What do you think about gratitude??
Imagine something bad just happened, like you found out a loved one died, or you lost your job, or an important relationship ended.
How would we practice gratitude in the moment? Without ignoring our grief/suffering/pain??
And…how do we make it genuine and not just some fluff on top of a bad day??
Shifting how we think about gratitude can lead to having a more grateful disposition.
Inspirational, pianist, Holocaust Survivor, Alice Herz-Sommer – 109 years old
Holocaust survivor Alice Herz-Sommer says “Every day in life is beautiful. Every day.”
If being grateful in every moment seems impossible to you, let’s examine how you’re framing your gratitude practice and see what we can discover.
Beliefs and Alternatives (Mini Version)
Do any of these feel familiar to you?
“I feel like people just say ‘thank you’ out of obligation.”
“I don’t have anything to be grateful for right now.”
“One day, you’ll look back and appreciate this part of your life.”
“I don’t believe in God, so who would I thank for the weather?”
“God is responsible for all the goodness in my life.”
“If I celebrate every little thing, I’m afraid I’ll stop striving for more.”
“Who would I thank if I’ve worked for all I have?”
“I don’t have time for fluff, I have work to do.”
Did you realize you already had beliefs about gratitude??
Gratitude can alter the way we see and interact with the world around us.
And, our perception of gratitude itself can alter our experiences in turn.
The Illusions of Gratitude page outlines seven beliefs and alternative thought processes when approaching gratitude. Below, find a quick summary of these beliefs. You can explore the illusions page for an in-depth look at each belief.
By familiarizing yourself with the beliefs you may be buying into, you can better understand how your beliefs aid and hinder your gratitude practice and continue down the path of developing a gratitude practice or attitude of gratitude.
- Most gratitude is insincere and just good manners.
“I feel like people just say thank you out of obligation”
Alternative: The feeling of gratitude is subjective and the attitude of gratitude is a skill that can be developed.
- Gratitude isn’t possible in the face of adversity.
“I don’t have anything to be grateful for right now.” “Life is too hard to think about fluffy stuff”
Alternative: Gratitude can look different during hard times, and it can still be found.
- Gratitude is a form of toxic positivity.
“There are starving children in Africa so just be grateful for what you have.”
Alternative: Gratitude is a tool, not a fix-all solution.
- There has to be someone to thank.
“I don’t believe in God, so who would I thank for the weather?” “God is responsible for all the goodness in my life”
Alternative: There can be—but there doesn’t need to be—someone to thank. When there is no one to thank, feeling gratitude can be tied to feeling awe.
- Gratitude leads to complacency.
“If I celebrate every little thing, I’m afraid I’ll stop striving for more.”
Alternative: Practicing gratitude can actually help us be more successful at reaching goals by encouraging patience, perseverance, and easing burnout, as well as inspiring prosocial behavior.
- Gratitude gives away all the credit.
“Who would I thank if I’ve worked for all I have?”
Alternative: Thanking a support system can be empowering rather than self-effacing.
- Gratitude doesn’t belong at work.
“Here we go again, I don’t have time for fluff, I have work to do”
Alternative: Gratitude can boost productivity at work and helps employees feel more valued and satisfied with their workplace (see the illusions page for the data relating to this claim).
Central to any practice is considering how you practice. Even if you’re not caught up in any of the above myths, thinking about what you think about gratitude will shift your mindset into a more grateful mood.
As Dan Sullivan, Founder of Strategic Coach, says:
“When you think about your thinking, you identify all sorts of better ways to think about things, better things to spend your time thinking about, and better things to focus your energy on.”
Wanting more on examining your gratitude beliefs?
Can you be grateful for everything? No, but you can be grateful in every moment
“Every Moment is a Gift” ~ with Br David Steindl-Rast ~ A Sacred Films Production
Gratitude expert Brother David Steindl-Rast explains “Only if we find peace within ourselves, then we can radiate out to others. First, to those that we meet everyday — our families, our community—and eventually the ripple effect of it will go out into the whole world. To find peace, we have to find gratefulness.”
When we shift our mindset to a positive, grateful perspective, we amplify the good things in life.
When you consider gratitude, what are you thinking about?
Ever heard someone say “It’s the thought that counts”?
Sometimes, “It’s the thought that counts” can be tied to insincere or reluctant gratitude:
- A child is forced to say thank you for a gift they don’t like because Grandma bought it for them and later the parent tells the child “it’s really the thought that counts.”
- John cooks dinner for his partner and the food doesn’t come out quite right. Instead of saying ‘thank you’ the partner sarcastically says “well, it’s the thought that counts.”
Alternatively, connecting the thought to the gift can amplify the gratitude we experience and create a more genuine moment.
- A child gets a gift from Grandma and realizes the intention Grandma had with the gift and the work Grandma put in to get the gift and feels thankful for Grandma.
- John cooks dinner for his partner and the partner realizes John was trying to help out and create a relaxing evening for the two of them.
Shifting and Finding Intentions
Picture a 4-year-old giving her art creation to her father. He may enjoy the gift for her art skills and creativity and, perhaps more so, he will love it because of the love and thought she put into creating something for him. Some gifts have the potential to lead to gratitude beyond the moment and offer an opportunity for further connection. Each gift has intention and it is up to us to see the meaning behind it as the true gift.
When you receive a gift or something good happens to you, think about how someone tried on purpose to put that thing into your life, and what intentions they had when they did so.
Try This — Focus on the Intention
Think of a gift you have received recently and ponder the following questions/prompts:
- Why does this gift exist in your life?
- Who gave you this gift?
- What was the occasion/reason for them giving the gift?
- What is special about this specific gift that led to them getting it for you?
- Why is this gift important to you?
- When you got the gift, what did you feel?
- What was the giver feeling when they gave the gift?
- What need of yours was met by the gift/interaction with the giver?
- What was the giver expressing/needing when they gave you the gift?
See a printable template, complete with feelings and needs lists here:
Gratitude Motivational Video
When we realize how lucky we are to have what we have, our perspective can change.
David Steindl-Rast — How to Be Grateful in Every Moment (But Not for Everything) | The On Being Project – The On Being Project
Podcast: Br. David Steindl-Rast, makes useful distinctions around experiences that are life-giving and resilience-making yet can feel absurd to speak. He calls joy “the happiness that doesn’t depend on what happens.” And his gratefulness is not an easy gratitude or thanksgiving — but a full-blooded, reality-based practice and choice.
Some key takeaways discussed in relation to thinking about gratitude:
- Joy and gratefulness are like a bowl or fountain filling up with water. They get to the point of almost overflowing, but instead of overflowing, we adapt or see something we are missing, and the bowl gets bigger and bigger and bigger.
- The key to not being consumed by having a giant bowl is to focus on quality instead of quantity.
- How to practice gratitude? Stop. Look. Go.
Everyone feels dissatisfied at times, it is part of being human. However, when people get stuck in a rut of focusing on what is missing from life or what isn’t going well, it can lead to chronic dissatisfaction. By shifting perspectives on things in our life, we can focus more on the little wins, which will propel us forward.
As Brother David Steindl-Rast explains in the above podcast, joy and gratefulness are like the bowl of a fountain. It fills up with water, almost to the point of overflowing. When we focus on needing more or noticing what we don’t have, the bowl continuously gets bigger, to the point where it can never be full. If instead we focus on the quality of what we DO have, we can savor the feeling of having the bowl filled to the brim.
“How Big is Your Bucket?”
How Full is Your Bucket? For Kids by Tom Rath and Mary Reckmeyer
The ‘how full is your bucket’ analogy comes from author Tom Rath and his book “How Full is Your Bucket?” (and the version for kids linked above).
Everyone has an invisible bucket. Buckets are filled by positive experiences — joy, positive interactions, compliments, recognition, confidence boosts, etc… and emptied by negative experiences. When the bucket is empty, we feel sad. When it is full, we feel good.
What we need to think about before seeing if our bucket is full or not is considering how BIG our bucket is.
Gratefulness can help keep our bucket to a constant size, so it can be sustainable and possible to fill it.
Gratitude is an effective antidote to falling into the hedonic cycle. When we focus on the good things we have, we are less likely to be dissatisfied and more likely to be happy with what we have. Gratitude helps us get off the hedonic cycle and reset.
An Antidote to Dissatisfaction
In an animated and informative video, Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell explains how gratitude is one of the best ways to overcome dissatisfaction. When we hold gratitude in each moment, we can more easily shift our perspective to the things that are going well, the things that bring joy.
Looking for more resources on getting off the hedonic treadmill?
Cultivating the Mindset
“Happiness does not depend on outward things, but on the way we see them.”― Leo Tolstoy
To further cultivate the mindset that leads to an attitude of gratitude, take a moment to think about the intentions and the thoughts you have when you notice or feel gratitude.
Taking the time to think about your beliefs and the situation will improve the sincerity of your gratitude and start forming the habit of gratitude as a way of being.
Try these quick reframes:
Think about the work others are doing and how it benefits/contributes to your life. Reframe ordinary interactions to “wow, that person worked hard to make xyz happen for me” (even if xyz is simply handing you a cup of coffee).
When you make a mistake, notice the growth opportunities that challenge can bring or notice the things to be grateful for rather than focusing on the bad.
Think about yourself in a more grateful light — instead of focusing on when you feel bad, notice when you feel good.
Get in the habit of noticing AND thinking — whenever you notice something you could be grateful for, think:
- “Why is that thing or person so important”
- “What difference does expressing gratitude make?”
1. “Why is this thing so important?”
How many things are on your gratitude list? (If you haven’t written a gratitude list, pause and do that now).
Think about / meditate on your list and narrow down the list to the top 5 things that are important and you are immensely grateful for.
Reflect on these questions:
- Why are you grateful for this?
- What makes this thing so important or how is it special?
- What would your life be like if this thing didn’t exist? (Continue on to the exercise below)
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 what your life would be like now if any of the “How things could have gone differently” entries had happened.
- Imagine what your life would be like if the significant event had never happened.
- 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:
2. “What difference does expressing gratitude make?”
“What separates privilege from entitlement is gratitude.” —Brené Brown
Everyone, all over the world has their own “bucket”. The more gratitude we express, the easier it is for us to find joyful moments to help fill up the bucket. And, when our bucket is easily filled, we can experience the joy and benefits of gratitude.
“Some time ago, I met a girl who was almost the same age as me. She had few resources and she told me that the situation she was experiencing at that time wasn’t the best. She came from a poor place and didn’t have the best living conditions and despite all that, she was a genuinely happy, positive, and above all grateful person. This made me reflect a lot about my life since many times we often complain a lot about our lives when we have everything in our hands, a house, health, food, a family, and in the end, that is all we need to be happy.
From that moment I realized I was really lucky, that the things I complained about weren’t important and were minimal. Honestly, knowing that girl made me become a really grateful person and appreciate much more the things and people that I have in my life.”
In the above story, the narrator considered how little they actually needed to be happy. In knowing the girl, their outlook (and the size of their bucket) changed.
Ponder the below stories and vignettes and imagine how the size of your ‘bucket’ could change…
The Gambia Teachers Union provided bicycles to a remote school so children no longer had to walk 9 kilometers (5.6 miles) to school each day, usually without proper shoes. The students (and teachers) were incredibly grateful for the opportunity to be able to get to school on time without being exhausted from walking in the hot sun.
Read the full article here.
We Asked Homeless People: What Are You Thankful For?
The Wally Show asks people in line for a mobile shower and clothes drive: what are you thankful for?
– Family and friends
– Having a place to stay in the cold
– Getting to see a child after time apart
– Living, waking up every day
Even in the hardest times, one can still have hope.
Material World: Family Portraits
In 1995, photographers set out to 30 different countries to photograph “statistically average” families in front of their homes, surrounded by all of their possessions. The portraits put into perspective the cultural and economic differences between families of the world.
Walking in Sabina’s Shoes
“This is the story of Sabina. Sabina is much like me. We are both mothers who work hard to take care of our families. But, there is one big difference between Sabina and me: since the age of seven, Sabina has gone to the river nearly every day to fetch water.”
Most girls in remote parts of Kenya are inhibited from getting an education because it is their responsibility to walk 4+ miles round trip multiple times a day to fetch water for the family.
How we do Farming in extremely COLD climate | SIBERIA, Yakutia | -71C/-95.8F
Maria works on her parent’s small farm in Yakutia (Siberia, Russia) —the coldest inhabited place in the world.
Maria explains how her father takes care of the cows, including how each day, her father has to go out to their frozen lake and make a large hole in the 3-inch thick ice so the cows have water to drink.
She starts the video by saying “It’s only -32℃ (-25.6℉), which is actually warm for us, usually it has been -55℃ (-67℉), so now it’s sunny, it’s warm, and we are very happy and our animals are very happy that it got warmer.”
Want to take mental subtraction to the next level? Try actual subtraction…
Try This — The Can of Beans Exercise
- Can of white beans (or any canned beans)
- Can opener
Instead of preparing a meal, your dinner for the night is this can of beans. Do not warm the beans up, do not pour them into a bowl. Open the can and eat them straight using the spoon.
- How do the cold beans compare to your normal dinners?
- If you could only eat this cold can of beans for the rest of your life, what food(s) would you miss the most?
- What other aspects of your life could you apply this same idea to? (i.e. walking to work instead of driving, not using electricity for a day, having to boil all your water or only having cold water available…etc)
- While eating the beans, what can you find in the experience to be grateful for besides “I’m grateful I don’t need to eat beans every meal”?
- If you were in a situation to only be able to eat beans for every meal (whether that be a financial necessity or you were in a survival situation) how would your perspective of the beans change?
Why the Beans?
The purpose of this exercise is to appreciate the little things in life like a nicely prepared meal. Comparing the can of beans to your usual dinners will help you realize how much you take for granted and ground in the opportunities for gratitude you may be missing just during dinner. Additionally, it may help you think about gratitude differently. While you eat the beans, you may think “Thankfully I don’t have to eat beans everyday” whereas if you did have to eat beans everyday, you may think “I’m grateful for these beans I have each day to fill my belly.”
Or.. take it the other way and try addition instead…!
Here’s a tale about a poor man with a large family living in a crowded hut, who goes to his Rabbi for advice. The Rabbi continuously suggests he add things to his household — like chickens and cows. Eventually, the Rabbi tells the man to get rid of all the extra additions until his house is back to the way it was when the book started, and the man finally finds peace. This humorous story reminds us to be grateful for what we have.
Meditation can be a way to focus thoughts and shift your mindset. It can be used as a tool for strengthening a gratitude practice through mindful moments.
Giving and Receiving, or Tonglen, is a meditation practice involving a visualization of taking in pain and sending out good — finding gratitude within the pain and radiating goodness into the world.
See the Giving and Taking subpage for more information on this practice.
Seeing Oneself with the Mind’s Eye
This practice—called Naikan in Japanese—involves taking a step back to reflect on the life one is living. Naikan uses introspection as a way of healing and focuses on gifts and good deeds we have received in the past rather than revisiting hurts from the past.
If we picture ourselves near the end of our life and look back at how we have lived (as if playing back a movie), what would we see? Would we see someone who has taken more than they have given, harming others intentionally or through lack of thought? (Krech, 2002)
Naikan Therapy has been researched to improve depressive symptoms and in one study, participants saw an average of a 77% improvement when assessed on the Global Assessment of Functioning Scale (Tashiro et al., 2003).
According to Gregg Krech, author of Naikan: Gratitude, Grace, and the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection, “through Naikan, we develop a natural and profound sense of gratitude for blessings bestowed on us by others, blessings that were always there but went unnoticed.”
Krech explains the following three questions are the foundation of Naikan Therapy and help provide clarity to our relationships (Krech 2002):
- What have I received from _____ ?
- What have I given to _____ ?
- What troubles and difficulties have I caused ____ ?
Naikan therapy encourages a balance of needs, where others’ experiences are as important as our own.
Naikan Reflection: Well-Being Practice
Michael Stanwyck from Whole Life Challenge explains the process of Naikan reflection and how it can benefit your daily routine. See the exercise below for a sample of what he describes for the reflection.
Try This — Naikan Reflection
For a printable template to use for the whole week, click here:
Each day for one week, think about the last 24 hours and write down your answer to the 3 fundamental Naikan questions with your last day in mind:
- What have I received?
- What have I given?
- What troubles and difficulties have I caused?
The objective is to give yourself a broader perspective on something you might not consider, for example, we do not often end the work day and consider ‘what did I receive from my co-workers today?’ This meditation brings to light the gifts we receive and give that we may not notice, as well as how our actions may affect others.
|Received||Given||Difficulties I Caused|
|Someone held the door for me.||I made my partner dinner.||I put a sweater in the wash and accidentally shrunk it.|
|Someone at work shared their appreciation for my hard work.||I picked up coffee for my teammate.||I was slow to respond to an urgent email.|
|My friend called me to say hello.||I had a nice chat with the shopkeeper about their day.||I stayed late at work and was late picking my child up from school.|
Reflection — At the end of a week, review your answers to the questions and ponder:
- Are there any common themes or similarities between days?
- Did you find you have more to write for a certain question each day?
- Summarize your answers for each question, i.e., This week I received…, this week I gave…, This week the troubles I caused were…
- Rate your week on a scale of 1-10
- How do you think the things you received contributed to the rating?
- How do you think the things you gave contributed to the rating?
- How do you think the troubles you caused contributed to the rating?
- What would you like to do differently next week?
- When we examine our beliefs we can learn alternatives and control our mindset when it comes to thinking about things in our life and the world.
- Practice includes thinking about the practice itself.
- Finding the masterpieces means looking behind the curtain to appreciate the work that went into a piece, place, or gift.
- In everyday life, we can search for the intentions behind things that happen to connect with the people involved.
- Everyone feels dissatisfied at times, and in practicing gratitude we can learn to shrink the size of our ‘bucket’ in order to find more moments of joy.
- When thinking about gratitude, we can ask ourselves “why is this thing so important?” and “what difference does expressing gratitude make?” in order to cultivate a grateful mindset.
- Wood, A. M., Maltby, J., Stewart, N., Linley, P. A., & Joseph, S. (2008). A social-cognitive model of trait and state levels of gratitude. Emotion, 8(2), 281–290. https://doi.org/10.1037/1528-35126.96.36.1991
- Tashiro, S., Hosoda, S., & Kawahara, R. (2003). [Naikan therapy for prolonged depression: psychological changes and long-term efficacy of intensive Naikan therapy]. Psychiatria Et Neurologia Japonica, 106(4), 431–457. https://europepmc.org/article/med/15179795
- Krech, G. (2022). Naikan: Gratitude, Grace, and the Japanese Art of Self-Reflection, Anniversary Edition. Amsterdam University Press.