Get happier with gratitude: 5 ways to start today
It's 6:00AM on what's shaping up to be another glorious summer day in Ohio. The house still rests. The sun is rising. Birds outside are just beginning their morning song. I sit in my daughter's room on the floor, watching her sleep. There's not a trace of the annoyance with me I see more and more often on her 13-year-old face. I can still catch a bit of the baby she was beneath the young lady she is growing into.
I take a deep breath so I can sigh the sigh of a mother perfectly contented. When I inhale I remember why I am in my daughter's room. Why I am up at (for me) the ungodly hour of 6:00AM: I am cleaning dog poop off the white carpet.
I laugh. Because surely these are the thoughts of a crazy person. A person who has been forced out of bed to scrub someone else's excrement from the floor should be REAL MAD right now. Not having sentimental thoughts of parenthood. Certainly the me of only 12 months earlier would have been angry. No, not just angry. Righteously, fabulously, outrageously p*ssed.
But the me of today has made a small, yet huge, change:
I have a gratitude practice now.
I am not exaggerating when I say that gratitude has totally, completely, absolutely changed my life. It’s helped me
start a regular meditation practice
become a meditation teacher
let go of a lot of anger
quit unhealthy drinking habits
create a more fulfilling and lucrative job that I work on my own terms
think happy thoughts while scrubbing canine crap off the floor
It’s basically opened the door for me to learn how to shift my mindset to make the things I wish I could do into the things I want to do (and then go out and do them).
It's not just me and my dog poop stories either.
Several studies have shown that gratitude positively affects many areas of our lives, including relationships, sleep, healthy habits (like exercising more), and mood. There's even some research showing that gratitude reduces physical inflammation.
And, we can use gratitude to increase our happiness. Even though some of our happiness (between 40 and 70% according to research) is determined by genetics and life circumstances, the remaining 30-60% is up to us. In other words, a pretty big factor in whether we’re happy or not is whether we choose to be.
By filling up my thoughts with gratitude, I’m taking advantage of the 30-60% of my happiness I have control of, reminding myself just how good I have it, and ultimately, making a huge contribution to my own well-being.
You can do it too.
You don’t need a single thing to get started with your own gratitude practice. Just your mind and your heart, and I bet you’ve got those with you right now.
Here are 5 things you can do to cultivate your own gratitude practice:
1. Keep a gratitude journal
Write down 5 (or more) things you’re thankful for every day. It can be anything from your family to how comfy your sneakers feel. I find that it’s more interesting to be specific. For example, listing, “Listening to my son play the Bach Fugue on the piano,” instead of just “My son.” The detail will give your lists more variety and also serve as a nice way for you to remember things. Goodness knows it all goes too fast.
2. Be thankful any time you’re waiting
Start a list in your head of all the things you’re thankful for while waiting in line. While waiting to fall asleep. While waiting at the dentist’s office. While waiting to fall back asleep in the middle of the night. While waiting in traffic. You get it. You have plenty of time to be grateful. And bonus, you never have to be frustrated about waiting again.
3. Meditate with a gratitude mantra
If you’re a beginning meditator, this is a great way to get started. Pick a mantra (i.e. a phrase you repeat and focus on) like “I am thankful for all that I have,” “I am grateful for my family,” “Thank you for my amazing life,” or something else that resonates with you. Find a comfortable spot, set a timer (7 minutes is a good starting time if you’re new).
To meditate, close your eyes. Touch your thumb and index finger together lightly, then your thumb and middle finger, then your thumb and ring finger, then your thumb and pinkie. Repeat. Each time you switch fingers, repeat your mantra over and over out loud or in your mind. Really feel how happy you are about what you’re grateful for. [If you’re curious, meditating in this way is called Japa.]
If you’re a meditating pro, just work this into your regular routine and maybe use your mala instead of your fingertips.
4. Be grateful for people in real time
When you’re around other people, take a moment to notice their actions and be thankful. If it makes sense in the situation, thank them out loud, sincerely, while looking them in the eye.
There are obvious applications for this, like when you thank a server for refilling your coffee or thank a grocery store clerk for bagging up your celery separate from your raw chicken. Simple interactions like these can brighten someone else’s day as well as keep you in the gratitude zone.
And, probably more important, don’t forget the people you might often overlook, like the ones that live in your house with you.
5. Find the sunny side
Things annoy us. Crappy stuff happens. Chores never end. None of that’s going to change. But could you change how you react to it?
It’s pretty easy to get peeved that your partner left a glass of milk on the coffee table. Instead, try acknowledging that dirty dishes are evidence you have a partner to love. (I mean, they should still pick up after themselves, but maybe give them a kiss before reminding them?) Next time you have ten tons of laundry, be delighted that you have kids who are well enough to get their clothes dirty. Flat tire? Be grateful you have a car to drive.
Make it a challenge. Can you find something good in any cruddy circumstance?
Gordon, A. et al (2012, May 28) To Have and to Hold: Gratitude Promotes Relationship Maintenance in Intimate Bonds. Retrieved from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/images/application_uploads/gordon-RelationshipMaintenance_1.pdf.
HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review (2013, November 27) The Big Benefits of a Little Thanks. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/ideacast/2013/11/the-big-benefits-of-a-little-t
Mills, P. et al (2015) The Role of Gratitude in Spiritual Well-Being in Asymptomatic Heart Failure Patients. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/scp-0000050.pdf
Rubin, G. (2012) Happier at Home. New York, New York: Crown Archetype.