We’re living in an increasingly technological world, where speed is often associated with success and progress. This can sometimes make it difficult to stop and feel grateful for the everyday things that we take for granted – a sunrise, the air that we breathe, our friends and family, and somewhere warm to sleep at night.
The pandemic has led many of us to re-evaluate what’s important, and to feel more grateful for things that we might usually take for granted, such as good health, freshly stocked supermarket shelves, and in-person interactions with loved ones.
When life gets tough, it can sometimes be difficult to see a clear way forward – and it’s at times like these when identifying and appreciating the positives in our lives can be particularly helpful. Gratitude has the potential to make our worst days feel more positive, and our good days feel even greater, which is why it’s such a powerful tool to carry throughout life. We can nearly always find something to be grateful for in our day, if we just stop and look a little bit closer.
Gratitude can be learnt and developed at any age – and it’s a skill that we can develop over time – it just takes a bit of practice. Here we discuss what gratitude is, how being thankful can actually help us, and how we can practice it every day.
What is gratitude?
Gratitude – or being thankful for what we have – is a form of optimism that helps us to feel happier and more fulfilled. Someone who exercises gratitude will typically see their glass as half full, rather than half empty. It’s about training the mind to be thankful for the little things we do have, rather than focussing wholly on what’s missing.
Experts say that our brains will often release a lot of unhappy chemicals (such as cortisol), in a quest for happy ones (like serotonin and dopamine). Our brains have evolved to scan and look for obstacles for this reason – because we’ve learnt that once we overcome them, we feel happier. But the problem with this is, that once this happens, our brains begin looking for the next issue to solve, so that we can get our next happy hit, and the cycle of negativity continues.
The best way to break this negative cycle, is to build yourself a positivity circuit – which is where practicing gratitude comes in. The more time we spend thinking about the things we’re grateful for, the less time our brain will spend scanning for problems to solve. If we can find at least one thing to be grateful for on any given day – regardless of what kind of day you’re having – your day will hopefully seem brighter, and your life richer.
For instance, you might be struggling financially, but still feel blessed to have good health or a loving family, who help support you during tough times. Or, perhaps you don’t appreciate the colder weather, but feel grateful that you can snuggle up in your favourite woolly jumper. Or maybe, you don’t particularly like having to stay at home more at the moment, but you can appreciate the little things that it allows you to do – such as having time for breakfast, spending more time with your pet, or ticking off some of the books on your reading list.
What are the benefits of practicing gratitude?
Life can be full of ups and downs, but our downs can often feel less steep if we are always able to focus on the things or people in our lives that we feel most grateful for. Some of the most powerful mental, physical and social benefits of practicing gratitude include:
Gratitude can make you more appreciative of the people in your life. When we take the time to say “thank you” or to show someone how much we value them, our relationships will often go from strength to strength.
Greater job satisfaction
Workplace satisfaction can often be increased by finding things to be grateful for. Perhaps you love what you do and are grateful to be able to make a living doing it. Or maybe you aren’t so keen on the actual work you do, but are grateful for some of the things that come with it – like a short commute, good relationships with your colleagues, or a wage that allows you to live the life you want outside of work.
Research has shown that there is a connection between gratitude and sleep. One 2003 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that when a group of people with neuromuscular disorders spent three weeks writing down their gratitudes before bed, they reported having longer, more refreshing sleep.
Gratitude involves reframing how we look at and think about things. It’s about identifying and feeling grateful for small positives in our life, even when things get tough. Doing this can make us more resilient to whatever life throws at us, because no matter what happens, we will always be able to extract the positives, and use them to help us see a way forward.
Reduced stress and anxiety levels
Studies show that gratitude can help to curb stress and anxiety levels by inviting positive thoughts and emotions, which trigger the parasympathetic nervous system (the calming part). This has many positive effects on the body – such as decreased cortisol (stress hormone) levels, and increased levels of oxytocin (a happy hormone, also known as the “love hormone”, which makes us feel good).
Fewer aches and pains
A 2012 study published in Personality and Individual Differences found that people who expressed gratitude had fewer aches and pains than other people. They were also more likely to exercise regularly and attend regular health check ups.
Increased confidence and self-esteem
According to a 2011 study published in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, gratitude enhanced athletes’ self-esteem, which is important for helping them to reach their full potential. Research has also found that people who practice gratitude are less likely to compare themselves to others socially. Rather than feeling jealous or resentful if others have more money, or a better relationship, they can instead appreciate and admire their achievements.
Reasons that we might lose sight of gratitude
We can lose sight of gratitude and find it difficult to be thankful for all the small things in life for various different reasons. It can help to recognise these reasons and triggers so that we can work on challenging them when things get tough. For example:
Social media now makes it much easier for us to spend time comparing ourselves to others, and feeling as though our own lives don’t measure up. Social media can also make it easy to search for the validation of others, rather than focusing internally on what we are grateful for ourselves in our everyday lives.
Technology is evolving at an alarming rate. There’s always a new device being advertised that promises to make our lives easier and better – but if we can’t afford these things, we often end up feeling as though we’re missing out on something bigger. Sadly this is a central theme of almost all advertising – the promise of something better if we just buy the next shiny object!
Nowadays, slowing down enough to appreciate small victories, and seemingly normal everyday things is also more of a challenge. This is largely because it’s easy to get swept along in a culture of speed and productivity, where we might focus most of our time and energy on where we want to get to, rather than stopping to smell the roses along the way. And while it’s healthy and important to have goals and ambitions, if we don’t celebrate our achievements or try to enjoy the journey, then we will often be left feeling dissatisfied, rather than grateful at the end.
We can become very comfortable in our routine – so much so, that we go into autopilot mode and stop thinking about, enjoying or appreciating the things or people in our day. Sometimes we might only start to appreciate things or people when they are no longer around, and we start missing them.
You might find yourself in a difficult situation – perhaps after a break-up, the loss of a loved one, or after being made redundant – and feel as though the world is against us. Whilst this may be a natural response, when we feel like this it can make it much harder to identify other things in our lives that we’re grateful for.
9 ways to practice gratitude and lead a happier life
Even if you aren’t feeling particularly grateful at the moment, the good thing is that gratitude is something that can be developed with regular practice. It’s about training the mind to focus on the positives of what we do have – which can lead to powerful psychological benefits. Whilst it’s not always easy at times like these, we can all find things to be grateful for, no matter how big or small, if we look at life with the right lens.
Once we start taking a closer look at what we do have, and shift the focus away from what we don’t – life can take on a whole new meaning. Many people who start using gratitude as a daily practice often report feeling happier and more satisfied with their lives.
If you’d like to practice having more gratitude in your daily life, then these 9 exercises will offer you a helpful place to start.
1. Keep a gratitude journal
One of the most helpful habits to identify the things or people in your daily life that you’re most grateful for, is to keep a gratitude journal. This involves choosing a notebook from somewhere like Amazon or Paperchase (preferably one that you like, and will feel motivated to write in) and writing down three things each day that you feel grateful for. These could be things like, your morning coffee, your family, or the view from your bedroom window.
Some people find this to be a helpful exercise either first thing in the morning because it sets them up for that day, or last thing at night because it sends them to sleep feeling more positive. It’s up to you to decide when you would find it most useful to do this.
Always try to put three things down if you want to get the most out of this exercise, otherwise the absence of one or more can leave you feeling disappointed that you don’t have three things to write down. Almost everyone can find three things – even if it’s something that many of us don’t often think about – such as being grateful for the air that we breathe, or for our sight, or our legs.
You might find writing down things to be thankful for challenging at first, and even a little uncomfortable, but the more you do it, the quicker and more natural it will become. It’s amazing how many different things we can find to be grateful for, when we really think about it.
If you’re new to journaling as a healthy habit, then you might find it useful to read our article; The power of journaling as a life habit, for tips and advice on how to get started.
2. Be empathetic towards others
Empathy allows us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and consider how it might feel to be in a similar situation. Often, when we do this, we develop a greater appreciation for the good things that we have in our own lives. We all have battles in life, but there will always be someone out there that is going through something more difficult than we are.
One of the best ways to be empathetic towards others is to be kind, to show understanding, and to treat others how you might like them to treat you. Not only does expressing kindness help to heighten the sense of your own good fortune, but it also has the potential to make someone’s day, and help you feel more connected to the people around you.
If someone has been particularly kind to you recently, then why not share it on the Rest Less community forum? Celebrating kindness can be uplifting, because it reminds us that we aren’t alone, and that we live in a world where goodness is very much present.
3. Look upon each day as a gift
Life is precious, and it’s easy to forget that when we don’t truly appreciate the good things in our lives. A helpful way to start appreciating life more, is to try and see every day as a gift, and an opportunity to make a new start.
Start by asking yourself a few questions, such as “How could I make a positive impact today?”, “How would I spend today if it was my last day?” and “What would I miss most if I didn’t have it anymore?” Questions like these can really help to shake up our lives, and to identify what’s important to us.
Some people say that it took something dramatic to happen in their lives, such as an illness, an accident, or the loss of a loved one, to make them feel more appreciative of each day. But we shouldn’t have to wait until something like this happens to start making the most of our time, and to start celebrating the little things in life that we might otherwise overlook.
4. Write a letter of thanks to someone
Writing a letter is a great way to express gratitude to someone that you’re thankful for. This could be a friend, partner, family member, neighbour, doctor – or even someone you’ve never met before, who has made a difference to your life with something they said or did. The letter should tell them why you appreciate them, and express thanks. This not only has the potential to make someone else smile and feel good about themselves, but to make you feel good too. Research has shown that showing appreciation for people can strengthen relationships, and satisfy our natural human desire for healthy attachment.
You could also write a letter to someone who hurt you in the past, to help you let go of any feelings of resentment, and to reflect on the gifts of the situation. Perhaps it was difficult at first, but you feel stronger now, and are better equipped to deal with similar situations should they occur in the future. Or perhaps the actions of the person you’re writing to forced you to take a new direction in life, and you’ve actually become happier as a result. It’s up to you whether you decide to send this letter or keep it – but even just the process of writing it can act as an effective healing exercise.
5. Remember to thank yourself too
As well as being thankful for what other people have done for you, it’s also important to take the time to thank yourself as well – whether this is making yourself healthy meals, making time to exercise, or giving yourself enough time to get plenty of rest. This can help you to develop a profound feeling of appreciation for yourself, and strengthen the positive relationship that you have with you! Writing your thanks down in a journal or saying it out loud to yourself can often be more affirming that saying it in your head, so why not give it a go?
6. Enjoy nature's beauty
In an increasingly technological world, where there are many distractions, we can often overlook nature’s beauty. Whether it’s the sound of the birds singing first thing in the morning, beautiful sunsets or the trees that we walk past everyday that are centuries old.
One of the best ways to practice gratitude can be to take some time out of your day to go for a walk, and really notice and appreciate our natural surroundings. Doing this can remind us that we are part of nature, not separate from it – which can help us to feel part of something bigger, and to feel less alone. Reaping the benefits of our natural surroundings only helps us to appreciate it more, and to feel more grateful for our place in the world.
If you’re looking for a way to get outdoors and really interact with nature, then you might find it helpful to have a read of our beginner’s guide to birdwatching. If nothing else, it will show you how much natural beauty there is around us if we really look for it.
7. Celebrate the achievements of others
By appreciating and celebrating the achievements of others, we can often avoid falling into the trap of making self-comparisons, and feeling resentful that we aren’t in the same place that someone else is. Each of us is on our own individual journey, so the only person that’s ever worth comparing yourself to is you.
Letting go of self-comparisons can be incredibly liberating, and can help us to feel at peace with ourselves. It can make feeling grateful for our own achievements and everything that we already have, feel so much easier.Reframing your thoughts to be happy for someone else, rather than comparing yourself to them, isn’t always easy – but it usually starts with challenging negative thoughts as they arise.
Next time you go to put yourself down because you haven’t achieved the same goal as someone else, try to acknowledge what you’re doing, and replace it with a new thought instead. For example, you could swap the thought:
“They’ve got an amazing new job. Why haven’t I been able to get a new job yet? There must be something wrong with me…”
“I’m really proud of them. I know they’ve had a tough time recently – so it’s great that they’ve finally caught a break. If they can do it, so can I!”
You could also reach out to the person in question to congratulate them, and consider how much people’s kind words mean to you, when you’ve done something good.
It’s important to remember that other people’s achievements take nothing away from yours, and that your accomplishments (no matter how big or small), are always just as important and noteworthy as someone else’s.
8. Be more mindful
The speed at which you live your life can have a significant impact on how grateful you feel for the things in it, because it’s difficult to cherish things if you’re always rushing past them. For instance, did you really enjoy the tastes, smells and textures of your lunch or dinner? Or did you not really pay much attention because you were thinking about or doing something else at the same time?
We recently interviewed journalist and modern philosopher, Carl Honore, who believes that the key to living a happier, more fulfilled life is to slow down, and live life at a pace that allows us to be more mindful. Carl had a lightbulb moment one day whilst reading a bedtime story to his young son. He found himself skipping lines, paragraphs and even whole pages in an attempt to get through it more quickly, so he could get on with other things. At one time, he even contemplated buying a collection of 60 second bedtimes stories, so that he could speed up the process even more.
It was at this point that Carl realised that he was racing through life, rather than really living it – so, he began looking into the concept of ‘slow living’ and has since become the voice of the ‘The Slow Living Moment’.
Carl encourages people to live in the moment more by doing things like disconnecting from technology, practicing meditation, and saying no to invitations or requests that you simply don’t have time for in your day. You can read the full interview with Carl here.
You might also want to check out our introductory guide to mindfulness, which will walk you through how to set aside some time each day to really live in the moment. You can do this by paying closer attention to your body and your surroundings. For example, by taking five minutes to focus on the breath entering and leaving your body and being grateful for that breath, or taking some time in the morning to sit and watch the sun come up, while appreciating a brand new day.
9. Start and end your day with gratitude
What you do first thing in the morning and last thing at night, can have a significant impact on how you feel during the day. If we go to bed feeling positive, we will often wake feeling positive and if we start off our day with some positive actions, then this will usually help to carry us through the day with a more positive mindset.
How you choose to start and end your day with gratitude is up to you – you might want to send a quick text to someone to show them that they are appreciated, note down what went right in your day in your journal, or let someone in your household know just how special they are to you.
Life can be messy, complicated and unpredictable – but it can also be full of love, laughter and wonderful surprises. While it’s difficult to predict or control what’s going on in the world right now or what’s around every corner, what we can control is how we choose to look at our lives. Gratitude is an incredibly powerful tool, and has the potential to help us find joy in the darkest of times by embracing the little things we have, and making every day feel like a blessing.