There are those moments when sunlight pierces the clouds as if in a painting, your partner unexpectedly cleans the whole house on a whim, or your computer miraculously unfreezes after what you feared was a disastrous death spiral—and a warm feeling of gratitude pours over you. If you didn’t have next-door neighbors, you’d toss open the shutters and start singing like Maria on an Austrian hilltop.
Then there are most days. You know, the ones when you are laser-focused on prepping for your big work meeting or your endless to-do list or an upcoming holiday gathering, and you simply don’t think to pause and appreciate all the wonderful things and people that surround you. You’re in no mood to sing. In fact, you kind of have a headache. Thankfulness has pretty much disappeared from your daily routine, and that’s unfortunate. Because practicing gratitude isn’t just about manners—it’s an important and effective form of self-care.
“Gratitude is a powerful way to boost well-being,” says Amie Gordon, PhD, a research scientist at the University of California, San Francisco. A growing body of research links regular doses of gratitude to better sleep, greater happiness, and possibly even lower blood pressure. “And the times when it feels hardest to practice gratitude? That may be when you get the most out of it,” she says.
Robert Emmons, PhD, a leading expert on the science of gratitude, defines it as an awareness and appreciation for the goodness in our lives. It happens when we recognize the source of good as outside ourselves—say, Aunt Jean, who made you the cozy socks, or Mother Nature, who provided the dazzling night sky. Because it is “other-focused,” gratitude can also act as “emotional spackle” in relationships. When you acknowledge your spouse for that emergency dry-cleaning run, your exchange may bring you closer.
We’ll show you how to incorporate this emotion into your everyday life a bit more.
How to Overcome Instinct
If your glass often seems half empty (and, er, chipped), cut yourself a break. Some experts say that humans evolved to be on high alert for bad things. Our caveman predecessors who scanned the horizon for the sabertooth instead of stopping to smell the wildflowers had the right idea: They survived to reproduce. Today the threats are different (“Help! Why is the dishwasher making that weird sound?!”), but looking out for potential problems may still be our default, forcing life’s blessings to fade into the background.
Gratitude is also tricky because most of us have a natural tendency to adapt swiftly to changing circumstances. This works to our benefit when terrible things happen. For example, you might think the world has ended when you file for divorce, but a year or two later, most people rate themselves at their pre-split level of happiness. (Scientists call this hedonic adaptation.) Alas, we get used to positive changes quickly, too—and that means we often take them for granted. “When I moved into my new house, I felt so grateful to live there! I thought the hardwood floors were gorgeous and the windows let in so much light,” recalls Gordon. “But within months, I was complaining the floors squeaked and the windows were cold in the winter.” And our modern world presents plenty of other obstacles. “Gratitude requires pausing and soaking in the things around you in a mindful way,” says Christine Carter, PhD, author of The Sweet Spot: How to Accomplish More by Doing Less. “But constant busyness has become our culture’s default mode. We don’t make time for the stillness gratitude requires.”
But here’s some insight to be thankful for: Understanding these obstacles is the first step to finding workarounds to make a gratitude practice stick. You don’t need to carve out special time. (Hey, it’s hard enough to get to the gym and take your vitamins.) According to Emmons, the best way to practice gratitude is to integrate it into your everyday. In time, it will become a habit.
“Think of yourself as a curator of your own moments of joy,” says writer A.J. Jacobs, whose book on gratitude, Thanks a Thousand: A Gratitude Journey, is out this month. “Your goal is to collect the good stuff.”
Appreciate Your Blessings
Ready to feel grateful? Experts share surprisingly simple tactics to get you saying thanks—and meaning it—today.
Acknowledge your “invisible” helpers.
While writing his book, Jacobs traveled the world to thank everyone involved in the creation of his morning cup of coffee—the lid designer, the bean growers. “It can take hundreds of people for one thing to happen in our lives. You totally take them for granted,” he says. Practice a less ambitious version close to home. “If you are picking up your turkey at the farmers’ market, take 10 seconds to look the farmer in the eye and tell her how much you’ve enjoyed her turkeys over the years. It will make her day, and it will make you feel happier. That’s a pretty good deal for your 10 seconds,” says Jacobs.
Try out new words.
Even if you mean it sincerely, saying “Thanks” can come off as nothing more than a reflex, to you and the person you appreciate. Mixing up your phrasing gets you out of “robot mode,” Jacobs found. “To thank my wife one day, I said, ‘I just want you to know I am deeply grateful that you took Lucas to the orthodontist today.’ She was impressed.” His other faves: “I can’t tell you how much it means to me.” “I just want to let you know how much I appreciate…” It can jolt people into feeling the sentiment.
Make a list.
Intentionally looking for the positive can help you rewrite your brain’s negativity bias. Rachel Fintzy Woods, a psychotherapist in Santa Monica, California, keeps a running tally of 10 things she feels grateful for every day. She puts it in an email draft, but if you are interested in a more structured gratitude practice, try a written journal. It helps to keep things fresh: “Unless you really feel that way each morning, you can’t continue dashing off ‘I am grateful for my morning tea’ and get as much benefit,” says Gordon. To keep the ideas coming, create time for experiences that make you feel awe: a walk in a majestic forest, listening to a new piece of music. Or use preexisting pauses in your schedule to count your blessings. “Make it a practice you automatically associate with a time of day, like when you wait in line at school pickup or in the shower,” suggests Carter.
Use all your senses.
When you not only look but also touch, smell, listen, or taste, you can’t help but slow down and appreciate your surroundings. Barbara Greenberg, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Fairfield County, Connecticut, intentionally engages multiple senses when she tends to her houseplants. “I have 50 of them, and first thing each morning, I walk around and look at each one. Then I smell them, touch them, maybe take a picture to capture a beautiful moment. I’m so grateful when I get to see one blooming,” she says.
Accept the bad, then move forward.
You don’t have to be blissed-out to feel gratitude, says Carter. Life is complicated: You might be waiting forever. Simply acknowledge that you’re peeved (“Ugh, he left his boxers on the bathroom floor…again.”), and then try to redirect your attention to something you would miss if the person or place that’s bugging you were not in your life. (“No more spooning sessions in the middle of the night? OK, I’ll keep him.”)
Write a gushy email.
Penning a letter of gratitude to someone who has affected your life in a positive way can boost your happiness, research shows. And it’s a twofer. The recipient of your note feels good as well. So what holds people back? “Senders believe receiving a letter like this might feel uncomfortable or awkward for the person they are writing to. They also underestimate how much it would be appreciated,” says Amit Kumar, PhD, a professor of marketing at the University of Texas at Austin, who examined the question in a 2018 study in the journal Psychological Science. These were just emails (no quill pen and parchment required), but they still had a big impact. So go ahead and write that warm note to the violin teacher who always encouraged you. You’ll both feel happy about it.
Here’s the science on how gratitude could do us good.
Just two weeks of keeping a gratitude diary with three exercises per week led to a boost in sleep quality, per a 2015 study in Journal of Health Psychology. Increased optimism and positivity may have helped people sleep easier.
Make a gratitude list the next time you have to wait. In a study at Northeastern University, subjects asked to recall something they appreciated were better able to delay gratification.
In one study, couples were instructed to express their appreciation for each other in four to six talk sessions. At the end of the study, they rated their relationships as stronger than those who used the time to chat about their day.
A study in The Journal of Positive Psychology asked subjects to spend a week recalling and writing about three things that had made them feel grateful or three things that made them feel pride. Afterward, the blessing counters rated themselves as happier than the prideful.
Subjects who were primed to feel grateful by having a disguised researcher fix their computer glitch were more likely to help strangers afterward.