How to Practice Gratitude

“I live in the space of thankfulness—and for that, I have been rewarded a million times over. I started out giving thanks for small things, and the more thankful I became, the more my bounty increased. That’s because—for sure—what you focus on expands.”

—Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey isn’t the only one preaching the power of gratitude. Everyone from the Dalai Lama to Harvard neuroscientists agree that practicing gratitude can make you happier. Why? Because consciously appreciating the good things in life, instead of obsessing about the negative ones, can increase feelings of contentment and optimism. That optimism feeds motivation, which can lead to better life outcomes, like a more successful career or stronger relationships.

But gratitude doesn’t always come easy. We all face challenges, both mundane (a soul-crushing commute) and life-altering (a death in the family), that beg the question: “Am I really supposed to be grateful for this?” Well, not exactly. But if you develop an attitude of gratitude—with your eye firmly fixed on the full half of the glass—you’ll reap the benefits. Here’s how.

SAY THANK YOU—IN WRITING 

Saying thank you is more than just good manners. In fact, one study found that people work harder if their managers thank them. If someone has done something especially nice for you recently—like watering the plants while you’re on vacation—take it up a notch and send an actual thank-you note. Simply writing it will make you feel good by magnifying positive emotions. Sharing it will make the relationship stronger, spreading good vibes all around.

To really max out the gratitude factor, write a letter to someone from your past who still needs a proper thank-you. It could be an inspiring teacher, a kind neighbor or an ex-roommate with whom you share fond memories. A study inspired in part by the teachings of Dr. Martin Seligman, a pioneer of positive psychology, showed that people who regularly wrote gratitude letters reported feeling happier over an extended period of time.  

KEEP A GRATITUDE JOURNAL

At the end of every day, write down three things you’re grateful for. It can be something major, like getting a promotion, or something as simple as a sunny day. Committing to this simple act can promote heightened well-being, feeding an upward spiral of optimism.

Dr. Seligman has a twist on this exercise that can be even more powerful, especially if you’re in a rough patch and having a hard time finding the good. Write down three things that went well, then describe why they went well. For instance, maybe your new boss is abnormally difficult. But if today’s status meeting went a teensy bit better than usual, analyze why. This can make the next one even better, helping you to bridge the gap from challenge to opportunity to genuine gratitude.

PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT

There’s a reason they call it “practicing gratitude.” Because we’re biologically hardwired to remain hyper-sensitive to threats, feeling gratitude isn’t something that necessarily comes naturally to most human beings. That means it’s up to us to flip the script and make those rose-colored glasses our standard. The good news? Once you start, the positive payoff will make it easy to keep the momentum going. That’s something to be grateful for.