5 Ways to Practice Gratitude After a Tough Year

Practice Gratitude

For many people around the world, it’s probably an understatement that the past 18 to 20 months have been challenging. Many of the changes had us focusing more on ourselves. As we social distanced, we may have felt isolated and alone. Self-care has been vitally important during this time. Yet during difficult times, it’s even more important to think of others, and one of the best ways to do so is to practice gratitude.

Of course, this is the time of year when many people in this country are thinking about gratitude. It’s the holiday season, after all.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Thanksgiving holiday was born out of bad times: the first Thanksgiving was celebrated after nearly half the pilgrims had died from cold and starvation during a very rough year. The celebration didn’t become a national holiday until 1863, during the middle of the Civil War. And the current day celebrated wasn’t set until the 1930s, during the Great Depression. In other words, Thanksgiving is about being grateful even when things are looking pretty bleak.

Gratitude is a powerful force all of the time. But in times of struggle, it can be that much more potent and transforming, essential even. This is because gratitude helps us better:

  • Cope with challenging, uncomfortable, and even traumatic events
  • Regulate emotions, including negative ones
  • Energize and motivate us when faced with difficult odds
  • Improve well-being
  • Deal with stress
  • Reduce aggression
  • Improve sleep
  • Enhance resilience
  • Better notice and fully experience the positive events in our lives, which then helps us get even better at noticing all of the potential opportunities to be grateful for (in other words, being thankful is habit-forming)
  • Increases feelings of engagement and satisfaction with our work and lives
  • Make new friends
  • Promote empathy
  • Improve physical as well as mental health
  • Provide meaningful impact in our lives as well as in the lives of our friends, family, coworkers, and community for greater social connection
  • Heal, even when we feel broken

So, learning how to practice gratitude is well worth the effort.

That doesn’t make it easy, though. During a crisis like losing a job, a loved one, your health, or when things are just going poorly, feeling grateful can feel nearly impossible.

That’s why it can help to separate feeling grateful from being grateful. Even in the best of times, it’s not always easy to control emotions. And when things are tough, controlling emotions is that much more difficult. Despite what some bumper stickers tell us, we typically can’t just decide to feel grateful, happy, or less stressed when disaster strikes.

We can, however, change our thoughts, and feelings often follow our thoughts. In other words, we can choose to be grateful, even if we don’t feel that way (yet).

Here are some steps you can take to be more grateful, starting today:

5 Ways to Practice Gratitude

1. Write It Down

Sometimes, it can feel difficult to find something new to be thankful for every day, so if you have a daily practice, which is highly recommended, try giving yourself gratitude writing prompts. For example:

  • Who are three people you are grateful for in your life today and why?
  • What are three things you did yesterday that you’re grateful for and why?
  • What are three things you saw yesterday that provided a sense of awe and how?
  • List three things that made you laugh or smile this week
  • List three places you love to spend time and why
  • List three ways you’ve helped others in the past week and how that makes you feel
  • What new skills have you learned or improved in the last week or month?

Choose just three things to be grateful for every day to practice gratitude in your own life. Avoid letting this become a chore and instead allow it to become a meaningful and mindful experience. One way to do this is to dig into the details and really get specific. For example, instead of saying, “I’m grateful for this sunny day,” say, “I’m grateful for this sunny day because of the way the sun warms my bones and improves my mood as I take my afternoon walk.” Or “I’m grateful for this sunny day because the way the light filters through the trees is magical and stirs my imagination and creativity.”

It may be even more beneficial to pick just one thing you’re grateful for but write down three to five reasons why. The dividends of the gratitude journal are often in the details.

And if you’re still having a hard time finding things to be grateful for, consider creating them. That is, seek out new experiences to improve your health, relationships, or environment.

2. Share Your Gratitude

In addition to writing down what you’re grateful for, sharing it with a friend, family member, coworker, or even on social media is a fun way to spread gratitude to those around you.

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3. Appreciate Others

Pick one person in your life and pick up the phone, get on a video chat, or simply send a text or message and let them know you’re grateful they’re in your life and why.

4. Show Your Gratitude

Gratitude isn’t just about words or thoughts; it’s also about action. What’s one small way you can help someone in your life? Pay attention to the people around you to see what you can do to make their task or day a little easier, with no expectation of something in return.

5. Rinse and Repeat

Every day, take just a few moments to reflect on how much you have to be grateful for, and do your best to commit to at least one gratitude action every week.

Benefits of Being More Grateful

Gratitude helps shift our focus from what’s wrong with the world around us to what’s right. It can help shift workplace and even family dynamics from being competitive to being more collaborative. It can help us transform actions from being more transactional (you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours), to being more focused on long-term relationships. It can help us step back from all the little things bombarding us to see the bigger picture.

And practicing gratitude during challenging times also helps deepen appreciation in the future by helping us learn not to take things for granted.

In fact, remembering the bad—the sorrows, losses, sadness, and grief—can help us become more resilient in the future as we look for the positives and realize that we made it through to the other side. We got past the crisis, through the trauma, and we survived and perhaps came out even better in the end. Remembering the positives of a harrowing experience has also been shown to help decrease the emotional impact and promote closure.

You may not realize it yet, but you have a 100% success rate at enduring and surviving what you’ve been through. At your lowest points, you’ve taken lessons into the next phase of life. And at the highest points, you’ve received countless blessings.

Gratitude can transform challenges into opportunities and setbacks into comebacks. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a theologian and Lutheran pastor, “Gratitude changes the pangs of memory into tranquil joy.”

We’re so grateful for you!