Learn How Practicing Gratitude Improves Your Life
“Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.” ~A. A. Milne
Gratitude didn’t come naturally to me. If there had been a championship for complaining, I would have been a serious contender.
For years I felt entitled to everything, including the kindness of others. This didn’t make me very happy, since it was always easy to find something or someone to complain about. The more critical I grew, the less appealing life seemed and the worse I got on with others.
The weather seemed awful, supermarket queues too slow, bosses too unappreciative, children too rowdy and messy, winters too cold, summers too hot, health too unsatisfactory, work too stressful, prices too high, quality too low, TV too boring, politicians too self-serving, traffic too slow, drivers too inconsiderate, and so on.
If I had continued living like that, I might have ended up complaining that water was too wet and the sky too blue.
Fortunately, I came across countless research studies about gratitude. How it reduced anxiety, depression, emotional exhaustion, and even suicidal thoughts, while boosting happiness and satisfaction with life. How it lowered blood pressure, boosted immunity, and encouraged healthy habits while improving sleep.
Research even suggested that gratitude improved the quality of romance and marriage! Now that seemed like an irresistible offer.
I started collecting practical tips for living in a more grateful way, and started trying them out. Warning: these ways of practicing gratitude could seriously damage your unhappiness!
1. Tell your partner exactly how a recent episode made you love them even more.
Be very specific and detailed. For example, “I love that you thought about what I would really like for our anniversary, and that you made all the bookings because you know it takes me ages to pick a hotel.”
It doesn’t have to be in connection with an annual event, such as an anniversary. It could be something as small as the way they hug you to cheer you up when they see that you’ve had a hard day. But tell them exactly what it is you loved about that, and why.
This detailed expression of gratitude signals your responsiveness to your partner. It tends to make them more responsive too. Romance thrives on mutual responsiveness.
2. If your relationship is going through a rough patch, imagine the disappearance of your partner.
This is counter-intuitive, but it makes you more grateful for all that is good in the relationship. People who suddenly lost their partner often tell of how relatively insignificant their petty disagreements now seem. They often say they would give anything to have their loved one back.
If I even think about trying this, it immediately makes me way more grateful for my partner. It makes me realize how lucky I am.
3. Look beyond a gift.
Think consciously about the trouble that somebody took to bring something good into your life, often at some inconvenience and cost to themselves.
We enjoy watching Grand Slam tennis tournaments on TV. We thought that we might one day get to watch a tournament in person, but tickets for the main courts sell out rapidly. Then our son surprised us with tickets for prime seats at a Grand Slam event.
It was totally unexpected. We were so touched that he went to all the trouble and expense. The tennis and setting were magnificent, and the awareness of his love even better.
4. Relish each good moment more consciously.
Have you noticed, really consciously noticed, the many patterns that bubbles make in a warm bath? Or the bizarre shapes of white clouds in a blue sky? Or the quirky way that an eggshell starts to crack when you strike it? Or the comforting feel of your pillow when you go to bed after a long, hard day?
Wonderful little delights await us, moment by moment. But we need to notice them consciously. Then gratitude starts flowing through each moment of life.
I fill a pan with water every morning, to boil some eggs. I love watching the bubbles in the water as they dance for me. It helps to set the tone for my day.
5. Shout for joy when something really good happens to you.
I used to be an expert in misery.
Did I gain admission to medical school? Keep it quiet, I don’t do happiness.
Was I graduating and did my parents want to celebrate? Don’t bother coming, Mum and Dad, it’s just another day.
What was I thinking? If I could go back and shake myself hard, I would.
“Shout for joy!” I would urge my younger self. “Get up, put on your favorite song, jump around and dance like a wild child!”
Whatever you celebrate becomes more real to your mind. And you become more grateful for it.
6. Fast forward.
When we got married, the photographer made us pose endlessly. We were relieved when it was over. In our relief, we leaned in for a kiss.
The experienced photographer immediately clicked it.
I remember thinking, “That photo’s going to make us so happy when we’re old.”
That peek into the future made me feel even luckier in the moment.
Use every opportunity to create memories that will delight you for years. You’ll feel grateful in the moment, and grateful again that you can look forward to good memories.
7. Tell someone else when you’re particularly taken by something.
We get to see some spectacular sunsets in the summer. I just have to go to our picture window and look out over rooftops. It’s as if a great artist has splashed colors across the sky.
“Wow!” I’ll call out, spontaneously. “Come and look at this! Isn’t it stunning?”
Sharing the appreciation with someone else makes you more grateful.
8. Introduce a guest to your favorite places, people, music, food etc.
There’s a reason why you love some things so much. Somebody else might not yet appreciate those delights. In opening their eyes, you open your own eyes again and become more grateful.
I love it when visitors stay with us, partly because I get to show them around some favorite spots. There’s one place where a man-made canal crosses high over a river with an old mill, and green hillsides with sheep climb steeply skyward. I could spend hours there, just soaking it all in.
Sometimes my guests will even notice details that I missed. Their delight multiplies my own.
9. Build a bank of gratitude.
Life won’t necessarily go your way forever. If adversity strikes, it can be difficult to recall a time when you were grateful.
Build a bank of gratitude by storing notes, pictures, and other documents about what you were thankful for.
Mine includes lots of pictures of sunsets, family, travels, and nature, and notes regarding some kindness shown to me, little improvements in my health and fitness, and things I achieved. I even store some notes about difficult times that made me wiser and stronger, and about unhelpful people whose behavior inadvertently helped me in some way.
If you like to write on paper, you can choose a beautiful notebook and write in it each day. It shouldn’t be too difficult to find a few things you’re grateful for. If you get stuck, you can express thanks for being spared some undesirable things (life in a war zone, for example, or a disabling illness.)
If you prefer to write on pieces of paper, you could collect these papers in a big gratitude jar. It will delight you more than a jar of sweets delights a little child.
If life ever gets on top of you and your mind is filled with complaints, you can visit your bank of gratitude to regain a sense of perspective. Gratitude and joy need never be too far away.
10. Invite someone to be your gratitude buddy.
If your partner is a naturally grateful person, you don’t have to look far. You can encourage and coach one another in living more gratefully.
Even then, you might like to invite a trusted confidante to join you in the conscious practice of gratitude. You can make a pact to practice one or more of these tips at least once a day, and encourage each other when you slip. Sharing your practice in this way helps to make gratitude a habit and a new way of living.
I’m fortunate to have a naturally grateful partner, but I do enjoy sharing my gratitude practices with others. Then I have to live up to what I proclaim.
11. Be aware of how gratitude feels in your body.
When you regularly practice gratitude, you start to feel a kind of joy in your body. It’s like a homecoming, as if you’re relaxing into a warm bath after shivering outside in the freezing winter of complaints.
Be conscious of how your limbs, your hands, your feet, your neck, your body, your face and your gut feel when you’re expressing gratitude. Take a couple of minutes to meditate on the sensations. Enjoy the glow of gratitude and add it to your list of things you’re grateful for.
12. Widen your net of gratitude to include more people.
Did you have a favorite teacher? What was it you loved about them? What effect did they have on your life?
One of my big regrets in life is that my first music teacher died before I could properly thank him. He taught me a wonderful approach to musical composition. I use what he taught me almost every day, and music-making brings me so much joy in life.
Think of all the people who contributed to your life. Thank them, one by one. Write to them, phone them, email them, visit them, do anything that works, but be sure to thank them.
Be as detailed and as specific as you can. Show them how much you understand their good intentions and effort. Let them know exactly what their contribution means in your life.
That will make them glow. And it will make you glow.
Express gratitude to people at every opportunity. It strengthens the bonds of goodwill and connection on which we humans thrive. It allows us to be part of something bigger than ourselves, and to attempt good and important things as we join others in working for meaningful causes.
Of course, gratitude is not always appropriate. Sometimes there are very good reasons for dissatisfaction and complaint, such as in abusive relationships. Even there, a habitually grateful person can sometimes more easily find solutions because they are more warmly connected to people who can help out.
I like these simple practices because they’re relatively easy to do, yet they bring huge benefits. They’ve opened the door to a much more joyful way of living for me. I now experience much warmer relationships with my loved ones and others.
We know from neuroscience that what we do habitually can change even our brains. I used to be a champion complainer. Now I’m steadily improving at practicing gratitude.
If these practices work for me, a complainer by instinct, then they can work for anyone.
I’d love to hear what gratitude practices you’ve found useful. Let’s add to the list of practices and spread the joy. Thanks for the privilege of writing for you.