As I shared previously in my article, Gratitude: What it is and Why it Matters, gratitude has the power to transform your worldview, and in turn, your whole life can change for the better. It can lead you on the path to happiness, help you to love yourself more and improve the quality of your current relationships. Sometimes practicing gratitude is difficult due to circumstances beyond your control; that’s why I encourage you to read on for seven practical and actionable tips to help you make a change.
Being Grateful is a Choice
Did you know that being grateful and thankful for the things you have is a conscious choice? However, sometimes that’s easier said than done. According to the New York Times, “For many people, gratitude is difficult, because life is difficult. Even beyond deprivation and depression, there are many ordinary circumstances in which gratitude doesn’t come easily.”
These ordinary situations can be negative, but they can also be positive, and often as inconsequential as getting a closer parking spot, having the perfect amount of milk for your breakfast cereal or emptying your email inbox. When tasks appear hard or time consuming, it can be easier to get hung up on how annoying the task may be, rather than feeling overwhelming gratitude as soon as the task is complete. Sometimes all it takes is a change in the way you view the situation, and gratitude can come much more easily.
Gratitude is Good for Your Heart
Gratitude doesn’t just feel good; it’s good for you, too. According to Paul Mills, a professor of family medicine and public health at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, “A positive mental attitude is good for your heart. It fends off depression, stress and anxiety, which can increase the risk of heart disease.”
Mills conducted a study consisting of 186 people with varying levels of heart disease with the goal of finding out how gratitude affected the health of a person’s heart. After studying the individuals’ feelings of gratitude with the world around them, he concluded that those who feel more grateful on a daily basis had better sleep patterns, an improved mood and less damage to their heart and inflammation of the arteries. It turns out gratitude can literally mend your heart and soul.
Expressing Gratitude Changes Your Brain
In addition to improving heart function as well as reducing high blood pressure and inflammation, gratitude also has lasting effects on the structure and chemistry of your brain. A new brain imaging study published in NeuroImage found that, “Even months after a simple, short gratitude writing task, people’s brains are still wired to feel extra thankful. The implication is that gratitude tasks work, at least in part, because they have a self-perpetuating nature: The more you practice gratitude, the more attuned you are to it and the more you can enjoy its psychological benefits.” This is positive news for anyone wanting to make a lasting change in their life for the sake of happiness; the more you encourage yourself to feel grateful, the easier it becomes to do so.
7 More Tips for Expressing Gratitude
- Fake it Until You Make It
Not sure you truly feel grateful? Pretending can help! Focusing on gratitude can help anyone feel instantly happier. How does it work? Researchers found those who act happy are more likely to feel happy, giving credit to the old saying, “Fake it until you make it.” Gratitude is contagious and by leading by example, you could help impact those around you to feel happier as well.
- Keep a Running List
Things can feel more concrete when we put them down on paper; that’s why keeping a journal or running list of items you are grateful for can be so powerful. Keep track of what you’re grateful for and always thank those around you when you appreciate something they do. Often, you aren’t even sure you are thankful for something unless you see it written down, since this tactic can give life to intangible items like a pet’s love or the smell of home cooked dinner. I recommend keeping a running list so you can look back and reminisce on positive things you’ve endured; this encourages a hopeful outlook on the future and can boost your self-esteem.
Researchers at the Universities of California and Miami agree with the idea that a gratitude journal is a powerful happiness tool; according to the results from their recent study, people who kept a short weekly list of things they appreciate felt significantly more satisfied with their life after 10 weeks than those who did not. The New York Times believes, “One explanation [for this phenomenon] is that acting happy, regardless of feelings, coaxes one’s brain into processing positive emotions. In one famous 1993 experiment, researchers asked human subjects to smile forcibly for 20 seconds while tensing facial muscles, notably the muscles around the eyes…They found that this action stimulated brain activity associated with positive emotions.”
- Be Creative
You can also find positive emotions from producing creative work and exploring your creativity; there may even be a link between gratitude and creative problem solving. While you may not fancy yourself a very creative person, I believe that nearly everyone can be creative in some way! There are many small ways to feed your imagination, including:
- Identifying a muse in the form of an inspiring person, place or thing
- Ignoring the search for absolute perfection
- Surrounding yourself with nature in the form of plants, animals or water
- Putting pen to paper, no matter how uninspired you may feel
- Hanging out around people who make you feel confident
- Limiting technology when you are trying to create
- Keeping your body healthy
- Reading more often
- Being more curious and open to new experiences
- Trying new hobbies and exploring new talents
- Keeping your workspace clear and free from distractions
- Throwing the rulebook out the window; creativity can take any form you please!
- Eat Healthy Foods
Your overall health and the way your body functions internally can have a large impact on your mental state of being. Eating lots of healthy and nutritious food in the form of good proteins, leafy green vegetables and vitamin-rich fruits will not only make you feel healthier and happier on the inside and look beautiful on the outside, but it will boost your body’s immune system, reduce your risk of depression and improve your overall mood. Vegetables like spinach and kale are high in folate, which produces dopamine in the brain and makes you feel happier. When your body functions well and you feel healthy and strong, you will feel gratitude come much easier in your day to day life.
- Want What You’ve Got
Take a minute to look around you; you are probably surrounded with the essential items you need to live your life. It’s likely you’ve had your morning coffee. If you’re reading this article, you have access to a computer with internet capabilities. All of these things are regularly taken for granted, and if you decide you want them, it is easier to appreciate them. Now imagine your life without these items; it’d be harder, wouldn’t it? According to The Good Men Project, “Gratitude (and really, happiness) isn’t about getting the things you want. It’s about wanting the things you already have.” This simple change in the way you view the world can make a huge difference.
- Look at Old Photographs
Another way to feel more grateful is to appreciate and honor the past. Try looking at some old photographs, either of your family and ancestry or of yourself when you were younger. Compare how you looked and felt then to how you look and feel now. Try to remember what you had been worrying about at the time the photo was taken, and ask yourself if you are still worrying about it now. It’s likely the answer is, “No;” this can help you see how small and insignificant problems are when you look at them from another perspective.
- Believe in Mind over Matter
A saying that’s been quoted throughout generation to generation, “Mind over matter” is a mantra we hear over and over as we travel through the wonderful journey we call life. It is repeated so often because it is a universal truth. Repeat this small affirmation to yourself as many times as it takes to sink in; I believe that you can rise above any challenge. This positive way of thinking is achieved when there is a harmonious balance between your two inner selves: your mental self and your emotional self; gratitude is the key.
With these practical applications, you should begin to feel a positive difference in your mental state. Gratitude is something that can transform your life for the better; all you have to do is put it into practice. For more advice for finding happiness, check out my self-help manual, Exuberant Women Don’t Age – No Time to Waste. I also recently wrote a story about how to have hope in the most hopeless situations, At Home Among Sinners. It features a monk-priest who is faced with terrible circumstances, yet still finds a way to live with light and gratitude; read it today!