How to Be Thankful: 4 Ways to Cultivate Gratitude In Your Life and Feel Happier

The truth is, it could always, always be worse.
Publish date:
November 25, 2015
gratitude, spirituality, Thanksgiving, Self-help, Self-improvement

I don't know what's gotten into me, but I'm feeling extra self-helpy lately. I'm going through some big life changes, and it's motivating me to do some recently neglected work on myself — meditating, working my recovery program, taking a hard look at and working on my flaws, developing faith in the universe and other stuff that is almost impossible to say out loud without sounding like an asshole. I'm getting spiritually fit, ya'll.

So it was with interest that I clicked on this NY Times article about gratitude. (Unlike all the random stuff I click on out of weird bored compulsion and immediately regret because I really don't even care about celebrity divorces or who my Facebook "crush" is like at all.)

The article references several scientific studies on gratitude, the gist of which is that 1) you can choose to feel grateful and 2) doing so will actually make you happier. The author sums up:

"...Researchers in one 2003 study randomly assigned one group of study participants to keep a short weekly list of the things they were grateful for, while other groups listed hassles or neutral events. Ten weeks later, the first group enjoyed significantly greater life satisfaction than the others."

I've always felt this to be true intuitively, which is why I've been part of a gratitude list since around 2000. That, and because I remember Oprah recommending it once.

Mine is an email list made up of a group of women I know from recovery circles (we call each other sober sisters because everything you say when you are being spiritual is awful). We each try to "reply all" each day with a list of roughly 10 things we're grateful for that day. We have also developed the acronym "SSB," which stands for "Still Sober, Bitches" and shows up frequently on our lists.

I do not always feel like expressing gratitude, but I find it's most helpful when I can force myself to do so on a day I don't feel grateful for anything. And luckily, according to the article, that's good enough. Fake it til' you make it!

Here are a few concrete ways I've found to cultivate gratitude in my life.

Flip the script.

It's easy to feel grateful for awesome things like getting a promotion or having good sex with someone who you don't want the fuck out of your house immediately afterward. What's harder is to find gratitude in stressful situations, when it feels like everything's going wrong and you are the unluckiest person alive.

The truth is, it could always, always be worse. When experiencing something difficult, I try to remember that.

When my boyfriend was hospitalized and almost died 6 months into our relationship, I was obviously pretty miserable. But I still looked for things to be grateful for within the situation -- for instance, his recently purchased health insurance that had kicked in 11 days before he ended up in the ICU. Or the fact that my parents had coincidentally planned to come and visit me during what turned out to be his first week in the hospital, and were able to provide childcare so I could be with him.

Getting dumped means you dodged a bullet by getting rid of someone who didn't value you. When losing someone you love, you can be grateful for the time you had together or the things that they taught you.

Instead of lamenting the fact that I have mental health issues, I am grateful that I live in a time where medication is readily available to help manage them. (Oldey-timey depression must have been the worst.)

Losing your job can be an opportunity to try something you wouldn't have had the guts to do if you hadn't been pushed out of the nest. (I was devastated when the first site I worked at folded, but it turned out to be the reason I ended up being hired to launch a site with this random weirdo Jane Pratt.)

The latter is related to the idea that "Rejection is God's protection." That is, you may not feel grateful for something in the moment, but with time you may find reason to feel thankful for everything playing out just the way it did.

There is another saying in recovery circles that "Pain is the touchstone of spiritual growth." When everything is going well, we are much less likely to learn and grow than when things are falling apart. Advanced gratitude is being able to see pain itself as an opportunity

Lest you find me insufferable, this is not something that is easy to do right away. But, as the NYT article points out, you don't actually have to feel gratitude to improve your mood. You just have to pretend to feel it. Focusing on the "bright side" of things actually makes you feel better, even if having to do so pisses you off or feels inauthentic. Trying counts with gratitude.

Take nothing for granted.

It's easy in our day to day lives to notice the bad things that happen to us while forgetting about all the good things that we take for granted as constants. Things like health insurance, having a job, having a place to live, our health. Even when one area of my life (or 2 or 3) is going poorly, I try to remember to be grateful for the things I've come to see as givens, because they're actually not. Even on my worst day, I am grateful to have arms. Seriously, I regularly put "having arms" on my list.

Nothing is guaranteed for tomorrow, so I try to appreciate it today.

Notice the small things.

Some of the best things in life are not things you'd usually write someone about -- drinking coffee while looking out the window and seeing a dog go by, enjoying a few quiet moments in the morning sipping coffee peacefully before you start your day. Basically coffee. There's always coffee.

The NYT article calls these "the useless things" and also recommends being thankful for them.

When I was actively drinking and using drugs, I vacillated between synthetic highs and extreme come-down lows. I was either screaming in laughter in the dark corner of a bar at 4 a.m., or I was hanging my head in despair when the sun came up at the inevitable end of a 3-day bender. There was no room for subtlety, for the small moments. I couldn't feel anything but chemical adrenaline or misery, and I was deadened to the world around me. I couldn't really enjoy anything but drugs and alcohol.

After I got sober, I started to notice that the little pleasures of life slowly became enjoyable to me again. It's like the bold blacks and whites faded enough that I could see the many shades of gray. (Not the sexy S&M kind.)

Now I notice and am grateful for so many small things -- walking past the schoolyard each day on the way to the subway and watching the older kids run around screaming, imagining the day my son will be one of them. The little moments with my son himself, the feel of his small hand grasping for mine while knowing that he won't want to hold my hand forever. And yes, drinking my morning coffee. I'm really fucking grateful for coffee.

Say thank you.

Once you're feeling gratitude, or at least pretending to feel it, spread it around. Tell the people in your life when you are thankful for them or something they did. The NYT article suggests sending out two emails each morning to people in your life, thanking them for something you're grateful for.

I take it a step farther and also try to send a mental "Thank you" out into the universe at the end of a day, like a little prayer. Thank you for giving me another day on this earth. Thank you for what I have been gifted with today and in this life. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Again, I'm sorry, I am the worst, but life is hard and this helps me.

So if you're celebrating Thanksgiving this year, and you have to do that cheesy around the table "What am I thankful for?" thing, try to take it a little seriously. You don't have to like it for it to work.