Gratitude means appreciating what is valuable and meaningful to you. It’s the opposite of entitlement, which refers to a belief that you have earned or are owed good things. Gratitude is the sense that others, the universe, or a higher power have granted you something good—and you are fortunate to have received that blessing. Gratitude has been studied in a variety of ways over many decades.
Gratitude protects against negative emotions, such as depression and anger, and against toxic emotions, such as entitlement, resentment, revenge, cynicism, and hatred. In a nutshell, gratitude is the “mother skill” that leads to resilience, grit, hope, and healthy relationships. Kindness is an external action. It’s what you do or say to others. Gratitude is a reaction to something felt internally, that may or may not be shared with others. I believe experiencing gratitude is much more meaningful than parroting gratitude from a place of obligation or seasonal reminders. Telling yourself that other people have it worse will likely not make you feel better. But keeping situations in perspective may help the balance. When more attention and validation is given to the negative aspects of our lives or situations, then hopelessness follows.
The first step to living a life of gratitude is appreciation for the people, situations, or experiences that surround you. Showing gratitude does not have to be costly. Words of affirmation and acts of service can go a long way. Ways to incorporate more gratitude in your life include keeping a gratitude journal to write down your thoughts, goals, and experiences. Or you can write a gratitude letter to yourself or to someone else expressing your thoughts and feelings.
For example, you may write something like, “I am so grateful for the lovely colors of the fall leaves, especially the bright reds, and how it makes a gray time of the year beautiful and fascinating. I am blessed to be able to experience this.”
Gratitude should evolve like breathing—something necessary and natural. As you begin to live your life with an awareness of gratitude, it becomes less a “check mark” activity, and more your everyday essence in action. As we experience positive emotions such as gratitude, loving, kindness, and compassion, our awareness broadens. Our creativity and problem-solving capacities blossom, and we become more effective in whatever we choose to do. It’s almost impossible to feel anxious and grateful at the same time. So when you start to notice your mind wandering toward worry, adjust your lens. Switch to focusing on people, circumstances, or things for which you are grateful, and watch your mood improve. It’s also a great practice before falling asleep each night.
Similar to the goals of gratitude, meditation is a mental exercise to increase awareness of the present moment. All meditation really is, is redirected attention. Instead of allowing the mind to wander and think of anything, meditation brings the mind’s attention to our breath, an object, or a mantra. Traditional meditation focuses on breathing and a repeated mantra—a sound, word, or phrase. The process can be adapted to a focus on gratitude as well. You can use ‘thank you’ or ‘I am grateful’ as a mantra meditation. Different meditations affect different parts of the brain. Hartley says gratitude meditation affects the prefrontal cortex, which aids thinking and decision making.
Many people still remain in “grief recovery” after months of pandemic challenges. After losing jobs, loved ones, or emotional connections, some may find it hard to find reasons to be thankful. But this is where the practice of gratitude is most needed—and beneficial. No matter what the scenario, there is always room to find the good and give it value. Allow yourself to find value in the seemingly smallest of things.