Every holiday season my social media feeds are filled with articles on gratitude. Posts on how to be thankful this Thanksgiving compete with others extolling the many benefits of gratitude. Depending on who you ask, gratitude brings families together, improves mental health, and/or makes challenging family holiday events easier to tolerate.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m a loyal rider on the gratitude bandwagon. The data is, in fact, quite clear: gratitude is associated with better mental health in multiple ways. Grateful people report less depression, anxiety, and suicidality; they also sleep better, have stronger relationships, and have higher overall life satisfaction and psychological well-being. My own research has shown that gratitude helps us find healthier ways to cope with stress and handle challenges such as grief and loss.
Here’s the challenge – while we know that practicing gratitude may yield all these positive effects, we know less about how to become more grateful. The annual onslaught of articles on gratitude tend to focus on holiday gratitude practices that help families and individuals find one-time activities to practice gratitude. But gratitude, like any other skill we want to develop, has to be practiced on a regular basis to become a natural part of our daily lives. If we want to learn an instrument, we know we need to practice multiple times a week. If we want to strengthen a muscle, we know we need to use it nearly every day until it is strong and then keep using it to keep it strong. Gratitude is no different.
To build our gratitude muscle, we need to practice gratitude every day. Thankfully, there are many short, easy ways to build that gratitude muscle in 5 minutes or less every day. Here are a few of my favorite fast and easy gratitude activities to help it become a daily practice:
- Fill your bucket: Keep an empty glass jar or vase next to your bed, along with a pad of sticky notes and a pen. Every night when you plug your phone in and set your alarm, take 30-60 seconds to write down 1 thing you were grateful for that day on the sticky note. Fold it in half & slip into the jar. In addition to the daily practice, over time your jar will become full with gratitude and serve as a visual reminder.
- Table talk: Keep a small item (our family has used a rock that we call the “talk rock”) near the dinner table. At dinner time take turns passing the rock around with each person taking turns sharing something positive about their day. Some ideas include (a) simply say 1 positive thing that happened; (b) share 1 good and 1 bad (teens often like the phrase “your happy and crappy” for the day); or (c) report 3 hugs and a wish, e.g. 3 good things about your day and 1 thing you wish had gone differently. Yes, the first few nights are a little awkward and there will be some pushback but over time this practice can become easy and fun for everyone.
- There’s an app for that: There are many free apps that help you practice gratitude every day. One of my favorites is Happyfeed – it is free, you can program daily notifications so you don’t forget, and it is super easy to use. Another I like is Morning! But you can search “gratitude app” in the app store for other options.
- Share the good: One of the positive benefits of gratitude is that it strengthens relationships. Try saying “thank you” to someone in your life – family member, colleague, even the checkout person at the store – at least once a day. It’ll help you notice the little things others do for you, and your ability to express your gratitude will foster better interactions in the future.
- Use the 5 senses: Especially during difficult times, whether we’re struggling with a relationship, worried about a loved one, or having a hard time professionally, it can be hard to find things to be grateful for. But regardless of our circumstances, we maintain our own ability to see, hear, taste, smell, and touch. Using your five senses to find something to be grateful for – the warmth and taste of your morning coffee, the sound of the wind blowing, the colors of the fall leaves – can make it easier to practice gratitude even in difficult times.
Each of these 5 strategies can be practiced daily in under 5 minutes. Like any other new skill, practice makes perfect! Practicing one or more of these 5 gratitude activities every day will help turn gratitude from a holiday-only activity to a daily practice.