There is little lovelier than a simple, sincerely expressed word or gesture of gratitude, right? Everyone enjoys a bit of G.
And being and feeling highly appreciative is something that we can all cultivate.
Those who appear to be the most grateful, you discover, are doing something very specific with their attention. They might say something along the lines of: “Well, I count my blessings a lot. Despite whatever shit is happening, I know how lucky I am.”You look back at your life and realise you were cheating yourself out of feeling good Click To Tweet
Not really a natural to begin with, practicing gratitude continues to be one of the highest impact things I do for my personal development. I have just found that life is more joyful when I do it. And that the positive benefits only accumulate.
This post isn’t going to talk about how practicing gratitude reduces your stress levels, or helps you to sleep at night (etc, etc.). You can read about that anywhere, since gratitude pretty much became the new kale.
Instead, I wanted to offer you a personal account of exactly why practicing gratitude is an ongoing priority for me. It is my hope that it inspires you to take gratitude a bit more seriously, if you aren’t already doing so. I’ll also explain exactly how to develop an attitude of gratitude.
Who needs to practice gratitude the most?
Firstly, everyone benefits from a regular gratitude practice. The necessity is due to insidious quirks of the mind, which are universal to us all. I’ll talk to you more about that in a second.
That said, I have observed that gratitude seems to be an easy reach for some personality types. Enneagram types nine and two, for instance, tend to do gratitude by default. Every other type probably has to work a little harder for it.
(Huge generalization alert but) I believe that those of us who identify highly with our intellects and intelligence – which just means we rely on them a lot in life – experience the most profound benefits from practicing gratitude.
These strengths/personal qualities, although obviously very useful elsewhere in life, tend to mean a person is less present (too busy thinking). And present moment awareness is where grateful thoughts are generated.
Thinking/head types spend their lives intellectualizing and analyzing. That naturally closes a person off to the bounties offered by simple, momentary attention.
This was me for a lot of life, although I identify with that pattern a lot less these days due to developing a mindfulness practice.
The problem that practicing gratitude solves
No personality type is immune from the pitfalls of the human mind. It is a well known fact that when undirected, our minds tend to be drawn to the negative. That is why practicing gratitude becomes so essential: it is an antidote to that hardwired tendency.
The other thing is our tendency to go onto autopilot wherever possible, and check out. We know that the less mindful and present we are, and the more ‘caught up’ in our stories and plans, the less happy and satisfied we tend to be.
Common misuses of our attention include worrying, ruminating, or over-analyzing. Misguidedly, we alleviate the discomfort that these states create by pursuing pleasure and pleasurable activities. But it’s a short term solution, as pleasure is always momentary. Plus, given that we have trained our brains not to be present, we do not tend to savor our emotionally positive experiences.
Gratitude is the balm for these maladies we all contend with.
Reasons why I make gratitude a priority
Not all that long ago, if you’d have asked me to practice mindfulness or gratitude, I would have rolled my eyes and asked you what the point was. Now that the penny dropped, here are the main ways that this practice adds value to my life.
Helps me to deal with negative thinking and entitlement, etc
The biggest reason is the one I mentioned: practicing gratitude helps to counter negative thinking, which is so easy to slip into. Practicing gratitude is my way to hit the pause and reset button (at least some of the time) whenever I notice my attention narrowing onto the negative.Gratitude hits the reset button on ingrained negative psychological tendencies Click To Tweet
There are other ingrained ways of thinking that gratitude helps to counter, which is why it is such a mood panacea. A big one is that gratitude counteracts entitlement, another common but useless attitude. Practicing gratitude helps you to take responsibility for your reactions in life, becoming proactive.
Gratitude also blocks toxic, negative emotions such as envy, resentment and regret which are ruinous to happiness and contentment levels. As it does so, it heightens and magnifies the pleasures we do get from life.
Because it makes me a better lover
(Just checking you’re still paying attention.)
Seriously though, when you practice gratitude over time, it improves your ability to be present in the moment. An ability to be very present in the moment isn’t just great for you and whoever you are having sex with. You’ll find that raise your game in every life area. Not least of it is you are better able to give people and tasks your undivided attention (trust me this is a better way to live).
Gratitude strengthens and improves my relationships
A common gratitude practice I do is just to consider someone whose presence in my life I am grateful for. It is really good for me to do this, as I tend towards being very self-sufficient. Gratitude is generally a relationship-strengthening emotion because it requires us to see how we’ve been supported and affirmed by other people.
It supports my spiritual evolution
You might not be so interested in this benefit. For me and in recent months and years, I have cared about developing the qualities of patience and detachment (or non-attachment). Both states improve my ability to deal with life, and practicing gratitude facilitates them both.
Gratitude also makes it easier for me to accept difficult emotions and experiences. I have written about why I believe acceptance to be an essential skill. It’s really the challenging times that teach us the most.
Positive feedback loop
The more you practice being thankful, the more there is to be thankful for. There is nothing fluffy about this: it is to do with how we notice whatever it is we are looking for.
Because it helps me to stop taking things and people for granted
I have found that without practicing gratitude, it is all too easy to take people and things for granted. Gratitude helps to guard against that complacency. Instead, it teaches you to see people anew each day, and recognise their gifts.
When gratitude becomes a pervasive attitude, you really do experience a different quality of life. When I look back to how I was when I wasn’t practicing gratitude, I just think I was cheating myself out of feeling good most of the time.
How to practice gratitude
Your ultimate ally in developing a pervasive attitude of gratitude is mindfulness. The two go hand in hand. That is because practicing mindfulness is what allows you to observe yourself on autopilot and negativity. Without that, it is difficult to self-correct and adjust.
I wrote about how to practice mindfulness here.
Okay, now for actually making it happen. I know that for me, when I want to make something happen in my life, action trumps every single time. Even when I am thinking in the same negative and disempowering ways, I can at least commit to actually doing a different behaviour (i.e. taking five minutes to mentally recollect what I am grateful for). Fake it till you make it.To practice gratitude, you have to schedule it until it becomes second nature Click To Tweet
And so my simple advice to anyone looking to develop a grateful mindset is to, until it becomes ‘second nature’ to think in grateful ways:
- Schedule it.
- Be consistent and prioritize it. Regularly remind yourself of the why.
It also helps to develop a heightened awareness of your standard thought processes, so you can catch yourself slipping into negativity and redirect your attention.
Here are some other good ways to practice:
Name five things you’re grateful for before you go to sleep
The reason this works is that it consciously, intentionally focuses your attention on developing more grateful thinking and eliminating ungrateful thoughts.
Practice counting your blessings on a regular basis
You don’t need to write it down. Just ask yourself ‘what am I grateful for today?’, maybe first thing in the morning or evening. Put a neon post-it note on your laptop.
Think outside the box with what you can be grateful for
Dare to thank the seemingly unthankable. In other words, find a way to feel grateful for something negative that has come to pass. It’ll change your life.
There is a meditation technique known as Naikan, which involves reflecting on three questions:
- What have I received from X?
- What have I given to Y?
- What troubles and difficulty have I caused?
Another candidate for the post-it note. These questions provide a foundation for reflecting on relationships with others.
Watch your language
Grateful people talk in grateful ways. Monitor your self-talk and the language you use with your friends. Check you aren’t diminishing your gratitude supplies by the way you talk.
There is no need to shout your gratitude from the rooftops. In fact, I really recommend not posting endlessly on social media about your gratitude. I can’t help thinking that this has an oppressive effect on both the sharer and the reader.
Smile and say thank you a lot
This is so basic. If you go through grateful motions, the emotion of gratitude should be triggered. Grateful motions include smiling, saying thank you, and writing letters of gratitude.
James Clear does his gratitude practice at dinner time, which I think is nice.
Place your hand on your heart
During my yoga classes, we are often given the instruction to touch our heart space. It sounds a little hippy I know, but bringing your awareness to the heart space can help you to know what you feel grateful for, and also helps you to tune into how you feel. Try it and see.
Savoring, a mindfulness-based technique, is the art of slowing down to an experience you are really enjoying.
Keep a jar of awesome
The entrepreneur/investor/author/podcaster Tim Ferriss writes himself these mini congratulatory notes to help him to feel grateful for his accomplishments. It’s the perfect practice for over-achievers and so called ‘type As’.
Scheduling it in
Understand that gratitude is a practice that gains momentum over time. Even if you are motivated by what I wrote here, know that it’ll last around three days and until you’re too tired to write in your journal or whatever.
For this reason, I suggest that you do as I have done and schedule in physical practices in your life. I keep this blog, which helps me. I also practice yoga a lot. Figure out something equivalent that you can do.
I don’t use an app but I am sure there are plenty out there (just google). I am sure that Headspace would be able to assist you.
Gratitude is intelligence
This is just an aside, but if you struggle to know your values in life and what you want, practicing gratitude can really help to illuminate those. I wrote more about how to know your values here.
Developing a grateful mindset is fecking hard at first. That is what I didn’t tell you in the beginning (deliberately).
The author of ‘Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier’, Robert Emmons, said “despite the fact that I’ve been studying gratitude for 11 years and know all about it, I still find that I have to put a lot of conscious effort into practicing gratitude.” And if Robert has to work for it, then we all do.Even experts say that they still need to put a lot of conscious effort into gratitude Click To Tweet
After a while of practicing, you begin to see gratitude as a way of paying attention. It really is always available in the present moment.
Even right now as I write to you, I can choose to focus on something frustrating at work, or a recent disappointment in my personal life. Or I can linger my attention just a little longer on the utterly gorgeous orange-blue sunset before me, as I sit in my room, comfortable and warm, wanting for absolutely nothing, and – broadly speaking – happier and more content than I have ever been.
It is bonkers how we constantly forget how much there is to be thankful for.