How to cultivate a gratitude practice

| November 9, 2021
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People who are grateful benefit from less stress, a general sense of well-being, improved cognition and social performance, and reduced risks for depression, anxiety, and substance abuse disorders. Physical health benefits can include lower blood pressure, improved immune function, and more restful sleep. A strong sense of appreciation helps develop a healthy mind which in turn can make us more inclined to make healthy decisions for our bodies. The cultivation of gratitude can also deepen our relationships, and help us to be more forgiving of one another.   

Gratitude begins with a process for deliberately noticing the good things in life. Developing a gratitude practice can shift us to a more thankful state of mind and can curb negative emotions.  

This is not to say that we should only focus on positive things and reject negative emotions. A gratitude habit doesn’t ignore complicated feelings, difficult decisions, and challenging experiences. It can, however, minimize the possibility of ruminating over those things in an unhelpful way.

Below are some tips for cultivating a gratitude practice. New habits take time to develop, and are often more successful when paired with an existing habit. For instance, you could consider writing in a gratitude journal while having your morning coffee or as as a part of your bedtime routine.

Keep a gratitude journal.

Studies show that keeping a gratitude journal can have positive psychological and physiological effects. There are a variety of ways to build this practice, including:

    • Try the “three good things” exercise where you keep a daily record of three good things for which you are grateful.
    • Use the gratitude journal feature embedded in your Calm app (premium access free for all Hopkins affiliates).
    • Start a “G.L.A.D.” practice. G.L.A.D. is an acronym for Gratitude, Learned, Accomplished, Delight. It’s about finding joy and balance by paying attention to certain aspects of daily life that frequently go unnoticed.

Write thank-you notes.

Make your gratitude practice social by writing and sending thank you letters to someone who has done something for you. (Note: emails and even texts count.) Studies show that this act can strengthen relationships, help people to appreciate what they’ve received in life, and feel like they’ve given something back to those who have helped them.

Engage in mental subtraction. 

Mental subtraction is when you imagine what your life would be like if certain positive events had not occurred. This strategy can make you more aware of (and grateful for) the good things in your life. For instance, “If I had not decided to attend Hopkins, I wouldn’t have met my best friend,” or “If I didn’t have my car, I wouldn’t be able to visit my family at the holidays.”

Teach children the benefits of a gratitude practice.

We can teach children about gratitude by modeling our practices for them. Discuss gratitude with a child, and demonstrate what it means to appreciate things that can be taken for granted.

Do activities that physically represent gratitude.

Some examples include:

    • Gratitude trees. A gratitude tree can be constructed from a paper towel roll or cut from construction paper. Fill out the blank leaves with what you’re grateful for. Alternately, you can also create gratitude prompts on the leaves and attach them to the tree.
    • Gratitude jars. Decorate a glass jar and filling the jar with daily entries. After the jar has been filled, read the entries and savor what was appreciated. You can do this individually or with your family or housemates.
    • Gratitude paper chains. Cut out strips of various colored papers large enough to loop together. Each loop is added by a different person in your household expressing their gratitude on each.
    • Gratitude walks. Going on gratitude walk is an active way to bring mindfulness to the forefront of our minds. Take a nature walk or explore an area of the city, either solo or with a companion. Think about (or discuss) what you appreciate about the people, places, and things that you see on the way.