What is gratitude?
Gratitude involves showing appreciation for the things in life that are meaningful or valuable to you. Taking a moment to notice and acknowledge the things you’re grateful for each day can brighten your outlook, boost your mood, and help you feel more positive in the face of challenges.
While it’s easy to feel a rush of joy after winning the lottery or receiving a big promotion at work, gratitude extends to the smaller blessings in life that are often overlooked or taken for granted. Even the smallest moments, such as a brief chat with a friend, a kind gesture from a stranger, a cool breeze on a hot day, or a peaceful stroll in nature, are things that you can be thankful for.
Whatever your circumstances in life, you may find that consistently showing gratitude can be surprisingly difficult. Many of us get caught up in a negativity bias, where we linger on bad news and unpleasant experiences, yet allow moments of positivity to fade into the background.
Maybe you spend so much time dreading work on Monday that you don’t take time to fully appreciate the weekend. Or perhaps you’re so focused on your own verbal slip-up at a party that you don’t register a compliment from a friend. And if you have a mood disorder such as depression, being able to see any positives or express gratitude can seem impossible.
Fortunately, gratitude is like a muscle that you can build. With the right exercises and practice, you can find at least something small to appreciate in even the bleakest day. The idea of cultivating gratitude might sound cheesy, but research has shown that it can have very real benefits. With these tips, you can use gratitude to uplift your mood, find respite from negativity, foster stronger relationships, and even change the way you view yourself.
Benefits of practicing gratitude
A little gratitude can do wonders for your mood. When you practice gratitude, you shift your thoughts away from negative emotions and uncomfortable sensations. Instead, you begin to focus on good things that you may have overlooked.
Rather than focusing on the misfortune of having a flat tire, for example, you consider how your job has made it possible to pay for repairs. Or you shift your focus to how fortunate you are to have close friends who are willing to drive you home.
This kind of thinking leads to a release of serotonin and dopamine, chemicals in the brain that are associated with happiness and pleasure. Acknowledging gratitude also decreases stress hormones. The short-term result is a reduction in anxiety and an improvement in mood. In the long-term, regularly practicing gratitude may also lead to lasting changes in your brain, priming you to be more grateful going forward.
Because gratitude can boost your mood, perhaps it’s no surprise that it can also improve your overall mental health. As you practice gratitude, you may notice a decrease in symptoms of depression and anxiety. While gratitude alone may not be a magic bullet to mental health issues, it can be one part of a broader treatment plan.
Approaching life with a more positive mindset can do more than just improve your mood. It can have cascading benefits in other areas of your life, such as:
Better sleep. Some research links increased gratitude with higher quality sleep and fewer sleep disturbances. This might be because expressing gratitude right before bed allows you to fall asleep with a more positive outlook.
Improved focus. Gratitude might make it easier for you to focus. If you begin to view the task in front of you — whether it’s schoolwork or job duties — in a more positive light, you spend less energy feeling stressed about it. You might even begin to view challenges, such as an upcoming exam, as opportunities rather than hurdles. This can improve your emotional resiliency.
Higher self-esteem. Viewing the world with a sense of gratitude can change the way you think about your own worth. Imagine that a friend treats you to lunch. As you express your appreciation, you also begin to realize that your friend is spending time and resources on you because they value you. You then internalize the thought that you’re important to others.
Increased patience. The results of 2016 research seemed to indicate that people who regularly express gratitude are more patient. So, if you want to increase self-control and reduce impulsiveness, try practicing gratitude. Other research shows a potential connection between gratitude and other virtues, such as humility and wisdom.
Gratitude has the potential to enhance the quality of your relationships. Expressing your appreciation for a friend or family member shows them that you care and opens the door for more positive interactions in the future. For example, if you tell your friend that you appreciate them offering you a shoulder to lean on in tough times, your friend will recognize their importance and continue to be there for you. You may also feel compelled to reciprocate their acts of kindness.
Gratitude can have social benefits that extend beyond your relationships with loved ones. Research shows that being on the receiving end of gratitude can lead even acquaintances to be more helpful and generous. Try telling coworkers or neighbors how much you appreciate them. You could create a chain reaction of prosocial behavior that enhances your workplace or community.
Physical health benefits
Gratitude can also come with plenty of physical benefits as well. For example, as your gratefulness reduces your stress and brings you closer to loved ones, you may see a decrease in your blood pressure and levels of inflammation. This can give way to better overall cardiovascular health.
Research also shows that grateful people are more likely to engage in healthy behaviors, such as exercising regularly and following a healthy diet. This may be because they’re able reframe healthy lifestyle choices as opportunities rather than obstacles.
Obstacles to feeling gratitude
For some people, gratitude seems to come naturally. You might already have a grateful disposition, which leads you to look for and cherish the good in life. On the other hand, certain personality traits and mood disorders can act as barriers to being able to acknowledge and express gratitude.
Here are a few factors that can fuel your negativity bias:
Envy. If you desire another person’s traits or possessions, you may feel unhappy if a friend has found more success in dating or bitter that a coworker received a promotion you believe you deserve. It’s easy to become so wrapped up in envy that you overlook your own fortunes.
Materialism. If you’re materialistic, you hold the belief that having more possessions will eventually lead to happiness. Maybe you believe that you need the latest gadgets to impress your friends or maintain a certain social status. Or perhaps you think that a large house and fancy car will make you happy. Rather than being grateful for what you have, you’re always looking for new things to claim as your own.
Cynicism. If you’re cynical, you tend to believe that people only act within their own self-interests. You might believe that someone gave you a gift just because they want a favor in return. This mindset makes it hard to feel gratitude toward other people.
Narcissism. People who are narcissistic tend to be self-centered and have an excessive need for admiration. Narcissists also tend to have a sense of entitlement. They’re prone to overlooking gifts and good fortune because they expect favorable treatment.
Stress. The general stressors of everyday life can loom so large that you have a hard time seeing the blessings around you. You might want to feel grateful for having a place to live, but the stress of keeping up with bills is always at the forefront of your mind.
Depression. Depression is more complicated than just feeling sad. It can involve a deep sense of despair and hopelessness that leaves you feeling fatigued, isolated, and empty. You might imagine it as a veil that obscures all the positive aspects of your life.
Factors like envy and materialism can lead you to take things for granted. But if you can acknowledge the good in your own life—whether it’s a roof over your head, reliable friends, or good health—you can avoid comparing your own life to other people’s lives.
If you’re feeling stressed or depressed, positivity is often hard to come by. However, even on the worst days, if you look hard enough you can usually find at least one thing to be grateful about. Keep an eye out for small moments of pleasure—the smell of good food, playtime with a pet, or a catchy tune on the radio. Noticing even the tiniest glimmers of positivity can make a big difference in your day.
Tips on cultivating gratitude
Cultivating gratitude isn’t a complicated endeavor, but it does require effort and a commitment to change. The following exercises can help you take on a grateful outlook, especially if you’re dealing with the roadblocks such as depression, stress, or envy.
Remembering to slow down and savor little moments in your life can be a way to cultivate gratitude. Tap into your senses and let your mind linger on pleasant, everyday sensations. Focus on the taste of a ripe strawberry, for example, the feeling of the sun on your skin, or the gentle sound of background music. This can help ground you in the present, pulling you away from rumination and worrying.
If you find yourself focusing on the same thing every day, try to home in on different aspects that you appreciate. For example, if you take a walk in the same stretch of the park every day, you might choose to focus on the pleasant sounds of nature one day and the sights the next day.
You can also use more structured meditation practices to tap into mindfulness. Set aside some time to listen to HelpGuide’s guided audio mediation, Gratitude in Difficult Times. The meditation guides you through a calming exercise that incorporates both mindfulness and gratitude.
Keep a gratitude journal
There are many ways to create a gratitude journal. First, decide if you want to keep a physical journal that you write in or a digital list on your phone or computer. Then, consider how often you’ll update the journal. You can update the journal on a weekly basis, ending the week by jotting down three or four moments that you appreciated.
Many people find it beneficial to make a habit of writing down several things that you’re grateful for before bed. However, don’t journal so often that the practice begins to feel like a chore. Aim to be consistent and work on your journal at the same time each day or week.
The subjects you write about can include events, people, and general experiences. Try to go beyond just listing the most significant moments and accomplishments. Acknowledge the small but unexpected gifts, such as quick chats with friendly strangers, as well as the pleasant but routine moments, like a relaxing bike ride after work. If you have time, go into detail. What did the stranger say that lifted your mood? How did it feel to ride your bike and arrive safely home?
Here are a few prompts that can help you get started with your journal:
- What were some pleasant sensations you experienced today?
- Were there moments that made you smile or laugh or boosted your mood?
- Who did you enjoy spending time with and why?
Write notes of appreciation
Build relationships by writing thank-you letters to people in your life. Go into detail about treasured memories from your relationship, including the seemingly insignificant interactions and moments of lightheartedness they may have forgotten about. Write about the positive effect they’ve had on your life. When you’re done, you can mail or deliver the letters in person. If you’re comfortable enough, you can even read a letter to your loved one.
If writing letters isn’t for you, take a more straightforward route. Make a conscious effort to verbally let friends and family members know that you appreciate them. You can set a goal of expressing gratitude to one person each day or week. What have they said or done that has made your life better? Do they have a sense of humor that brightens your day? Or maybe they’re a thoughtful person who is always willing to lend a hand.
Revisit and reframe past events
Most of us can recall past events that we regret. It could be anything from failing to study for an important test to lashing out at a close friend. Or maybe you regret a poor financial decision or a missed opportunity in dating. Although they may have led to disappointment, shame, or even heartbreak, you’ve likely also learned something from these experiences.
How did they contribute to your growth? Did they make you more cautious, assertive, or compassionate? By finding lessons within the tough experiences in life, you can cultivate more gratitude. You can even consider combining this with the journaling exercise. Come up with a list of past misfortunes and the lessons you’ve learned from each.
While these gratitude exercises can give your mood and outlook a welcome boost, it can take time for them to impact your mental health and overall well-being. Be patient and continue practicing gratitude. Turn the exercises into little rituals. In time, you may notice your stress levels drop and relationships strengthen. Then, you’ll have even more reasons to be grateful.
Last updated or reviewed on February 28, 2023