When someone tells you to be grateful as the world burns, you might want to roll your eyes: How could anyone feel grateful amid so much tragedy and turmoil?
But it’s all about your perception. “You don’t have to find the upside of coronavirus or racial disparity or forest fires,” says psychologist Ryan Howes, Ph.D. “You only need to find a few things that you appreciate despite those external stressors.”
In fact, this approach is critical, especially in troubled times: Research has found that gratitude can have various benefits for our wellbeing.
According to a 2017 meta-analysis, practicing gratitude may lead to improvements in happiness, life satisfaction, optimism, and depression. Grateful people report fewer health problems, such as headaches and respiratory infections. They also report falling asleep faster, sleeping longer, and having better sleep quality. Even though gratitude is good for us, it’s still challenging to practice, especially right now. This is why it’s important to find what resonates with you. These seven realistic suggestions can help you get started.
1. Don’t Focus on Feeling Grateful
There’s a common misconception that you have to feel grateful in order to be grateful. According to neuroscientist and coach Alexander Korb, Ph.D., “You can’t control your feelings, and focusing on feeling grateful will often make you feel ungrateful.”
What’s more helpful is to acknowledge the positive parts of your life, says Korb. “As you practice directing your focus and actions towards the things you’re grateful for, the feelings will follow eventually.”
2. Acknowledge the Awful
Gratitude doesn’t turn a blind eye to heartbreak. You can both honor your pain and highlight a positive sliver. In challenging times, Sophia Godkin, Ph.D., a health psychologist and author of “The 5-Minute Gratitude Journal,” suggests completing this sentence: “I don’t like that ___________ but the fact that __________ isn’t all that bad.”
For example, you might say: “I don’t like that we can’t be with family on Thanksgiving this year because of the pandemic, but the fact that we can connect on Zoom and that we’re going horseback riding with friends the day before isn’t all that bad.” Again, because some things might not have an upside, don’t force yourself to come up with one. Instead, try shifting to finding opportunities or benefits in a different challenge.
3. Stack Your Gratitude
Creating any new habit—no matter how small—is hard, especially around the holiday season when it seems like there’s already so much to do. The key, says Howes, is to add a mini gratitude ritual to an existing solid habit.
You might reflect on three good things as you’re brushing your teeth, washing your hands, drinking a morning cup of coffee, or turning on your car. Known as habit stacking, adding a new practice to an already established habit boosts your chances of actually sticking to it every day.
4. Think Small
We often think that gratitude requires appreciating massive things like a vacation, a new job, or a big bonus. But, as Howes notes, “you can feel grateful for a nice warm shower, a perfectly ripe banana, green lights on the way to work, or a decent cup of coffee.”
Indeed, it’s helpful to start your gratitude practice with the basics, such as giving thanks for food, electricity, and clean water, says Lisa M. Brown, Ph.D., director of the Trauma Program and the Risk and Resilience Research Lab at Palo Alto University.
5. Look for Signs of Hope
Even when life seems bleak, there is hope, compassion, and love—if we look for it. With fires raging nearby, Brown noticed that her neighbors were still working on their homes and tending to their gardens, for example.
As you move about your day, look for signs of hope in your own community. Seek out hopeful stories online and jot down the inspiring, uplifting things you find.
6. Give Thanks for Others
Expressing your gratitude can boost your mood—and your relationships. One study found that participants who penned and delivered a gratitude letter to another person felt happier and less depressed. Another study found that on days that participants felt more grateful for their partners, they were more thoughtful and responsive to their needs.
When expressing your appreciation, it’s important to be specific with your kind words, writes Jeremy Adam Smith in “The Gratitude Project.” This might sound like: Thank you for listening to me vent about work today. I’m so grateful for our weekly lunch dates.
So, text your best friend, compose a quick thank-you note to a loved one, or tell your roommate what you appreciate about them.
7. Savor a Sweet Memory
Reflecting on positive memories can help us to re-experience those positive emotions in the present moment, according to research. Other research has found that happy memories can boost the production of serotonin in the brain, helping foster positive emotions.
To harness these effects, Korb suggests thinking about your favorite moment from the past few months—anything from a fun activity to a connection-building conversation. Use your senses to re-experience the memory.
Practicing gratitude right now might feel unnatural and inauthentic. But when we look around, we notice the genuine good that does exist—whether it’s a hot bowl of soup, a kind gesture, or a neighbor watering their marigolds.