Maximize the Benefits of Gratitude

Three solutions to help you get the most from a gratitude practice.

Posted Nov 30, 2019

Gift Habeshaw/Unsplash
Source: Gift Habeshaw/Unsplash

In this season of giving thanks, I’m reminded of the practice of writing gratitude lists. Research has suggested that keeping a daily list of things you are grateful for might help relieve depression, likely because it forces your mind to look for things other than problems. There is no doubt that this can be a powerful practice, but without some troubleshooting it can also go wrong, be less effective, or even counterproductive. Below are three common mistakes I have seen when people begin to make gratitude lists, and three solutions to help you get the most out of your practice.

Mistake 1: Being Grateful for Generalities. Solution: Get Specifically Grateful.

Gratitude works best when we can find little things to appreciate each day, not when we keep mindlessly listing the same relationships or abstract concepts. Instead of “I’m grateful for my relationship,” choose something your partner did today that you appreciated: “I’m grateful that my spouse stopped at the food store on the way home; it saved me from having to do it and now we have enough cereal for the week.” Bonus: When you get specific, you sometimes find other things to appreciate along the way. Now I’m grateful for my spouse and remembering how much I like my favorite cereal.

Another example might be a vague generality such as “I’m grateful for my health.” Instead, think a little deeper about something that you were able to do – or a problem you avoided – because of your good health. You might say, “When the elevator was down at work today, I’m grateful I had the fitness to take the stairs.” This example also shows how gratitude can help turn events that might otherwise be inconvenient or annoying into opportunities to find something to appreciate.

Mistake 2: Being Grateful for the Past. Solution: Get Grateful in the Here and Now.

Gratitude works in part because it forces us to begin scanning the environment for things to appreciate. If we start to list what we’re grateful for and everything is in the past (e.g. “I had good parents,” “I had a good education”), not only do we lose this perk but we might start to feel like our best days are behind us.

Avoid falling into this trap by keeping your gratitude in a narrow time frame. The exact amount of time will depend on how often you write your gratitude list. If you do it daily, see if you can keep your list to things that happened today. If you make a list weekly or monthly, you have more leeway to look back a little further.

This does not mean that you can’t be grateful for things that happened in your past. How wonderful, if that is the case. However, to keep your list from being repetitive, see if you can find new ways that those past experiences are shaping your life in the present. For example, instead of being grateful for the past experience of having a good education, you might say, “I’m grateful that I took that psychology class in college, because it really helped me understand my coworkers better in that meeting today.”

Mistake 3: Staying in Your Head. Solution: Feel Your Gratitude in Your Body.

When it comes to gratitude, the biggest mistake I encounter involves not taking the time to actually feel the emotion. Without a bodily experience, the practice becomes an intellectual puzzle, a kind of “Where’s Waldo” of things to appreciate. While this still has some perks because you are still counteracting the tendency to look for problems, you are robbing yourself of the full force of the practice.

When you write your gratitude list, slow down after each item and pay attention to how your body feels. You might experience a softening of your muscles, something akin to relief, or a surge of energy or warmth akin to love. Savor the experience of these feelings, repeating each item on your list in your mind a few times while paying attention to what arises in your body. Taking this time gives you a new emotional experience and a felt sense of something other than the stress, depression, or anxiety that you are hoping the list might help. This is where the real magic of gratitude lies, and it is itself something to cherish.