1. Keep a journal.
Dr. Laura Gambrel, professor of psychology at La Salle University, recommends keeping a journal specifically for gratitude, in which you write about three good things — big and small — that happened to you throughout the day, along with some background information on how and why each good thing happened. Studies show that doing this nightly for just one week can decrease depressive symptoms for up to six months; even those who did it once a week showed an increase in physical activity, fewer health complaints, and greater optimism about their future. The bonus is that you’re also creating an incredibly efficient and personalized pick-me-up. Having a bad day? Why not read about that time the subway arrived at the very moment you got to the platform? Isn’t life the best sometimes?!
2. Tell friends/partners/family why they’re appreciated.
Grateful people recognize that much of the good in their lives comes from those around them, and because of this they tend to cultivate the strongest relationships. But research shows that we can milk even more gratitude (and happiness) from our experiences with our loved ones by actually telling them why they’re appreciated.
In this 2005 study published by the University of Pennsylvania, people who performed a “gratitude visit” — i.e., wrote a letter of gratitude to someone who impacted their life in a positive way, and then read it aloud to that person — experienced an immediate spike in happiness, which lasted up to a month after the exercise. Of course, your gratitude visit doesn’t necessarily have to be as formal. If you find yourself remembering that time your friend brought over pizza or proofread your résumé, text them about it. You’ll get to relive the warm, fuzzy feeling all over again.
3. Stop thinking they’ll be happy once they get that job/laptop/dream home.
We are notoriously bad at predicting what our future selves will want or need to be happy, and research shows that the satisfaction we do feel once we reach these benchmarks often fades quickly. Two of the most defining characteristics of grateful people are a feeling of abundance, as well as an appreciation of simple pleasures (which this 2003 study from Eastern Washington University defines as “pleasures in life that are readily available to most people”). It’s a matter of shifting focus, and enjoying the things we do have.
4. Practice mindfulness.
It’s easier than ever to multitask now that we’re basically carrying our entire lives in our pockets, but if we want to truly acknowledge and enjoy the good stuff, we sometimes need to slow down. Rooted in Buddhist meditation, mindfulness is about paying purposeful attention to experiences in the present.
“Mindfulness allows us to celebrate life without becoming consumed by subtle nuances,” says Dr. Scott Krakower, psychiatrist at Zucker Hillside Hospital. “Through learning ways to exist in the moment, we can learn to become more aware of ourselves and to be more grateful for what we have.”
So how do we learn to rein in our wandering minds? It’s a skill that requires some training. “Focus on routine behaviors,” Dr. Krakower offers as a tip. “A simple mindful activity might include focusing on the basic activities we take for granted, such as brushing our teeth or eating, and noticing what we are experiencing when we do it.”
As you become more attuned to your immediate experiences, it’ll be that much easier to recognize the simplest of pleasures. It also doesn’t hurt that mindfulness can be linked to better memory, less stress, and greater emotional resilience.
5. Surround themselves with loved ones.
Here’s the thing about gratitude: It’s pretty contagious, which means hanging out with the people you love is the ultimate win-win scenario. People who spend a significant amount of time with those who make them happy are more aware of their blessings, and people who are more aware of their blessings are in turn better friends to those around them. This 2003 study shows that people who reflected on their gratitude daily reported more instances of helping or offering emotional support to others. Gratitude and compassion are closely linked, and if you’re feeling good about your life, there’s a strong chance you’re going to help others feel good too.
But it’s not just your friends who will reap the benefits of your gratitude. This 2006 study by Monica Y. Bartlett and David DeSteno at Northeastern University shows that the compassion inspired by gratitude reaches outside a person’s social circle, extending to strangers.
“If you’re feeling gratitude, you’re more likely not only to help a previous benefactor, but also to help anyone who asks,” Dr. DeSteno says. “You’re also more likely to trust others and to make financial decisions that benefit everyone as opposed to benefitting yourself at the expense of others.”
And you’ll feel great doing it! Research shows that the act of giving back is as pleasurable, if not more so, as the experience of receiving, and volunteering can be linked to greater mental health, better immunity, and even longer life spans.
7. Acknowledge the negative.
Granted, what dispositional gratitude boils down to is a lot of learned positive thinking. But grateful people are not oblivious people, and an important factor of appreciating our good fortune is processing the bad parts of life as well.
“To be grateful in your current state, it is helpful to remember the hard times that you once experienced,” writes Dr. Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at University of California, Davis. “When you remember how difficult life used to be and how far you have come, you set up an explicit contrast in your mind, and this contrast is fertile ground for gratefulness.”