The foundation to forming a gratitude practice is to start actively looking for things to be grateful for daily. NOTICE is all about finding the goodness already in your life and taking the time to appreciate those things, no matter how small!
What do you notice in your life that you can be grateful for?
Recall a specific memory when you felt grateful. What were the circumstances?
What are the things you most often say ‘thank you’ for?
On a given day, how many times do you “stop to smell the flowers”?
At lunchtime I bought a huge orange—
The size of it made us all laugh.
I peeled it and shared it with Rovert and Dave—
They got quarters and I had a half.
And that orange, it made me so happy,
As ordinary things often do
Just lately. The shopping. A walk in the park.
This is peace and contentment. It’s new.
The rest of the day was quite easy.
I did all the jobs on my list
And enjoyed them and had some time over.
I love you. I’m glad I exist.
Observational Gratitude Explained
Observational gratitude involves being in the presence of or recalling something and having gratitude for that thing (or for not that thing). In other words, you NOTICE what you are grateful for. You can direct your attention to specific objects, people, or experiences and express gratitude either internally or externally.
Observational gratitude can be split into two categories: Appreciative Gratitude and Specific Gratitude. Within the scope of having an Attitude of Gratitude, practicing observational gratitude is playing I Spy with your surroundings and being able to notice specific things to be grateful for.
While the difference between appreciative and specific gratitude is nuanced, they get at the same idea — being able to recall or pick out specific things, people, or events and have gratitude for them.
Why separate the two??
Understanding the nuanced differences between your observations will improve your practice and help guide you towards what your practice is lacking. Maybe you are able to write a list of 100s of things you are grateful for, but you find it hard to realize it when you are in the presence of the thing.
In the sea of everyday stimulation I constantly pick out things I can be grateful for in the moment.
- I feel very thankful for my degree of physical health.
- I routinely take pleasure in new information or ideas.
- I regularly feel a sense of pleasure in meditation, prayer, or other contemplative activities.
- I’m grateful for the physical comforts I have/enjoy in my life.
- My leisure activities bring me a great deal of joy, which I regularly take part in.
Louis Armstrong – What a Wonderful World
🎶 I see skies of blue, and clouds of white, the bright blessed day, the dark sacred night, and I think to myself: what a wonderful world 🎶
I am able to write a list of at least 5 things I am grateful for at the end of each week.
- When I think about the last few months, what comes to mind first are the fortunate blessings I’m grateful for.
- There are many things I haven’t done and/or bad things that have happened to me, but I can hold those at the same time as an appreciative graciousness for all that I do have.
- I feel that many, many things have been given to me, including love from others, the abilities I was born with, the natural world, and existence itself.
- If I had to list everything that I felt grateful for, it would be a very long list.
- Wow, life is pretty amazing, and often enough I take time to really note specific things/people/experiences I’m grateful for.
White Christmas — Count your Blessings
🎶 When I’m worried and I can’t sleep, I count my blessings instead of sheep. I fall asleep, counting my blessings 🎶
When Gratitude is Missing
Sometimes, it can be hard to see good things in our life, even when they are right in front of us.
“You don’t know what you’ve got till its gone” — Joni Mitchell
Do you step outside your house every morning with gratitude that the air isn’t filled with smoke?
Probably not…unless you have recently lived in proximity to a forest fire.
A person named Rex (via reddit) posted: “Every day I can look out my window and see blue sky, or step outside and breathe fresh air, feels like such a blessing. There were times during the middle of those fires I thought I was going to go insane if I had to live one more day submerged in a seemingly endless sea of smoke.”
We don’t stop and appreciate the lack of smoke in the air until we have to live with smoke in the air… we are grateful for clean air because we had to live with smoky air.
Experts suggest mental subtraction — imagining your life without a certain event or relationship— as one way to remind yourself all there is to be grateful for (Koo, et al. 2008). Think: It’s a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Carol. By getting a taste of the absence of certain events, we are able to remind ourselves how important those things are to us.
“Think about death and loss/endings. When you stop being grateful for something, give it up for a while” — The Gratitude Project (Smith et al., 2020)
Try This~ Mental Subtraction
- Think about an event in your life that was significant (getting a job, starting a relationship, birth of a child, etc…) or a person who is special to you (partner, mentor, etc…). On a piece of paper make two columns.
- In the first column, write down all the small decisions/events that needed to happen in order for the significant event to happen.
- In the second column, write down the possible events and decisions that could have gone differently and stopped the significant event from occurring.
Example — Event: Starting a new relationship with a partner
Small circumstances that made it happen
- Meeting partner at work
- Going out for happy hour together and chatting more
- Exchanging numbers and communicating outside of work
How things could have gone differently
- If I had decided to take another job
- If I had not recently ended previous relationship
- If either of us had been busy during the happy hour where we got to chat
- Imagine how the significant event would be different if any of the entries in column 2 had actually happened.
- Imagine what your life would be like if the significant event had never happened at all.
- What benefits would be missing from your life if that event had not happened?
- Allow yourself to notice all the little things that added up to the significant event and appreciate how the benefits you felt were not inevitable.
Find the printable version of this exercise here:
“We’re all so busy chasing the extraordinary that we forget to stop and be grateful for the ordinary.” – Brené Brown
Often, when we first think about the things we are grateful for, profound/extraordinary events are the first to come to mind. Marriage, family, upbringing, education, job, etc… While these are all valid, the more we exercise our noticing “muscle”, the more we can start to dive deeper to see the bottom of the iceberg.
Using your senses, notice…
- The taste of your breakfast
- The smell of morning tea or coffee
- The temperature or weather
- The dew on the grass
- Clouds or stars
- The beauty in nature
- The smell of flowers on your walk — literally stop and smell the flowers!
Finding a quiet place alone, notice…
- Something positive about your health
- The steadiness of your heart or breathing
- Something that challenges you (like exercise or math)
- How are you feeling today?
- Peace in being alone without looking at our phone
Looking at those around you, notice…
- Something your partner/friend did that you liked
- The way your kids or a friend’s kids laugh or play
- Someone who let you merge in traffic
- How hard the shopkeeper/drive thru worker is working
Often, once we start noticing things and people around us to appreciate, we naturally start to notice more and more to be grateful for which leads to a shift in mindset, which shifts how we think and feel about the world around us and what we do daily.
Recognizing things in your life that provide good-ness is a vital step in forming the gratitude habit. We can also hold gratitude for not having something, for example gratitude for not being sick, or for not having money problems.
When kids are taught about gratitude, they are usually practicing specific gratitude, with prompts like:
What is your favorite place?
Name someone who helps you.
What is your favorite gift you have received?
What is something that makes you happy?
What is a happy memory you have?
By pulling on specific memories or objects, children are able to begin to differentiate the things in their life that are good — the things to be grateful for.
Prompting gratitude can lead to forming a habit, so in the moment, one is able to notice something they could be grateful for.
Three exercises for Cultivating Observational Gratitude:
- The Gallery of Gratitude
- The Iceberg Exercise
- Keep a Running List
Try It – The Gallery of Gratitude
Want to fill in your own gallery of gratitude? Find the worksheet here:
Try it – The Gratitude Iceberg
What events are on your iceberg today/this week?
Start at the top of your iceberg and list the obvious events. Then, dig deeper and try to list less obvious, normal moments that may seem ordinary. If the iceberg is challenging to fill out or you can’t think of enough ordinary moments, consider repeating this practice a few days in a row and observing how you’re noticing skills change over that time.
Find the printable version of the exercise here:
Try This — Keep a Running Gratitude List
Gratitude journals involve reflecting at the end of the day or end of the week and taking 5-10 minutes to write down things retroactively. To specifically develop observational skills, instead of spending a long time thinking back to things you are grateful for, a list encourages in the moment realization.
Throughout the day, whenever you notice something to be grateful for, write it down. Take 10 seconds in the moment to recognize the thing and then return to your day.
Have the list somewhere you can keep it handy —on your phone, on a sticky note at your desk, taped to the fridge—whatever works for you.
At the end of the day, draw a line under the last thing you have written, so after a few days you can see how many things you wrote each day.
At the end of 7-10 days, consider these reflection questions:
- On average, how many times per day did you stop and write something down?
- Was this more or less than you expected?
- How did the things you wrote change over the 7-10 days?
- How would you say your observational gratitude has changed in keeping this list?
Completed the 7-10 days and ready for more?
See the DO page for more ideas on developing a gratitude practice.
Developing specific gratitude into appreciative gratitude
The key to transitioning from being able to recall things at the end of the week to having more of the trait of appreciative gratitude is to form the habit. Making a game out of noticing new things each day and/or keeping up on a gratitude journal all build the observational gratitude skill.
Once you start noticing things in the moment where you could think “I can write about this moment in my gratitude journal later today” you have crossed the bridge to having appreciative gratitude and being present in the moment.
Try This: Use an App to Make Gratitude a Habit
One of the best ways to exercise our noticing muscle is to create a habit of noticing and recording what we notice.
Did you know there are TONS of gratitude apps that make it simple to record gratitude daily — and they’ll even remind you to commit to your practice at the same time each day!
Here are some apps to explore:
|Gratitude: Self-Care Journal
Gratitude journal, affirmations, vision board, and daily motivation content. Gratitude provides you with all the tools and reminders you need to gain motivation and develop a healthy self-love routine in your life.
Apple | Google
|Presently: A Gratitude Journal
A no-frills, free gratitude journal that offers daily reminders to submit your entry and allows you to look back on previous entries.
|365 Gratitude Journal – Self Care App
This app has lots of features, beyond simple gratitude journaling, the app includes a mood tracker, daily prompts, daily inspiration, and the ability to share online with friends.
Apple | Google
Build a gratitude garden populated with plants and little creatures. As you journal, gain points to add things to your garden.
Cultivate joy by reflecting on good things each day by sharing a photo, memory, or moment.
Apple | Google
|Delightful – Gratitude Journal & 3 Good Things
A free journal platform with prompts and inspiring quotes.
Apple | Google
If you are looking for different (non app) ideas on forming a gratitude practice, check out the DO page.
Brother David Steindl-Rast explains how to build moments of appreciation into your daily routine with Stop. Look (appreciate). Go.
How strong is your noticing ‘muscle’ ??
Take our Gratitude Quiz to evaluate where you are.
Challenges of Observational Gratitude
Is it very easy for you to say thank you?
Often, people think of a gratitude practice as a reflection. At the end of the day, count your blessings. Or, they think of it as saying thank you when the barista hands you a coffee. Unfortunately, observational gratitude can easily lose its authenticity. We get into the habit of saying “thank you” without any meaning behind the words. Even writing in a gratitude journal can turn into a chore, and then instead of forming a joyful habit, we are trudging through something without connecting to the feeling of it.
The challenge with noticing things to be grateful for is staying present in the moment and using thank you for authentic expressions of gratitude. When we aren’t present, finding moments to feel gratitude can be like playing I Spy with a blindfold on.
What if we put as much intention behind “thank you” as we do “I love you” ?
In your daily or weekly gratitude journaling, get specific by writing “Today my husband gave me a shoulder rub when he knew I was really stressed” or “My sister invited me over for dinner so I didn’t have to cook after a long day.” And be sure to stretch yourself beyond the great stuff right in front of you. Opening your eyes to more of the world around you can deeply enhance your gratitude practice.
For more on the challenges of insincere gratitude and how to develop a more authentic practice, see the illusions page.
- Gratitude starts with observation — Notice, think, feel do
- Practicing Appreciative and Specific Gratitude involves noticing your surroundings and finding things to be grateful for.
- When the observational side of gratitude is missing, we often do not know how good we have it until something bad happens or we lose something.
- Weekly gratitude journaling is one of the best ways to practice specific gratitude and form the habit into the appreciative way of being.
- Gratitude can easily become unauthentic, so practice being specific in how you notice things around you and why you would be thankful for them.
- Koo, M., Algoe, S. B., Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2008). It’s a wonderful life: Mentally subtracting positive events improves people’s affective states, contrary to their affective forecasts. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(5), 1217–1224. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0013316
- Smith, J. A., Newman, K. M., Marsh, J., & Keltner, D. (2020). The Gratitude Project: How the Science of Thankfulness Can Rewire Our Brains for Resilience, Optimism, and the Greater Good. New Harbinger Publications.