Start a Gratitude Practice and Find Your Happy Place!

Gratitude Practice

People who practice gratitude are happier.

Well of course they are!, you might be thinking. Happy people are grateful simply because they’re SHINY HAPPY PEOPLE who HAVE EVERYTHING THEY NEED and gratitude just oozes out of their pores along with their sweat-that-doesn’t-stink at their beautiful local gym that they always make it to three times a week because they’re SO HAPPY that they’d never just sit at home at eat Oreos and play Candy Crush—

Um, I mean, you might be thinking, Well, that’s just pure correlation. Happy people are grateful because they’re happy with their lives. It doesn’t mean gratitude causes happiness. Or something else less snarky and more scientific.

But there actually is scientific research that goes beyond correlational studies and demonstrates a causal link between gratitude and happiness. In one study, researchers asked three groups of participants to write a few sentences each week, about different topics. One group wrote down the things they were grateful for, one group wrote down things that had displeased them during the week, and the third group wrote about things that had affected them, with no instruction whether the events should be positive or negative.

Researchers Emmons and McCollough found that after 10 weeks, “those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Surprisingly, they also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on sources of aggravation.”

Thank You is a Prayer

Another study by Martin Seligman asked participants to write, and deliver, a letter to someone whom they had never properly thanked. These participants experienced an immediate boost in happiness, and were still happier a month later, compared to control groups who had simply written about an early memory.

It’s not mere correlation — practicing gratitude can make you happier! 

And a gratitude practice can be relatively simple to integrate into your life. Read through the following suggestions (you don’t have to do all of them!) and choose the ones that work for you.

Start Your Gratitude Practice

1. Count your blessings. Psychologist Mark Williams recommends the “ten finger gratitude exercise” — each night, you count out on your fingers 10 things you are grateful for. Ten might seem hard at first, but this exercise forces you to think beyond the obvious things like your family, your home, and your health, and to consider the little things — like warm coffee and comfy shoes and pretty nail polish.

2. Keep a journal. Write down your three or five or ten things you are grateful for each day in a journal. Arianna Huffington describes this practice in her book Thrive, and cites researchers at the Universities of Minnesota and Florida who found that participants who wrote down the things that made them happy each day — and why — “lowered their self-reported stress levels and [had] a greater sense of calm at night.” 

3. Make it a family practice. Each night at dinner, we go around and take turns sharing what we are thankful for. I love this practice and the beautiful things my children share with us each day.

4. Start a “Smile File.” In my first year of teaching, one of the best pieces of advice I received was to create a “Smile” file. Any time I received a thank-you note or a kind evaluation from a student or parent, I put it in the file. On the days when teaching was overwhelming, frustrating, and driving me to tears {it’s happened!}, I would reach for notes in the folder as a reminder of how grateful I was for my vocation.

Smile File
My Smile File in my desk at work

We can also do this with our notes and art projects from our kids. I have a “memory box” for each of my children {it sounds really fancy, but they’re just plastic storage bins from Target}. They are filled with memories ~ the outfits they came home from the hospital in, candles from first birthday cakes, and lots of art projects. Just looking through the bins brings smiles and gratitude.

5. Practice even when it’s hard. Sometimes, it’s really easy to be grateful. And other days, it’s REALLY HARD. On those days, practicing gratitude may feel overwhelming, or even superficial. But those are the days we need it most. Here are the things I do on the days when gratitude doesn’t come easily:

  • I look through my Smile File.
  • I scroll through the pictures on my phone. Seeing the smiles of my children, selfies with my friends, gorgeous sunsets and clouds, and anything else I thought beautiful enough to capture in megapixels reminds me of the amazing things in my life.
  • I ask my children what they are thankful for. They’re a lot better than we are at appreciating the little things. Just asking my kids right now to tell me what they are thankful for produced the following list: “hot dogs, pretty flowers, my friend, and my butt.” How can that not make you smile?
  • I reread the previous entries in my gratitude journal.
  • I accept that gratitude is hard sometimes. There are many times I’ve simply written in my journal, “Tomorrow will be better” or “Tomorrow I’ll be better.” It makes me grateful for another day and for second chances.

6. Cultivate wonder. In many ways, gratitude is about seeing the world in new ways, in finding the extraordinary in the ordinary. In Thrive, Arianna Huffington tells the following story of heading to the airport in Munich last year:

“It was raining, which gave everything a beautiful, almost magical shimmer. All the buildings and trees seem wrapped in wonder. Yet when I arrived at the airport, everyone I talked to was complaining about the rain.”

It’s about changing our perspective, from one of “I’ve seen it all before,” to one of wonder. Huffington calls upon us to appreciate coincidence, whether we see it as divinely orchestrated or as a mathematical probability:

“[C]oincidences … serve as sporadic reminders to maintain our sense of wonder, to stop every now and again and allow ourselves to be fully present in the moment and open to life’s mystery. They’re a sort of forced reboot.” – Arianna Huffington, in Thrive

Life is a miracle

Gratitude is NOT Just an Attitude

The most important thing to remember about gratitude is that, despite the catchy rhyme, it is NOT an attitude. Brene Brown reminds us of this in The Gifts of Imperfection. She writes, “I have a yoga attitude. The ideals and beliefs that guide my life are very in line with the ideas and beliefs that I associate with yoga…. I even have yoga outfits.” But she doesn’t do yoga. Clearly, it’s not the same thing.

Just telling yourself you’re going to be grateful isn’t the same thing as practicing gratitude. Luckily, there’s an abundant world out there just waiting for us to notice and appreciate it

And when we do, we’re cultivating a mindful, joyful, and thoughtful life.

Sarah Rudell Beach
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Sarah Rudell Beach

Sarah is a writer, teacher, and mother. At Left Brain Buddha, she writes about her journey to live and parent mindfully, joyfully, and thought-fully in her left-brain analytical life. When not working, she enjoys dancing, reading, and hanging out with her little Buddhas.
Sarah Rudell Beach
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  1. says

    Love this post – so, so true! I’ve gone through phases – some short, some long – of practicing gratitude, and every time I’ve gone back to it, I see an almost immediate difference in my outlook. It turns out that when you look for good things, you can find them! Love the smile file – what a good idea.
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