Practicing Gratitude

Photo by Mike Ehrman/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by Mike Ehrman/iStock / Getty Images

We live in a capitalist society: our system was built upon the assumption that we are all making decisions rooted (at least in part) in greed. We are expected to desire more than we have and be willing to work for it. Within this framework, it is so easy to get stuck in the habit of ingratitude. Culturally, it is acceptable to take what we have for granted and to focus our attention on what we don’t have. Our economic and social dynamics have their merits, but in order to spend our days full of joy and peacefulness it is important to cultivate an outlook that emphasizes gratitude for the immense goodness in our lives.

Sometimes gratefulness is easier than others. When we get something new, it is easy to practice gratitude. Even the simplest of additions to the household can bring a little twinge of excitement, joy, and gratefulness. My mom recently gave me several pots with plants for my patio, and just to look out the window and see basil, lavender, and rosemary growing there brings me sheer joy. But it’s easy to be grateful now, when they’re still new and exciting. What about after weeks or months when I neglect to water them for a bit, and I look outside and see them beginning to wilt in the hot sun. Will I curse my busy schedule, and my forgetfulness, and wish the plants were lower maintenance rather than just being joyful and grateful, as I am now? Is there a way to increase the amount of gratitude I feel, or at least slow down the loss of it?

The gratitude that I want to grow isn’t just about gratitude for things. I want to feel gratitude every day for my family and their health, my own health, the love I receive from those around me, the ability to make an income, and so much more. I am not wealthy by any means, but I do not struggle to put food on the table or to put gas in my car. I want to be content with what I have, spend more time celebrating it, and spend less time grumbling about what I lack.

There are plenty of resources out there for practicing gratitude, but the primary piece of advice I found is this: just remember to be more grateful. Particularly when you’re going through difficult times, just remember all of the wonderful people and things you have in your life, and remember all of the many, many people who live with much less.

That’s all fine and good. I’d love to just make the decision to be more grateful and be finished with it. But that’s it? Just BE more grateful? This solution was unsatisfying for me. I thought, "Surely there's something more I could be doing that would make this easier."  So I set out to find some concrete tools to develop gratitude.

1. Thank others and show appreciation.

When I found myself struggling to feel grateful for the people and things around me, it found it easier to change my mentality by making an effort to thank others often and show genuine appreciation when good things happened. Our lives are rooted in habits, and since changing an overall mentality is a difficult task, changing the little habits that affect mentality is far more achievable. When I tried to just "feel more gratitude," I ended up just feeling insincere. Instead, I focused on building habits that made me notice how many opportunities I have to give thanks and to be grateful. Getting into the habit of verbalizing thanks really made me feel more grateful.

2. Take note.

During the last few days before completing this post, I kept notes of things that I was grateful for. Writing down (and rereading later) simple notes really did bring gratitude to the forefront of my mind. I found myself looking for more things to add to my notes, and it gave me a brighter attitude. When you're consciously looking for things to be grateful for, you'll probably find them. 

3. Acknowledge future gratitude.

We all have events in our lives that are impossible to view with gratitude. No one gives thanks for hardship, stress, or tragedy at the time they are occurring. That's ok. But since the start of this project, I've started viewing these kinds of situations in a different light. I think to myself, "You don't have to be grateful now, but is there something you will have gained when you look back at today? Is there even a possibility that you might be grateful for it?" If I can find even a possibility that I could be grateful for the experience down the road, it makes it seem just a little less bad. 

4. No more pity parties. 

"I have too much work, and not enough time... I'm so tired; I haven't had a good night's sleep in a week... I'm down to the last twenty dollars in my bank account..." 

I'm guilty of it. Sometimes it feels good to complain. We all want our frustration, stress, and difficulties to be acknowledged and affirmed. There's something nice about hearing that it's not just you: anyone would struggle to cope with all of those issues. But these complaining sessions aren't really helping in the long term. It may feel better for a moment, but the attitude that went with me when I walked away from these conversations was the one that had just been affirmed. I am tired and overstretched and stressed. I found it impossible to feel grateful and all of those negative feelings at once. 

I had to hold my tongue, or walk away from a conversation more than once (and had to cut myself off mid-sentence more than once), but I noticed that the less I complained, the more room I had in my head for gratefulness. If there's one habit I need more practice to master, it's this one! But I am going to continue to try. It's worth it. 

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I'm sure there are a thousand ways out there to cultivate more gratitude, but these were the most powerful tools that made a difference for me. The difficulty is going to be continuing this process forward, but if I can focus on these few things, it's a lot less scary than just trying to feel more grateful without any real direction in how to do so. The joyful contentedness that comes from genuine gratitude is a beautiful lense through which to see the world. 

One thing that didn't work for me:

During some reading I came upon the advice that a great way to begin the day with a boost of gratitude was to take five minutes after your alarm goes off to think about the things that make you feel the most grateful. It turns out that lying in the dark with my eyes closed, after turning off my alarm can very quickly turn into falling back to sleep and nearly being late for work. If you believe yourself to be similarly vulnerable, I wouldn't recommend it, but if you think it might help, try it!