In my work as a trauma therapist, I know how powerful gratitude can be. There’s something therapeutic about pausing to appreciate the blessings right in front of us. Gratitude is often overlooked, but it’s one of the best forms of self-care there is.
I suggest starting a practice now instead of when you are feeling low as you may be less motivated in a moment of sadness especially, if you haven’t established a ritual of gratitude. Take a moment to stop and consider the things you’re thankful for. Maybe it’s your close group of friends. A supportive partner. A great job that you genuinely love. In my own gratitude practice, I often recognize the little things I’m grateful for. We often take for granted the comfort of a warm bed or the ability to travel.
Gratitude is no longer a hidden secret for better mental health and wellbeing. I and many other mental health professionals frequently tout the benefits of a gratitude practice with research backed results. Millions of people have been enlightened about the power of gratitude. Yet, most forget to actually do it.
To commit to a regular gratitude practice, it needs to become a habit. Think of it as drinking your morning coffee or taking your dog for a walk. Giving thanks is something you can program your brain to do. You don’t need to put it on your calendar. Eventually, your body will simply know when it’s time for your practice.
What Does it Take to Build a New Habit?
You’ve likely heard that it takes 21 days to form a new habit. But actually, it’s not that simple. Research shows that it takes much longer than three weeks to form a new habit. It also takes different people varying lengths of time before a habit finally sticks.
In 2009, Phillippa Lally studied habit formation in a report that was published in the European Journal of Social Psychology. To determine how long it takes to form a habit, she asked 96 participants to work on creating a new habit as part of their everyday life. Each day, the participants completed a self-evaluation on their progress. At the end of the study, Lally determined that it took participants anywhere from 18 to 254 days to form a new habit.
I reference this study not to overwhelm you, but to help you understand the realities of habit formation. Creating a new habit is a personal challenge. It takes motivation, commitment, and accountability. If you want to create positive change in your life, working toward a new habit is incredibly rewarding.
5 Ways to Start Building a Gratitude Habit Today
Gratitude is such a simple practice that is accessible anywhere, anytime. I recommend all of my clients begin a gratitude practice to enhance their perception of the world around them. If you’re looking to start your own gratitude practice, here are some tips I recommend.
- Write in a daily gratitude journal
A great way to begin your gratitude practice is to write in a journal at the same time every day. List out a few things you’re grateful for and try having different ones each day. It doesn’t have to be overly specific but you want to write the reason as to why you are grateful for the list item. The key here is consistency. Keep your journal somewhere accessible and in plain sight. Pick a time that you’re going to journal every day. Many people find that right after waking or just before bed works well.
- Set reminders on your phone
Use your phone to set reminders throughout the day to pause and give thanks. For me, this is a great way to stay present, whether I’m working or playing with my kids. If you find yourself in a slump at the same time each day, like the mid-afternoon, set a phone reminder for a moment of gratitude. Take five minutes to stop what you’re doing and reflect.
- Pair gratitude with another habit
Another helpful way to develop a gratitude habit is to pair the action with something you already do on a daily basis. Take a few minutes to give thanks while eating breakfast. You can even do it in the shower, during your morning commute, or on a short walk. With consistent practice, your brain will automatically start reflecting on all that you’re grateful for while you perform that action.
- Start a gratitude circle with friends or family
Something that has transformed my personal gratitude practice is to share the moment with friends and family. Every day during lunch, my family hops on Zoom for a 20-minute gratitude circle. We start by each sharing something we're grateful for in the present or past. Then we share something positive that we want to invite into our lives. I’ve come to look forward to this practice everyday, and it’s helped to hold me accountable.
- Reward yourself for sticking with it
Science has proven that rewarding yourself for positive actions is an effective way to fuel good behaviors. This concept has been explained by B.F. Skinner and his work on operant conditioning. Skinner’s research found that positive reinforcements lead to repeated behaviors. After your daily gratitude practice, reward yourself with a small treat. It could be a piece of chocolate or a cup of your favorite tea. Over time, your brain will associate gratitude with your chosen reward, which helps the habit stick.
If you’ve ever taken a moment to practice gratitude, you know what it feels like. There’s an instant sense of calm and love. A warm feeling overcomes your entire body. All of the negative thoughts plaguing your mind simply disappear. You’re reminded of all the wonderful things in your life, which washes out pain and suffering.
Over time, your mind and body start to grow accustomed to that blissful post-gratitude practice feeling and you adapt a gratitude trait in your personlity. You’ll begin to notice how your practice is changing your life for the better. With consistency, your practice will grow stronger. You’ll develop a deeper connection to the blessings in your life, and learn to appreciate even the smallest joys.
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