Now more than ever, it’s challenging to be in the present moment and feel grateful for all that we have. Practicing gratitude helps us to widen our perspective and look at things more broadly, increases our positivity and well-being, and improves on our confidence and relationships with others. At times like these, when things are so uncertain, a gratitude practice can be a stabilizer.
Psychologists have defined gratitude as a positive emotional response to receiving a benefit from someone. In positive psychology, gratitude is the human way of acknowledging the good things in life. Thankfully, gratitude is something you can learn if it does not come innately.
Just last week I finally had the opportunity to visit my 100-year-old grandmother in her nursing rehabilitation facility. It was only my second time visiting her since the COVID outbreak. Although I was thrilled to see her, my mind kept gravitating toward the fear and sadness around how infrequently I had seen her over such a prolonged period of time, how another wave of infections seems imminent and stricter restrictions may be enforced again, how the weather will turn and outdoor visits with her will become unfeasible, and how because she’s so fragile and aged, this may have been the last time I could see and spend time with her.
Being grateful to just look at her, speak to her, and spend the time with her was so laden with intense, complicated feelings. It became so challenging to be present and feel grateful for every moment I was afforded with her. The worry and sadness were a powerful force preemptively trying to protect me from any future potential pain.
While I thank my mind for being so protective, it had the potential to distract me from where I wanted to be, which was with her—wholeheartedly and meaningfully. Thankfully, I was aware of how much was going on in my mind. So I allowed space for all the thoughts and feelings to surface. I effortfully practiced gratitude by mindfully noticing what was—keenly appreciating the tender moment with her, having compassion for her and for myself given the imposed absence we had and have to endure, and valuing the love we share whether we see each other directly or not.
Benefits of Practicing Gratitude
There are benefits to practicing gratitude, especially in times of stress and uncertainty. Gratitude invites positive emotions that can have physical benefits, through the immune and/or endocrine systems. Research shows that when we think about what we appreciate, the parasympathetic or calming part of the nervous system is triggered and that can have protective benefits for the body—including decreasing levels of the stress hormone cortisol and increasing oxytocin, the bonding hormone involved in relationships that make us feel good.
Studies on gratitude and appreciation found that participants who felt grateful showed lower levels of cortisol, had better cardiac functioning, and were more resilient to emotional setbacks and negative experiences. By reducing the stress hormones and managing the autonomic nervous system functions, gratitude may significantly reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety.
By practicing gratitude, we can handle stress better. By acknowledging and appreciating the little things in life, we can rewire the brain to deal with the present circumstances with more awareness and flexibility. Scientists suggest that by activating the reward center of the brain, gratitude exchange alters the way we see the world and ourselves.
Our brain is conditioned to repeat learned patterns. For example, a person who incessantly worries about adverse outcomes may subconsciously re-wire their brain to process mostly negative information. By proactively practicing gratitude, we can train the brain to also attend to positive emotions and thoughts, thus reducing anxiety and feelings of apprehension and leaning toward helpful, valued behavior.
Give back/pay kindness forward. It is best not to associate giving back with a special occasion, a holiday, or a circumstance when someone gives to you. This should be done consistently and continually. There is nothing wrong with paying kindness forward if it is possible that the kindness will keep rolling forward, but it should be done intentionally and strategically. For example, if a child gets $50 dollars every birthday and the stipulation from grandparents is that annually $15 dollars of it gets paid forward toward a charity of the child’s choice.
Slow down and take notice. Gratitude is a skill that can be cultivated and strengthened with mindful practice. When we take time to pause, be in the present moment, and notice all that we have afforded to us, we can more readily tap into what we are grateful for. There is a plethora of research on the physiological and psychological benefits of mindfulness. It benefits psychological health, such as helping to decrease anxiety, depression, rumination, and emotional reactivity. It assists with improving physical health such as with immune system function, quality of sleep, and blood pressure. Structural and functional brain changes have also been documented in areas associated with focusing and attention, emotional regulation, and empathy.
We can be introduced to mindfulness through our environment (such as through awareness of objects and daily activities) and body (awareness of the senses, movement, or breath), and through meditation (awareness of our thinking process and visualization). There are also some good mindfulness apps such as Insight Timer, Headspace, Ten Percent Happier, Calm, Stop, Breathe and Think, etc. that include guided meditations, nature sounds and instrumental meditations, and podcasts and courses.
Like most skills, gratitude must be continually practiced and reinforced so that we can ultimately train our brain to be grateful. There are many ways to accomplish this. No one way works for everyone. It is best to find a method most comfortable and effective for you.
6 Ways to Practice Gratitude
Write thank-you notes. In his book Upward Spiral, Alex Korb mentioned that gratitude forces us to focus on the positive sides of life. When we give and receive thank-you notes, our brain is automatically redirected to pay attention to what we have. You can make a designated day a gratitude day. It’s nice to make it on a Friday, after you’re able to effectively pause and reflect on the week ahead. Each week you would designate a person you choose to send a thank-you card, text, call, etc. and offer a thank you for something they did, which perhaps reflected an attribute or characteristic they have that aligns with your values and exemplified behavior that you respect and honor. This would be directly and explicitly stated.
Follow up with others. You would focus on what you know of, heard about, or what an individual conveyed to you about a circumstance, accomplishment, milestone, etc. that someone experienced, or express gratitude if someone directly followed up with you. For example, you may practice saying, “Jill, when you followed up with me and asked me how my son was feeling, it was so thoughtful of you and made me feel thought of, validated, and cared about. Thank you for thinking of me. I appreciate you and our friendship.”
Keep a gratitude journal. There are many gratitude journals in print that have thoughtful and mindful prompts. They are readily available on Amazon and other online book purchasing outlets. It helps to keep the process varied, interactive, and engaging. This can be done at the end of every day before bedtime so that a consistent practice is reinforced. It is also a meaningful practice that one can do individually, with a partner, a child, or a friend. If it is done with another person, it increases the chances that it will be ongoing because each person can hold the other accountable.
Individuals can also practice a variety of mindfulness-based activities, such as yoga, tai chi, guided imagery, mindfulness-based stress reduction, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, and meditation (e.g., Transcendental Meditation, Vipassana Meditation, Metta Meditation, etc.). There is a list of 23 types of meditation practices and demonstrations to assist you with your practice.
Be mindful of making comparisons. Our mind tries desperately to protect us, sometimes at any cost. Our mind will go back to the past to protect us from repeating mistakes and remind us of what we need to do differently. It will also make comparisons to remind us how we “should” or “ought” to be and hold us accountable so that we can be “safe” and comfortable.
The downside is it often leaves us feeling insecure, less than, and deflated. But ultimately, we should be our own main point of reference, because each of us is unique and functions differently. We can try to be better than we are, rather than better than someone else is.
When we notice that we are comparing ourselves to others, we could recite the word “comparing” and gently, non-judgmentally, and compassionately bring ourselves back to ourselves. We could ground ourselves in the present moment and ask, “how do I want to be?” “who do I want to be?” and “who is my best self?” This can be repeated throughout our day. This redirects our mind to being grateful for our strengths, who we are, are who we are evolving into.
If I left my grandmother last week without having practiced gratitude, I would have been left with feelings of shame, guilt, and remorse layered on top of the worry and sadness. But instead, I can look back and feel fortunate that every moment with her was well spent and that my focus was on her, us, and the relationship we developed over the years. Whether I have only one more day or, hopefully, years to come with her in my life, I want to make each moment count. Cultivating my gratitude practice helps me to ensure that I do.
For guided meditations I created regarding gratitude, consider subscribing to my YouTube channel.
Blog as posted in Psychology Today.