Defining Gratitude and How to Practice It

With Thanksgiving here, more and more people will be reflecting on what they’re grateful for. My husband’s family follows the tradition where, before we eat Thanksgiving dinner, we go around the table so that each person can acknowledge something they’re thankful for. I love this moment. I love watching everyone smile as they think of something wonderful to share, especially when it’s about someone at the table. I tear up every time spouses are thankful for each other and I get to see that exchange of love and gratitude. This sense of closeness, love, and joy that stems from thankfulness is something that I’m always trying to cultivate.

Because why only practice gratitude at the holidays? And what does practicing gratitude even mean?

For many of us, the holidays offer a moment to slow down, which makes it easier to take the time and reflect. Science has proven though, that those who practice gratitude every day are happier people. They experience strong physical and mental benefits from cultivating a “gratitude practice”. Overall, those who practice gratitude are more optimistic, compassionate, and forgiving which are all traits I think most of us would like to have.

Dr. Robert Emmons, the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude, writes that his definition of gratitude has two components. The first component is an affirmation of goodness. Dr. Emmons writes, “We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received. This doesn’t mean that life is perfect; it doesn’t ignore complaints, burdens, and hassles. But when we look at life as a whole, gratitude encourages us to identify some amount of goodness in our life”.

And this is where that gratitude practice comes in.

A gratitude practice is anything you do to help yourself experience gratitude. Dr. Emmons’ number one tip is to keep a gratitude journal. This journal can take many forms. Some write in their journals every day, others weekly, but regardless it is about making the time to sit down and actively reflect on what you’re grateful for. In his series of studies, Dr. Emmons found that those who kept a gratitude journal all reported feeling the psychological and mental benefits of gratitude. And these studies were only three weeks long. That is how quickly keeping a gratitude practice can bring you benefits. But if keeping a gratitude journal doesn’t seem like your thing, here are a few other daily practices you could keep (these are also great to do in addition to the journal):

  • Prayer/Meditation: Take time each day to reflect on what you’re grateful for through a prayer or meditation practice. Many spiritual traditions have ones you can use, or you could create your own mantra to repeat.
  • Say Thank You: Dr. Emmons calls this “going through the motions”, which simply put is doing all those things your parents told you to. Say thank you, smile, and write letters of gratitude (thank you notes) to those in your life. These little acts can trigger the benefits of gratitude when done consistently.
  • Gratitude Jar: This is a favorite among many of my friends. Every day they write down one thing they’re grateful for and put it in the jar. Many of my friends read through their jar every year at Thanksgiving time. They also read through them on those days where they’re feeling stressed to remind themselves, each day can be beautiful.
  • Visual Reminders: I keep a planner and inside each page I’ve written down something that I’m grateful for. This means whenever I open my planner (which is like a million times a day) I see these messages. Keeping visual reminders is a great way to get you thinking about gratitude on a daily basis and even multiple times throughout the day.

These are just a few ways you can start to cultivate your own gratitude practice. As Dr. Emmons says though (and I love this guy if you didn’t notice already), you can (and should) get creative with your gratitude practice. Find what works for you. Combine multiple tips. I use many of the tips above and several others all year long. What these tips all have in common is they will help you affirm that there is goodness in your life and in the world, and that is the purpose of any gratitude practice.

Let’s not forget though, that was only the first component of Dr. Emmons’ definition of gratitude.

The second component is figuring out and understanding where goodness comes from. Dr. Emmons writes, “We recognize the sources of this goodness as being outside of ourselves. It didn’t stem from anything we necessarily did ourselves in which we might take pride. We can appreciate positive traits in ourselves, but I think true gratitude involves a humble dependence on others: We acknowledge that other people—or even higher powers, if you’re of a spiritual mindset—gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives”.

Now, please take a second and reread that quote because it is the most important part of this entire article.

Think back to that moment I described at the beginning: hearing people be grateful for others. It gives me goose bumps and it is essential to understanding gratitude and building a gratitude practice. Yes, you should be grateful for positive traits in yourself, and being proud of yourself isn’t bad but…true gratitude relies on seeing the beauty and goodness in others. When I first started working on my gratitude practice I’ll admit that is was a little self-centered. Many of the things I wrote down were about me solely, and didn’t acknowledge how others helped me get where I am today. It was when I started to reflect on the goodness in others, and how that brought goodness into my own life, that I really experienced the benefits of practicing gratitude. Here are a two ways I’ve made sure to recognize this in my daily life.

  • Say It: I tell my husband each and every day that I love him, that I’m grateful for him and thank him for at least one thing (often it is more) he’s done for me. I think of this as a “verbal” gratitude journal that focuses solely on him. This could be done for people other than spouses though: parents, children, co-workers, or anyone who is bringing goodness into your life.
  • Write It: Like I mentioned above with “going through the motions”, taking the time to write a thank you note can go a long way, especially when it is handwritten. One of the reasons I’ve been creating blank greeting cards is in hopes that more people will take the time to write out these types of notes.

Gratitude doesn’t always happen right away. There are numerous challenges, and let’s face it, life ain’t always easy. But the benefits are worth the work. I hope that after this holiday season is over, you’ll continue to practice gratitude in your daily life! My greatest resource has been Dr. Emmons and so here are links to his work, including his books, which have been amazing sources for myself (and this article). Please note that this article and these links are not affiliated with Dr. Emmons, I’m just a really big fan and wanted to spread his message with you!

Thank you as always for spending some time with me today! I’m wishing you all the happiest of Thanksgivings, and please share in the comments below something you’re grateful for! Together we can spread a message of gratitude, happiness, and love.

And if you’d like to stock up on some blank cards for writing thank you notes, please check out my Etsy store where there is currently a sale going on! Starting November 24th till the 27th, you can use coupon code SMALLBIZ2017 to get an additional 10% off your purchase!

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