pressure, and the ability to experience more joy and optimism.
Experiencing gratitude helps us not only to appreciate our “gifts,” but to repay them (or pay them forward). When we feel content, we then have the room in our lives to help others.
All of this helps explain why gratitude is one of my all-time favorite self-care practices, and my most consistent practice.
If I have no other time in the morning for a self-care practice, I will still consistently write in my gratitude journal. It only takes a moment but is hugely impactful.
Gratitude for the life we have is the foundation of all forms of spiritual practices. Yet we sometimes get caught up in busyness and end up taking our own lives for granted.
One of my favorite authors and Buddhist teachers, Joanna Macy, says this about gratitude:
“We have received an inestimable gift. To be alive in this beautiful, self-organizing universe – to participate in the dance of life with senses to perceive it, lungs to breathe it, organs that draw nourishment from it – is a wonder beyond words.”
The idea of gratitude is not that we should feel positive all of the time. The important point is that by being grateful for what we have in our lives right now, we will have a greater sense of contentment and have more resilience to cope with difficulties as they arise.
How to Cultivate More Gratitude
So how do you cultivate this appreciation and contentment within your own life?
Here are three gratitude practices, based on a research from the Positive Psychology Center, that you can try today:
- Three Good Things List
At the end of each day, take five to ten minutes to write down three things that went well for you along with an explanation for why they went well.
The items can be relatively small in importance (e.g., “A co-worker complimented my work on a project”) or relatively large (e.g., “I earned a big promotion”).
The act of writing down what you’re grateful for is an important part of this exercise.
As you write, follow these steps:
- Give the event a title (e.g., “A co-worker complimented my work on a project”).
- Write down exactly what happened in as much detail as possible, including what you did or said and, if others were involved, what they did or said. Include as much detail as you’d like.
- Include how this event made you feel at the time and how this event made you feel later (including now, as you remember it).
- Explain what you think caused this event, i.e., why it came to pass.
- Use whatever writing style you please, and do not worry about perfect grammar and spelling.
- Gratitude Letter
This exercise encourages you to express gratitude in a thoughtful, deliberate way by writing — and, possibly, delivering — a letter of gratitude to a person you would like to thank.
Begin by calling to mind someone who did something for you for which you are grateful but to whom you did not express your deep gratitude at the time.
This could be a relative, friend, teacher, or colleague. You could be grateful for something relatively simple (such as a recent display of helpfulness by your spouse) or something much larger (such as an old friend who has always being there for you in your life).
Next, write a letter to your chosen person, guided by the following steps:
- Write as though you are addressing this person directly (“Dear ______”).
- Don’t worry about perfect grammar or spelling.
- Describe in specific terms what this person did, why you are grateful to this person, and how this person’s behavior affected your life. Try to be as concrete as possible.
If you choose, you can send the letter to this person, or even pick up the phone and express your thanks.
- Daily Gratitude Journal Entry
This is my personal favorite.
For this exercise, select a notebook or journal that you will be happy to write in every day.
Each day, record up to five things for which you’re grateful. For this practice, you can expand the scope of your gratitude beyond good things that happened that day and consider positive events from your past and even those coming up in the future.
These things can range from simple things (“sunshine in the morning”), to larger things (“the generosity of friends”), to the timeless (“my favorite band”).
As you write, keep the following in mind:
- Go for depth over breadth. Elaborating in detail about a particular thing or person for which you’re grateful carries more benefits than a superficial list of many things.
- Keep each entry brief and simple.
- Don’t hurry through this exercise as if it were just another item on your to-do list.
Recently one of my favorite authors, environmental conservationist Terry Tempest Williams, posted about the importance of self-care. She says:
“With so much ‘noise’ surrounding us and real heartbreak … as the values we hold are undermined every day … it becomes essential we take care of each other and ourselves through spiritual practices, including being outside in nature, embracing beauty and holding stillness. This is not an indulgence, but part of our survival.”
Gratitude is a vital form of this self-care. Each of us has the choice to be grateful, or not, in our daily lives.
What we focus on grows. As you take note of the simple joys in your life, notice how more of these types of moments flourish.
Choosing to be grateful requires that we have a desire to be more grateful. It also requires that we practice it, the same way as developing any other skill. Gradually, with practice, it starts to become second nature.
My gratitude practice has had such a positive impact on my life. I hope you will give it a try today.