Fall is upon us!
The leaves are changing colors. The air is crisp. There’s the smell of fall in the breeze.
For those of us from North America, this time of year means Thanksgiving — Canadians just recently celebrated theirs, and those of us from the US are gearing up for ours later this week!
Whether you celebrate Thanksgiving or not, why not use this time of year as a reminder to step back and reflect on all the things in your life for which you feel thankful?
It’s easy to get focused on what’s frustrating or stressful, what we miss about life back home, or just on the daily grind. But taking the time to actively cultivate gratitude and appreciation for the gifts in our lives can have enormous benefits — to our emotional wellbeing, our physical health, and our relationships with those that matter most to us.
Sometimes we just need reminders. And a little practice.
What Do You Mean “Cultivating” Gratitude?
There’s always something to feel grateful for. Even in our darkest of times. It may be hard to see, but it’s there — if we just know how to look for it. Practicing gratitude builds that skill of knowing how to look.
Gratitude may not be something you think about practicing or working on. In fact, most of us probably think of it as something we either feel or we don’t feel, depending entirely on external circumstances.
While gratitude certainly can happen spontaneously (like when someone does something very kind and unexpected for us), it can also be practiced. With practice — intentionally tuning in to and focusing on those things we feel grateful for — we may find that even spontaneous gratitude comes more easily.
Suddenly, a lovely day, a cool breeze, a delicious cup of coffee, or a warm hug can be reasons to feel grateful, when before they might have been ho-hum.
We tend to think we feel gratitude when we have something to feel grateful for. But newsflash: There’s always something to feel grateful for. Even in our darkest of times. It may be hard to see, but it’s there — if we just know how to look for it. Practicing gratitude builds that skill of knowing how to look.
Why Practice Gratitude?
Let’s face it, gratitude just feels GOOD. And practicing it can help us feel more of it in our lives. Enough said, right?
But what’s even more, research has consistently shown that practicing gratitude has enormous benefits to our emotional and psychological wellbeing, our relationships, and even our physical health!
Psychologist Robert Emmons1 at the University of California, Davis, is considered one of the leading experts on gratitude research. (He is also the author of Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier.) He and his team have studied the impact of a simple gratitude practice in people’s lives and found impressive outcomes — physical benefits ranging from stronger immune systems to lower blood pressure to improved sleep; psychological benefits from more positive emotions and optimistic outlook to higher energy levels; and social benefits from feeling less lonely and isolated to more compassionate, prosocial behavior. All this from a simple practice, such as keeping a gratitude journal! (To read more about Dr. Emmons’ research, see this article.)
5 Steps to Cultivating Gratitude in Your Life:
It only takes a few minutes each day. Are you ready to try it out for yourself? Here’s what to do to get started.
1. Set aside 5 minutes each day for the next week.
That’s right — it only takes 5 minutes a day (and you’re only committing to a week), so being too busy is no excuse!
However, while this practice doesn’t require a lot of time, it’s important to make it part of your daily routine. Personally, I like to do this practice just before going to bed, but you might prefer to make it a part of your morning routine. Whatever you do, though, make sure that for these 5 minutes you are not distracted or rushed (or too tired).
2. During these 5 minutes each day, reflect on 3 things that you feel grateful for in your life.
Get comfortable. Maybe close your eyes if you want to. And just make note of all the things in your life that you feel grateful for.
Try to be very specific. Feeling grateful for your family is wonderful, but focusing on a specific interaction or quality that brings you joy will be even better — for example, maybe you feel grateful for a special moment you shared with your child before tucking him into bed this evening. Or for some reassurance and a warm hug you received from your partner. Or the fact that you have a good friend you know you can rely on when you’re feeling down. Call to mind a specific memory of that experience. Let it replay in your mind.
If you’re struggling to come up with things to feel grateful for, it can be helpful to reflect on things that most of us take for granted, such as our health or able-bodiedness, or the fact that we have people in our lives that care for us, or the resources to feed ourselves and live comfortably, or the fact that we have skills and abilities that allow us to contribute to the world in some meaningful way. You could even feel grateful for this very moment, for having the opportunity to stop and reflect on those things that make you feel grateful! There’s no right or wrong answers here! (And no one needs to see your list but you.)
If, on the other hand, you can come up with more than 3 that’s great! Bonus points for you! But aim for 3.
3. As you reflect on these things, notice the feelings that come up for you.
Maybe you notice a warmth in your chest or a small smile forming on your lips. Maybe you feel a sense of expansiveness. Whatever it is, just notice it.
It’s possible that you might feel complicated emotions — sadness or guilt can mix in there with gratitude sometimes.
Maybe you feel grateful for the time you had with a loved one before they died, but you also feel sadness at the loss or guilt for not having appreciated the time more while you had them close. That’s ok. Again, just notice it.
There’s really no way to fail at this practice. If sadness or guilt comes up, it’s telling you something important. Acknowledge it, and then gently bring your attention back to the gratitude.
4. Write down your 3 things.
If you already keep a journal, you could write them there. Or you could start a new gratitude journal. However, don’t get too hung up on this or put off starting until you get a journal — loose leaf paper works just fine! I’d recommend writing by hand though, rather than on your computer or phone. There’s something about the act of physically writing that can be really powerful.
5. Repeat each day for a week.
At the end of the week, just notice how this practice makes you feel. Maybe you notice that you’re feeling more gratitude throughout the day. Maybe you’re paying attention to things you had been taking for granted. Maybe you notice that you’re just feeling calmer, more centered, less hung up on little annoyances. Maybe you’re even finding ways to express your gratitude to those around you — or to yourself — and noticing a positive impact on your relationships.
If you notice a positive shift (even a small one!), you might consider making this practice a regular part of your life. At just 5 minutes a day, what do you have to lose?
Share Your Experience!
What do you feel most grateful for in your own life?
Or what seems to get in the way of your being able to practice gratitude as you might wish?
As always, I would love to hear from you — your thoughts, reactions, or questions about this post. However, if you choose to share your thoughts below, please keep in mind that these comments are visible to anyone who visits the blog. Therefore, I would encourage you to use a pseudonym (not use your real name) to protect your own privacy. If you would like to get in touch but would prefer to contact me privately, you can do so here.