(NEW YORK) — Nearly every piece of advice these days for finding happiness includes something about gratitude, including everything from saying three things you’re thankful for each day to keeping a gratitude journal.
The advice is sound — research shows gratitude makes us happier, healthier people — but actually practicing gratitude is the bigger hurdle.
The good news, experts say, is there are easy ways to improve.
“We used to think you inherit optimism and pessimism, so some people will be better than others at gratitude,” explained Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage and a positive psychology expert. “But we now know you can train your brain to see more positives in the same way you train your body to swing a golf club.”
With Thanksgiving quickly approaching, there is no better time than now to make gratitude a part of your daily life.
Starting to train your gratitude muscle now means that at Thanksgiving, you’ll be able to look past the burned turkey or the negative family member to see the moments that bring you joy, Achor explained.
Here are the why’s and how’s of practicing gratitude, just in time for the holidays.
How can gratitude help me?
Gratitude is the brain’s ability to find meaning in whatever environment you find yourself, Achor said.
To make gratitude a habit, it helps to understand what a positive impact it can have on your well-being.
“Your life is what you focus on, so focusing on gratitude means living with a grateful heart,” said Rachel Hollis, author of the New York Times best-seller Girl, Wash Your Face. “It’s about being intentional with your time and your thoughts so you can focus in on the blessings in your life.”
Practicing gratitude can reduce stress, reduce depression, reduce symptoms of physical illness and just make you an all-around happier person, research shows.
“Gratitude deepens your connection to others and strengthens your relationships,” said Gabrielle Bernstein, bestselling author of The Universe Has Your Back. “When you embrace an energy of gratitude, people will want to spend more time with you and support you.”
Does it matter what I’m grateful for?
The short answer, according to experts, is yes.
“Most people believe that they are very grateful, but then can only think of the obvious things, like, ‘I’m grateful for this family member or my job,'” Achor said. “But what really makes someone grateful, in my research, is the ability to scan for multiple, varied and non-obvious things, even in the midst of stress or change.”
In other words, practicing real gratitude takes digging a bit below the surface.
Instead of saying you are grateful for your job or your son, think of why you are grateful for your job and why you are grateful for your son.
“It’s not what you’re grateful for that matters, it’s why,” Achor said.
So how do I practice gratitude?
Be intentional about noticing what you are grateful for all around you as you move through the day, experts say.
To make it even more powerful, take time each day to write down the things for which you are grateful.
Write your list in the morning or the evening, or both. Both have benefits, according to experts, but the more important thing is that you write it.
If you struggle to find what you’re grateful for, try these tips:
Focus on little moments: “I tell people to look for little moments: a great cup of coffee, your 5-year-old telling you a joke, someone letting you into rush hour traffic on the freeway,” said Hollis. “It helps you to appreciate today.”
Think of gratitude like you think of a noun: “Focus on a person you’re really appreciative of today, like your partner or your parent,” recommends Hollis. “Then focus on a place — your favorite chair or your cozy bed. Imagine yourself there. See it in detail. Lastly, focus on a thing, like your favorite sweater.”
Send a note to a family member, friend or colleague: Bernstein recommends using the Thanksgiving season to write a letter to a family member or a friend to let them know why you’re grateful for them. On a daily basis, sending just a quick email of thanks and appreciation each day to someone will have a positive impact on you, not to mention the recipient.
How do I include my family?
Including friends and family members in your gratitude practice not only makes it more fun, but more effective, Achor said.
Here are his three tips, in his own words:
1. Create a gratitude jar that you have everyone in your family add one or two things that they are grateful for from over the past year. Then read them as a family, and remind them again of them at New Year’s.
2. Create a digital photo album of the past year showing all the things you have to be grateful for. Then watch it as a family.
3. Do something collaborative with family, even putting together a puzzle or a game of touch football or your own Macy’s parade with your kids with balloon blimps.
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