If you believe the usual polls analyzing New Year’s resolutions, many of us want to improve our mental states and sense of well-being. Is that one of your goals as well? If so, be grateful.
Or more to the point, I don’t mean be grateful that it’s your goal—set being grateful as the goal.
De Hicks, an entrepreneur, management coach, and all-around great guy, told me once that the most important keystone habits for self-improvement are getting up early and starting the day with gratitude. You can make your own judgement call on the benefits of waking up at 5 a.m. but the gratitude point is definitely worth adding to your repertoire.
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This post is likely not the first you’ve read about the benefits of gratitude. Amazon will sell you dozens of books on gratitude. Untold numbers of gratitude journals to help you capture a daily dose of thankfulness.
Yet all that commotion isn’t wrong. An increasing amount of research shows the positive benefits to your mental health of showing gratitude and reflecting on things you are grateful for. A consistent practice of showing gratitude reduces toxic thoughts, reduces stress, promotes sleep, and may even reduce pain.
Such a practice can even change your brain. One study from 2016 out of Indian University found that, “The participants who’d completed the gratitude task months earlier not only reported feeling more gratefulness two weeks after the task than members of the control group, but also, months later, showed more gratitude-related brain activity in the scanner. The researchers described these ‘profound’ and ‘long-lasting’ neural effects as ‘particularly noteworthy.’”
More importantly, increasing your gratefulness can be built over time. The first step? Determine that showing more gratitude is something you want to do.
Ready to grow your gratitude? You don’t have to start by hugging everyone you meet or even spend time writing a daily ‘Thank you” letter (but those are options!).
As acclaimed habits researcher BJ Fogg from Stanford pointed out on an episode of the Jordan Harbinger Show, habits grow through a combination of motivation, ability, and prompts. It also helps if you start small: Break them down to the most manageable bit you can handle.
With that in mind, here are three ways to grow your gratitude practice:
1. Start Quiet
Maybe you don’t want a gratitude journal sitting out suggesting you’re a misanthrope desperately trying to change. The tiny habit for building gratitude can be what you say in your own head.
Hicks intentionally connected waking up early with gratitude. He explained that the first thing he does after waking up is think about a few things he is grateful for. He has a clear prompt—no longer asleep—which triggers his action.
Find a time in your day where you can spend just seven seconds recounting one or two things you are grateful for. Maybe it’s when you close the door of your car after work, just before you fire up the engine. Do it every time you wash your hands. Do it when you wake up. No one has to know what it is you’re grateful for, be it the beauty of sun’s light reflected off the dew … or just the fact that your Amazon delivery came a day early.
2. Give Gratefulness a Voice
After you’ve spent time establishing that gratitude habit to the point that it’s automatic, take the next step and give gratitude a voice. Make a point of verbalizing your “Thank you” to the person who holds the door for you or the cashier as he hands you your receipt. Send a text to your mom to thank her for something (there is always something).
Sadly, people don’t expect the level of gratitude they once did. That means showing your thankfulness gets noticed. It’s disarming, in a good way. Suddenly you are sharing your gladness with others and brightening more than your own day.
3. Make It Tangible
As your focus on gratitude grows, you’ll naturally seek out ways to expand how you manifest it. This is when you can make your gratefulness tangible by giving your time as a volunteer or your giving donations to causes that are bigger than yourself.
Gratitude is the best catalyst for our charitable engagement. This is why, as I’ve written before, I increasingly resent the phrase “give back” when people discuss charitable giving. We don’t “give back” out of gratitude. Instead, we “give” because we are grateful—grateful that we have the means to help others in need, grateful because we’ve seen our own lives improved through the work of a charity, or grateful simply that the organization exists.
It’s easy to turn your gratitude habit into a charitable giving habit, which then gives you—and many other people—even more to be grateful for.
In the noise of Twitter and our daily conversations, our many blessings can be easily glossed. As Jonah Goldberg writes in his Suicide of the West, “Where there is no gratitude—and the effort that gratitude demands—all manner of resentments and hostilities flood back in.”
We aren’t going to change the tone of today’s news overnight, but we can do our own piece to exert “the effort gratitude demands,” starting with the smallest of efforts. Let those efforts grow and you and those around you will see the benefits.
An earlier version of this piece was originally published to the America’s Future blog.