Experts explain the power behind pausing in the present moment to appreciate what you have.
In 1997, Oprah Winfrey invited author Sarah Ban Breathnach onto her talk show to discuss her bestselling book Simple Abundance. That conversation sparked a worldwide trend, introducing millions of people to the power of gratitude journaling — the practice of regularly writing down five things you’re grateful for. Research shows keeping up with gratitude journaling can bring balance to your life (even when it feels stressful) and it helps increase your everyday satisfaction.
“Especially when people feel overwhelmed, gratitude lists help you to pause and realize that there are actually more important things in life or that everything isn’t bad just because you’re having a stressful time,” explains Sara Algoe, Ph.D., an associate professor of social psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who conducts research studies on the benefits of gratitude.
Over 20 years later, gratitude journaling is still a popular phenomenon, but there are plenty of other psychologist-approved ways to bring the art of thankfulness outside the pages of your favorite notebook and into the world. Expressing gratitude to strangers, colleagues, loved ones, and even to yourself can spark a flurry of positivity bursts. “People who appreciate the good things in their lives do tend to be more satisfied and they find more meaning in life,” explains Dr. Algoe.
While you might’ve used this Thanksgiving to pause around the table and express what you’re thankful for over the last year, it’s important to continue spreading this kindness toward others (and yourself) long after the turkey leftovers get gobbled up.
“When we live thankful lives, it activates a place of abundant love, rather than a mindset of scarcity. And that helps us focus on the present moment — what’s in the here and now — rather than what’s missing,” explains Damaliah Gibson, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and co-founder of Love & Kindness Wellness Services in New York.
Below, discover creative ways to express gratitude and how to view life through a “half glass full” lens from experts. Plus, learn the unique benefits of each gratitude practice.
How to Practice Gratitude Regularly
First things first: take the pressure off saying the right thing
“When it comes to expressing gratitude versus not expressing gratitude — expression wins,” explains Dr. Algoe. But it’s important to remind yourself that there’s no right or wrong way to show appreciation for someone or something. “It doesn’t have to be a high-pressure situation, long, or elaborate. Even just a little thank you to someone makes a difference compared to not saying anything at all,” she says.
Start by taking the simple step toward noticing opportunities of kindness around you. “I don’t like to suggest that people force their feelings of gratitude,” says Dr. Algoe. “Say it when it feels natural. Do the noticing and become more mindful of opportunities.”
Put the you into your “thank you”
Here’s a tip for the gift-giving season: instead of showing excitement over your shiny new present, take a moment to express why the gift was so touching. As Dr. Algoe calls it, “put the you in thank you.” How does it work?
Let’s say you recently started collecting vintage stamps. For the holidays, your best friend remembers your new hobby and tracks down a rare I Love Lucy collection (because it’s your favorite nostalgic TV show). Instead of expressing how you love your new stamps (which is “really about your own joy about the gift you received” says Dr. Algoe), add in what felt special about the other person’s actions. “That’s what we call the signature of the Thank You,” says Dr. Algoe. Express how thoughtful it was that your BFF not only gifted you new vintage stamps but he or she went out of their way to track down something so meaningful to you. “Really adding that you part to it — what it was about their actions — is what we found to have the biggest impact on a person to feel cared for and loved.”
Cultivate gratitude through the five senses
Another quick (and easy) way to appreciate the present moment is by engaging in your five senses. “Listening to soothing music, taking a walk and feeling the wind on your face, trying to see if you can hear birds above the chatter, trying to taste specific ingredients in the food you’re eating — zone out to engage your five senses,” says Dr. Gibson. Think to yourself: how can I engage my five senses to bring me into the present moment? This gratitude technique is especially helpful if you’re in a stressful situation or have a negative mindset. “If we get back to the present moment quickly, it helps us move through the discomfort,” she explains.
Scents — like lavender, rose, eucalyptus, and citrus — have tons of healthy benefits on our mental state. If you’re hosting a holiday party (and it’s got you feeling frantic), Dr. Gibson suggests dispersing calming candles around the party. Or lighting sage to clear the space before the energy of your guests fills the room. “When our bodies are settled and OK, that energy also moves around the room. So if we can get ourselves into a good place, it helps the other body next to us, and so on,” says Dr. Gibson. It’s like a ripple effect of positive energy.
Use gratitude to bolster the romance in your relationship
It’s natural to start taking your partner for granted after years of being together. “Sometimes we just don’t notice things, or we’re stressed out and we forget that the person we love — who’s right there under our noses — is actually doing a lot of things on our behalf on a regular basis,” says Dr. Algoe. “If you pause and start to notice when they do nice things, you might actually feel grateful. And if you feel it, it’s a good opportunity to express it.”
As Dr. Algoe’s research points out, these small (or large) expressions of gratitude can be like a booster shot for your relationship. “Expressions of gratitude are the gift that keeps on giving,” she explains. “We find that people who express gratitude to their partner report feeling more satisfied in their relationship and in life that day.” It can be as simple as giving out a hug, or letting them know that surprising you with your favorite latte ahead of a stressful work presentation helped the meeting go well (and made you feel empowered the rest of the day). “Our data shows that people whose partners express gratitude toward them feel better about themselves and their relationship.” It’s a win-win for both parties.
Show thanks in front of others
Back to that idea of the ripple effect. “Expressing gratitude toward others really helps us to de-center our over-focus on ‘the self’ and the me, me, me,” says Dr. Gibson. Let’s say you try out a new local restaurant and it’s worthy of a million chef’s kisses. “Eat mindfully and really take that in,” says Dr. Gibson. Then go the extra mile — thank the wait staff, give praise to the chef, share your wonderful experience with your friends, and encourage them to support the restaurant. “If you really go in, that gratitude bleeds out and affects so many people along the way who helped make this moment in the restaurant so spectacular,” Dr. Gibson explains. “It’s like a ripple effect — you drop a pebble in the lake and it ripples outward. Gratitude does that for people. It’s a way of seeing and witnessing.”
Taking the time to express gratitude — especially in front of children — can also have a potent effect. That act of kindness can trickle down and they might start modeling after you. Research shows that witnessing other people express thanks has tenfold effects. Not only does the perception of the person showing thanks make an impact — “as a witness, I learn that you’re the kind of person who notices other people’s kindness and acknowledges them,” says Dr. Agloe — but you also learn about the person you’re giving thanks to.
For example, you may realize they’re the type of person who goes out of their way to do nice things for people, Dr. Algoe explains. “Our data shows that the witnesses are actually more interested in affiliating with and helping both the person who’s expressing gratitude and the one who did the kind thing in the first place even if they didn’t know them before,” Dr. Algoe explains. This can be particularly powerful in a work setting where your colleagues might then perceive you as more trustworthy. “Kindness can be spread through the network effect of seeing other people care about one another and taking the time to acknowledge it.”
Spread love through snail mail
That’s right. Snail mail isn’t dead (yet). “A nice handwritten letter that says, I just wanted to say thank you — your spirit warms my heart, or whatever you’d like to say, is worth a million dollars to someone getting that in the mail,” says Dr. Gibson. We love this gratitude notecard set — not only will the recipient feel good getting it, but the guide to expressing gratitude that it comes with will make you feel good, too.
Don’t forget to bring gratitude inwards (and into your self-care routine)
While it’s certainly beneficial to point out and appreciate the kindness shown by our friends, families, and around our communities — we can’t neglect to show compassion toward ourselves, either. “Gratitude allows us to tap into a place of abundance, love, and kindness. And that warms the heart up so much and opens us up to so many possibilities,” says Dr. Gibson.
Start by bringing mindfulness into your self-care routine. “I work in a hospital, so soaking my feet after a long day in some Epsom salt while I binge watch my favorite show is one way I can show up for myself. It’s nothing big,” she explains. This allows you to take a temperature check and ask yourself how you’re doing and how your body is feeling. “Maybe after taking a hot shower, I’ll spend a little longer with the lotion in my hands, really massaging them, and taking in the scent of the lotion. In doing that, I can show up for myself. Gratitude inward is my way of showing up for me.”
Mark the moment
If you need a little help expressing your gratitude, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with gratitude journaling. We love this Positive Planner that provides prompts and guidance for a gratitude-newbie. And if you have a hard time putting your feelings and thoughts into words, no problem. These cute checklist-style notes will help you express your gratitude quickly. If you’re a little more of the creative type or have kids, this Gratitude Tree will help you get in touch with your grateful side by writing notes on paper leaves and sticking them on this tree that represents your evergrowing gratitude.