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Two Surefire Gratitude Hacks

How do we find the good when we feel bad?

Ryan McGuire/Gratisography
Source: Ryan McGuire/Gratisography

Having the attitude of gratitude is easy when I’m on top of my game and firing on all my ‘holy-I-feel-fortunate-cylinders.’ But what happens when we’re having a string of stressed out days or struggling with anxiety, depression? The holidays can especially spark grief and family conflict. So when dealing with those elements, how do we access a sense of gratefulness?

That’s when I get snarky, cynical, and all ‘screw-those-crummy-rainbows-pink-unicorns-and-new-age-slogans-let’s-get-practical!’ Being aware that ‘what we focus on grows,’ while having a shitty day and being unable to excavate a thankful thought, can pile on the guilt, fear, and shitty-ness even more.

Problem is (or maybe not), there really is something to cultivating “the attitude of gratitude.” Research confirms it. Gratitude makes for a happy and literally healthier heart. Scientists have found the benefits of practicing gratitude include lower blood pressure, more frequent exercising, better quality sleep, increased levels of positive emotions, and feeling less lonely and isolated.1

Positive psychology researchers discovered that even a one-time act of gratitude resulted in a immediate 10% ‘happiness’ increase. They also found that those results faded within 3 to 6 months – indicating gratitude needs to be a daily habit.2

The following are my two surefire gratitude hacks to find the good when you feel bad; two practical ways to find the side door into feeling a less phooey and a little more ‘whoot-whooty’:

1. Don’t Try to Feel Grateful, Practice it.

Yup, I mean it. Practicing gratitude is one of my snappy go-to wellness tools. But notice I say ‘practice.’ Being thankful is a learned skill and habit. Like, say, when someone practices the violin. And as any parent of a five-year-old violinist knows, this doesn’t mean they’re necessarily playing the violin well. At least not yet.

I measure success, especially when I’m feeling crappy, not in terms of whether I feel grateful. But rather I consider it a win if I’m regularly putting myself in the general direction of gratitude and taking steps towards it.

The experience of gratitude will come as a natural result of consistent…you got it…practice. Just like practicing the violin daily. Eventually “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” will sound less like garbage cans toppling and more like the tune it’s meant to be. With practice, it can’t help but happen.

My daily practice consists of reflecting (for less than a minute – sometimes more if I’m happy and not crappy), in the morning before I start my workday and at night as I’m drifting off to sleep.

Try this:

a) Make a decision to practice gratitude daily.
b) Make it official. Write this vow to yourself down or verbally share this choice with a trusted ally.
c) Commit and pick the daily time or times you’re going to practice this new mini-habit. Start small. For example: once a day for 30 seconds.

2. Aim for an Experience.

It’s the experience we want to capture, not just an intellectual grocery list of what we know we’re fortunate to have.

Sometimes appreciation is easier to feel than gratitude. For some of us (read: me) the word gratitude is a charged word and comes with ‘baggage.’ So I prefer to use the word appreciation. It offers me an easier access into the experience I’m looking for.

According to its definition, appreciation is “the recognition and enjoyment of the good qualities of someone or something.”3

Appreciation is an active present moment awareness (often through using of one of my five my senses) of what I value and what feels good. This noticing leads me to embody appreciation, not just cognitively understand what I’m grateful for.

3. Easily access appreciation.

a) Think about what you like, what you love. What usually makes you smile? It doesn’t have to be something in your life currently but something you appreciate. It doesn’t need to be a major item – smaller joys are usually better anyway.

For example: I love animals. I think about any animals I’ve encountered or that made me smile and feel good in the day. Sometimes it’s as simple as the chickadees I heard or the red-headed wood pecker on the tree I saw this afternoon. Or it can be a silly YouTube video a friend shared with me. Sometimes it’s just thinking of the existence of plain ol’ dogs. They have a knack for making me feel good.

It could be a place you love to visit, a person who means a lot to you.

This strategy might sound silly or trite, but it really works. It gets me feeling that tiny spark of yes, I’ll say…love, that I think gratitude is about. But without all the fireworks and pressure that I think love and gratitude sometimes come with.

b) Feel it in your body and see where appreciation rests in your body. What does this memory or object of appreciation feel like in your body? How do you know if you are appreciating something? Or that you’re pointed in the direction of gratitude?

For me, I feel a warmth in my body and my muscles relax. Sometimes it happens only for a split second, but there is a softening of some sort.

Just notice. If the experience doesn’t come, not to worry. It will with consistent daily practice – 30 seconds a day, even.

The more regularly you do this, the more you are rewiring your neural pathways to lean into appreciation. And from appreciation springs love, peace, and wellness.

If you are really stuck…

c) Appreciate your non-appreciation. When I am particularly crabby – I just appreciate (and laugh at) and be thankful for being aware that I’m NOT grateful. Somehow that loosens something up inside of me; allows me the wiggle room to be okay with not being grateful at that moment.

With these approaches, there is a small but palpable momentum that begins to build and begins to dislodge my inertia, and at times my resistance to gratitude. I do this in the morning, at night, and whenever I remember, and it continues to build for and with me.

Remember these 2 Gratitude Hacks:

  1. Don’t Try to Feel Grateful, Practice it.
  2. Aim for an experience.

I promise you, over time, and with daily practice of noticing what makes you feel little sparks of joy – you will experience gratitude more and more. Try the tips and let me know what happens for you.

Read this earlier post for other ideas of how to harness gratitude when you feel like crap.

© Victoria Maxwell


1. Seligman ME, Steen TA, Park N, Peterson C. Positive psychology progress: empirical validation of interventions. Am Psychol. 2005 Jul-Aug;60(5):410-21. PubMed PMID: 16045394.

2. Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. http://Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 377-389.

3. Definition of 'appreciation':…