Gratitude: It’s a sometimes-elusive virtue that we hear about all the time, but what exactly is it, and how do we practise it?
Lisa Shouldice, an individual, couple and family registered psychotherapist in Toronto, defines gratitude as: “A way of feeling positive within your spirit and being thankful for what we have in an active way.”
She stresses the idea that gratitude has an active component, and there are many ways you can express it. It’s a way of living often tied to being spiritual (though not necessarily religious), and it’s a burgeoning area of health research.
The benefits Shouldice sees as a result of gratitude practice include improvements in emotional, mental, and physical health. She explains that thinking about what you’re grateful for impacts your mood right away and can lower your blood pressure. Research conducted by the University of California's Dr. Robert A. Emmons and the University of Miami's Dr. Michael McCullough found that people who kept gratitude journals had fewer doctor’s appointments and perceived their relationships more positively. Overall, she says gratitude makes stressful things feel easier to handle and ultimately puts us in a better state of mind to take on the day.
How to be more grateful
Set an intention or thought for the day. Think about how you’d like your day to go and what you’d like to accomplish. If you have a specific goal in mind, you can use your daily intention to work toward that. Think and/or say your intention and be thankful for your commitment to it, such as “I’m going to love myself,” or “I’m going to make healthy choices,” or “I’m going to be grateful for my confidence.”
Be thankful for the little things. Especially at the beginning of the day, Shouldice says it’s helpful to take a moment to appreciate even the littlest things – your mug of hot coffee, your cozy socks, the purr of the cat curled up on your lap.
Journal. Shouldice highly recommends keeping a journal to really turn gratitude into a practice. The great thing about writing, she says, is that it activates both sides of the brain. Shouldice says to start small – just three days a week. Write down three things you’re grateful for, which you can easily do in a minute or two. As you make this a habit, you will likely find you spend longer writing down what you’re thankful for. She offers a tip to get into the practice of journaling: Head over to your nearest bookstore and spend some time browsing the stationery section. Find a beautiful journal that speaks to you, and you’ll look forward to opening it every time you sit down to write.
- Meditate. Some people just aren’t writers, Shouldice explains, and that’s okay. Meditation is an equally effective alternative to journaling. Instead of writing in your journal, sit quietly three times a week and reflect on what things, people, or experiences you feel gratitude for.
As with any new skill, Shouldice says gratitude gets better with practice. For the skeptics out there, she explains there’s no need to feel “Pollyanna” about things. Gratitude is about being thankful for real things and actively expressing it for yourself through thoughts, writing, and meditation or reflection.