When it comes to reducing stress, building connection, and finding fulfillment, there’s no better attitude than gratitude. Studies have consistently shown that thankfulness produces a host of psychological, social, and even physical benefits: it increases positive emotions, decreases feelings of loneliness and isolation, and even strengthens our immune systems. As Lesley Kelly, Co-Founder of the Do More Agriculture Foundation, emphasizes in a recent article, gratitude is a vital element of building resilience and strength within rural communities.
While the saying “count your blessings” has become somewhat cliche, there are many authentic ways to cultivate gratitude. What’s important is to find practices that are meaningful to you. Integrating gratitude into our daily lives can help us reframe the past, find pleasure in the present, and hope for the future.
The simple act of expressing appreciation—both for yourself and for the people and places around you—goes a long way. Whether spoken, written, or enacted, these messages can change the way we think, feel, and experience life. Consider trying out practices such as these:
- Say “Thank You” – These simple words often go unsaid, but they can have a huge impact on those around you. Make it a habit to let your family members, friends, teammates, and neighbours know that you value and appreciate them.
- Keep a Gratitude Journal – A regular routine of recording what you’re grateful for can be a powerful means of cultivating a resilient and hopeful attitude. Try listing three specific things you’re grateful for each day, and see how your thoughts develop over time.
- Show Gratitude to Yourself – While we tend to think of gratitude as directed toward others, it’s a gift that you can give to yourself as well. Thinking about or writing down the things that you love about yourself can help you develop a healthy sense of self-esteem that will ultimately allow you to be more effective in caring for others too.
- Do Random Acts of Kindness – Sometimes, actions speak louder than words. Taking a moment to do something small to brighten someone else’s day can help build a strong sense of community.
- Live in the Moment – Connecting with the present can help us become aware of good things that would otherwise go unnoticed. This awareness is the essence of mindfulness, which can include a variety of practices beyond meditation. One variation is to take a moment before enjoying a meal to appreciate the food you eat, where it came from, and those who prepared it. You can also practice mindfulness while going about your daily tasks, such as taking a walk. Focusing your awareness on your physical sensations can help you cultivate a deep sense of appreciation for both your own body and the places around you.
Gathering the Harvest
The rewards of thankfulness routines and rituals such as the ones outlined above are fruits that we reap over time. A recent study on gratitude conducted by Joshua Brown (Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Indiana University) and Joel Wong (Professor of Counselling Psychology at Indiana University) found that the positive outcomes of thankfulness practices tended to be things that people realized gradually. They also found that the mental health benefits of gratitude slowly but steadily increased, eventually leading to a positive snowball effect. So, if at first it seems that your expressions of thankfulness aren’t getting you anywhere, be patient and be confident that eventually these practices will pay off.
Gratitude and Grit
Naturally, expressing thanks is easiest when things are going well, but it’s equally if not more important to do during challenging times. According to Dr. Robert A. Emmons (Professor Psychology at the University of California Davis and a leading expert on gratitude), life’s difficulties can provide fertile ground for gratitude. Going through difficult seasons can help us remember not to take things for granted, and recollecting the bad times can help us see how far we’ve come. Furthermore, Emmons notes that there is an important distinction between feeling grateful (which is subject to emotions that are not always under our control) and being grateful (which is a choice that we can make even in the midst of loss). Being grateful doesn’t mean ignoring suffering; it means choosing to put these challenges into a larger, more hopeful context.
The bottom line is that gratitude is foundational to cultivating a strong sense of overall well-being. It benefits us both as individuals and as members of a larger collective, and it has been shown to have lasting impacts on the brain. Finding ways to give thanks boosts our mental health and makes us better able to enjoy life, come good days and bad days.