Effective gratitude practices

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A meal cooked with love, a stranger’s smile when you hold the door, or being fully present for someone you care about. These are acts of gratitude. Often not newsworthy, but if we know where to look, gratitude is everywhere. They’re felt in the magic moments of life – the warmth of sun on your skin, the colors of autumn leaves, or the melody of your favorite song.

It may sound simple, but gratitude is a powerful force that helps us appreciate life more deeply. Its ripple effect transforms not only our emotional quality of life, but also spreads to other areas of life.

How the power of gratitude benefits everyone

Gratitude is a fundamental part of human nature. It fuels our dreams and ambitions by sparking a beautiful state of mind that frees our emotional resources, giving us the energy to be fully present.

In fact, top psychological scientists have shown that grateful people tend to experience greater happiness, improved physical health, and more fulfilling relationships. As a result, these benefits can spread to other areas of life, such as better work performance, marital quality, and even income levels.

But embracing gratitude isn’t always easy. The challenge is that we have a 2-million-year-old brain that’s not designed to make us feel happy. It’s designed to help us survive, constantly looking for what’s wrong as a means to protect us. That might’ve been useful millions of years ago, but in today’s world, it often results in unnecessary fear and anger.

Two primary emotions that derail a life of gratitude

The two primary emotions that obstruct our ability to feel grateful are fear and anger. When we’re afraid, we focus on what’s wrong and anger is simply another side of fear. If not dealt with, these two can mess up your relationships, your career, your health, and ultimately your happiness.

Fortunately, you cannot feel grateful and afraid simultaneously. Likewise, you cannot feel grateful and angry simultaneously. It’s impossible because they’re completely opposite patterns of focus – one is a focus on wrong, and the other is a focus on what’s right in your life.

The truth is, fear shows up in many forms – especially in our expectations. When we expect things to be a certain way, those expectations often stem from fear – a fear of loss, a fear of not being “enough,” or the ultimate fear of not being loved.

When we expect a partner to always remember an anniversary, it might stem from a fear of losing their love. Or when we expect our kids to get straight A’s, it might stem from our own fears of being an unsuccessful parent. Similarly, when we expect ourselves to constantly perform at a peak level in our careers, it might be rooted in fears of not being enough – not smart enough, not talented enough, or not efficient enough.

So, how do we overcome fear?

By trading our expectations for appreciation. When we’re grateful, the fear disappears and a sense of abundance appears.

Gratitude practices to embrace for an extraordinary life

The human brain is incredible in its ability to rewire itself. Much like a gym workout, the brain’s emotional “muscles” grow stronger or weaker based on how much you experience each emotion.

So, to strengthen our appreciation muscles, the first step is learning how to activate gratitude through physiology and focus.

Activate the physiology of gratitude

When we feel thankful, the body releases a cascade of hormones and neurotransmitters that promote “feel-good” vibes and feelings of connection. At the anatomical level, it involves the vagus nerve – a nerve that literally connects the heart to the brain.

What’s the secret to catalyzing this physiology of gratitude?

One simple yet powerful technique is to engage in heart-centered breathing. Here’s how it’s done:

  1. Start by finding a quiet place where you won’t be distracted.
  2. Close your eyes and place both hands over your heart, physically feeling your heart.
  3. Take slow, deep breaths into this space, as if you were breathing with your heart. This sends a biochemical signal through the vagus nerve, helping to calm the nervous system.
  4. Continue breathing like this for several breaths.

When this physiology takes hold, it becomes a lot easier to shift our focus to gratitude.

Shift focus with gratitude exercises

The most powerful way to change your life is to shift focus to gratitude. This means training your brain to notice the blessings, appreciate the good, and focus on what’s right in your life.

“What’s wrong is always available but so is what’s right.” – Tony Robbins

Yet, there’s this “law of familiarity” that tends to get in the way. This law says if you’re around anything enough, it’s human nature to eventually take it for granted. So, to battle the law of familiarity, here are some powerful strategies that shift focus to gratitude:

  • Stop, Feel, and Appreciate – Take a moment to slow down and imagine three moments you could feel incredibly grateful for. Step back into each moment as if you were there right now. Allow yourself to fully feel the gratitude and let your heart (not your head) guide you.

    What’s a moment, memory, or experience you could feel grateful for? Who were you with? What did you see, hear, or feel?
  • Gratitude Letter and Visit – Think of someone who changed your life for the better that you never properly thanked. Write them a thank you letter, expressing how much you appreciate their impact on your life. Then schedule a call or visit to read it out loud to them. Although less ideal for a daily habit, this exercise is so powerful that in one study people became happier and less depressed for a full month!
  • Gratitude journal and be Specific – Clarity is power. The more specific you can be when writing what you’re thankful for, the more powerful the experience. Plus, the specificity adds variety, making it more fun while also providing deeper insights into yourself and the world around you.

When paired with physiology, these strategies can be highly effective. Remember, cultivating gratitude begins with intentional, habitual practice. To set yourself up for success, we can start by cherishing the simple joys of life.

Gratitude for the simple gifts of life

Whether it’s the sound of raindrops on the roof, the soft glow of a loved one’s gaze, or the revitalizing feel of a deep inhalation, the simple gifts of life are the easiest to be grateful for.

Consider our heart, which beats over 100,000 times a day. Its vessels, if laid end to end, would circle the earth more than twice at the equator. Such a marvel that gives us life is truly a precious gift to be grateful for.

And let’s not forget the wonders of technology. Technological advances have helped us to work more efficiently, to live better for longer, and to connect instantly with people anywhere in the world.

Regardless of what you’re grateful for, slowing down and noticing the little joys of life is an important first step to a higher quality of life.

Gratitude for gifts in disguise

Inevitably, we face obstacles that challenge our ability to be grateful. But what if every problem was a gift? What if the pain and problems were divine timing? What if every challenge we encounter, every problem we face, is an invitation? An invitation to learn, to grow, and to evolve into a stronger version of ourselves.

Problems as fuel for post traumatic growth

The truth is, problems are the fuel for growth and data on traumatic experiences supports this.

The headlines may focus on PTSD, but that’s only part of the full picture. The usual response to trauma is actually a gradual process of psychological resilience and many people also experience post-traumatic growth.

In fact, one study found that the more traumatic events a person faced, the more psychologically resilient they became. Of course, this doesn’t mean we should get into car accidents or get mugged. But it does mean there’s an incredible potential for growth that’s available to us all.

Moving from pain to purpose

So, what’s the difference between those who experience growth and those who don’t?

One key difference is they’re proactive, rather than reactive. For example, the U.S. army uses a proactive approach, teaching soldiers practical strategies to develop resilience like a daily journal of gratitude.

That said, it’s never too late to start embracing a life of gratitude – no matter how dire the circumstances. The human brain evolved through millennia of traumas, and history is filled with inspiring stories of gratitude such as Alice Herz Sommer.

Alice was a talented Jewish pianist who was sent to a concentration camp during World War II. Despite enduring the horrors of the camp, she found profound meaning in her required performances, offering solace and a brief respite to her fellow prisoners.

Alice believed in the power of music and credited her survival to her optimism and an unwavering sense of gratitude for everything in life. She held the view that optimism and gratitude, even in the face of extreme adversity, was the key to a fulfilling life. After the war, she continued her musical career and shared her inspirational story to emphasize the importance of hope, gratitude, and finding good in every situation.

The ultimate meaning for gratitude

Whether it’s a friend, a significant other, or an online community of like-minded people, the best way to magnify gratitude is to share it. Relationships amplify the human experience – and gratitude is no exception.

When you share your appreciation, you get to relive that magic moment and savor the experience. You also become a blessing to others because they can share in your joy and perhaps get inspired to focus on the good in their own life. Expressing appreciation with others and to others expands the meaning of gratitude to something greater than yourself. Ultimately, this ripple effect doesn’t just uplift your life, but also the lives of those around you.

The journey forward is now up to you. How will you invite even more gratitude into your life today? Will you start a gratitude journal or daily priming practice to slow down and truly feel it in your heart? Will you write a heartfelt gratitude letter? Or perhaps find a meaningful appreciation for a challenge you’re currently facing? Whatever it is, all of us can rise above the obstacles of life and embrace this beautiful gift of gratitude.

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