Some people reflexively resist any activity that sounds like a high school writing assignment or the kind of thing Oprah would do (and she does).
Others are initially drawn to the idea of a gratitude diary, but quickly lose interest. “Many find the act of daily journaling hard to stick with,” says Jasmine Aranda, LPC, LAC, clinical director at The Foundry, an addiction treatment center in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.
If you're interested in nurturing your capacity for gratitude but prefer not to journal, you're in luck. There are other ways to cultivate gratitude, some of which may work out better for you.
Why bother? The list of benefits attributed to bolstering gratitude is lengthy—and growing longer.
In numerous studies, volunteers have been asked to write freely about experiences that inspired their gratitude or to make lists of things they were grateful for. The goal was to increase their focus on and appreciation of the positive aspects of life. And that, it was believed, would be good for their minds and bodies. In general, the results have borne out this belief.
For example, a study published last year in Psychosomatic Medicine was one of the first to look at objective measures of physical health, rather than subjective self-reports. The study included 70 older adults with Stage B heart failure. At this stage, there are structural abnormalities in the heart, but people are not yet experiencing symptoms. Those with Stage B disease are at risk for progressing to symptomatic heart failure, which may affect their activities and eventually shorten their lives.
In the study, half of the participants were randomly assigned to keep a daily gratitude journal, in which they were asked to record three to five things for which they were grateful each day. This group showed greater signs of improved heart health (such as reduced inflammation and increased heart rate variability), compared to the group that didn’t journal.
Other research has shown that the benefits of cultivating gratitude may include:
But what if keeping a gratitude journal doesn’t appeal to you or isn't something you stick with for long? Recently, I asked several mental health professionals to suggest other ways of fostering gratitude. Below are some of their favorite methods along with one of my own.
Greet each day with an appreciative frame of mind. “The moment I wake up, when I am sure that I’m awake but before my eyes are actually open, I make sure to silently express gratitude for the sleep I got (I have two kids under age three), for the day ahead, and for anything else I wish to be thankful for,” says Alena Gerst, LCSW, RYT, a psychotherapist and therapeutic yoga instructor in New York City. “Consciously acknowledging gratitude first thing in the morning sets the tone for me to be aware of everything for which I’m grateful throughout the day.”
If you’re reluctant to write but otherwise like the idea of a regular gratitude practice, consider keeping a photo or video diary instead. Personally, because I work as a full-time writer, the last thing I want to do in my off-hours is write even more. But I love snapping photos of everyday moments that catch my eye. It’s a simple matter to copy some of those image files into a “things I’m grateful for” album. At the end of a tough day, browsing the photos there never fails to lift my spirits.
Some people who are turned off by private journaling find it more natural or rewarding to share their gratitude on social media. Just be sure you’re proclaiming your thankfulness in front of an audience for the right reasons. Two touchstones to keep in mind:
A 5- to 10-minute meditation can focus your attention on grateful thoughts and feelings. The gratitude meditation below comes from Paulette Kouffman Sherman, Psy.D., a psychologist in New York City and author of The Book of Sacred Baths:
“Close your eyes, and take a several deep breaths in and out. Imagine all stress and negativity flowing out through your feet. Then focus your intention on being grateful. Begin by calling up an image of something or someone in your life you are grateful for. Imagine the joy they bring to your life. Then think of other things, little and bigger, that you appreciate, from cannoli or a comfy bed to your wonderful children or a job you love. Imagine the love in your heart expanding as you realize what wonderful things and people you have in your life. Finally, thank yourself silently for making the time to remember your blessings. Anchor in all those feelings, and open your eyes.”
In many families, it’s a Thanksgiving tradition to go around the dinner table and have each person name something he or she is thankful for. But families don’t have to wait for the holidays to use this strategy. “Weekly family dinners are a great time to do so, but you can also [incorporate it into] a family hike or a long drive in the car,” Aranda says. “It’s best not to make it a formal occasion but rather a seamless addition to something you already do together.”
Finally, don't forget to say "thank you" for kindness or courtesy shown by others. "There is a certain power to speaking your feelings out loud," says Aranda.