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  • Writer's pictureKatie Lewis

A Simple Practice in Cultivating Gratitude

Have you ever had a really great day that somehow turned into another that turned into another? Conversely, have you ever had a horrible day that turned into an awful weekend that turned into a terrible week? In situations like this, it's common for folks to think someone has put a curse on a voodoo doll made in their likeness. More likely, though, is that when we have a bad day, our perception is off.

We live in a perceived world. When we experience things, we make assumptions and interpretations based on our past experiences, so our perception is clouded. To live a mindful life is to see things as they are, not as our perception tells us they are. To live a mindful life is to cultivate a wider perspective, to hold our perceptions lightly, as a way to protect our peace.

One of the core attitudes of mindfulness is gratitude. Gratitude is a sense of happiness, of being thankful in response to something, tangible or intangible, large or small.

grateful heart

We've all heard it before: a grateful heart can support an overall positive experience. On our good days, gratitude can be easy to nurture. Positivity begets positivity, after all. It's the bad days, the days we think there must be a dark cloud above our heads, that we struggle to find the energy to politely smile at the passerby, that are more challenging to cultivate gratitude for...well, anything. We grunt at our partners when they offer a simple, "Good morning." We roll our eyes at the third email in as many hours from a colleague. We snap at our dog asking to go outside for the millionth time.

How can I cultivate gratitude, even when I don't feel grateful?

I engage in a lot of self-help content, so I can't say exactly where I came across this simple practice. In fact, I think it's a synthesis of many nuggets of information that I've read, listened to, or thought about. It's truly a simple act, one that perhaps feels too obvious: list what you're grateful for.

I've made it a habit to, after waking up but before opening my eyes each morning, list things I'm grateful for. I think my current streak is somewhere around 28 days, and it's mostly automatic at this point. I think it's the sound of my alarm, the fact that I'm in my bed, or the time of day that triggers the habit. (I took a cue from James Clear's work on habit triggers to reason this out.)

Heart in condensation

While my eyes are still closed, I list things I'm grateful for. Typically these are things that have happened recently or will happen soon, things I've experienced recently in relation to someone I love or respect, or general concepts or fixtures in my life that bring me joy. Sometimes list 5 or 6 things, and sometimes I list 2 or 3. (I like to shoot for at least 2, but there's no hard and fast rule.)

My list might include some of the following:

  • I'm grateful my husband paid the electric bill so I didn't have to.

  • I'm grateful it's Friday.

  • I'm grateful for my dog.

  • I'm grateful to my teacher for challenging me.

  • I'm grateful for therapy.

  • I'm grateful that meeting got canceled.

  • I'm grateful my dad is happier and healthier than he's been in a while.

  • I'm grateful for the cooler weather.

Current research on gratitude suggests that regular practices like this one can lead to greater overall health and happiness. It also strengthens relationships because it encourages reciprocity. At it's most foundational level, recognizing and acknowledging that which we're grateful for reminds us that we have good things in our lives. This naturally draws our attention toward positivity and away from negativity.

There's research to support the idea that beginning your day with gratitude can help set the tone, but I can imagine closing the day with a grateful heart as you nod off to sleep could be supportive as well. You might even consider stacking this habit with another, already established, one. For example, if you're a habitual coffee drinker, list that which you're grateful for as you sip. Maybe while you brush your teeth, you could rattle off a quick list.

As you can see, very little effort goes into this simple practice in cultivating gratitude. I can think of no downside to adding to your routine such a simple practice with such great returns.

What are you grateful for? How can you incorporate a version of this practice into your life in a way that works well for you?

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