Want to Be Happier? Be Grateful!

November is generally when we start thinking about the upcoming holiday season. This time of year is often marked with gatherings of family and friends, religious and social celebrations and traditions that bring joy and comfort. Unfortunately, this year will probably look different for most of us because of the pandemic. Anxiety, sadness and a sense of overwhelm—both in children and adults—is on the rise and the holidays might intensify these feelings. What to do? Although it sounds counterintuitive, one proven way to deal with this is to focus on the present and be grateful for what we do have.

Research (and common sense) suggests that one aspect of the Thanksgiving season can actually lift the spirits, and it’s built right into the holiday—expressing gratitude. With gratitude, we acknowledge the goodness around and in our lives. Gratitude also helps us connect to something larger than ourselves—whether to other people, nature, or a higher power.

In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships. You can feel and express gratitude in multiple ways. As an exercise, take a few minutes, sit quietly and either write down or say out loud something you are grateful for in your past, in your present situation and in the future.

  • In the Past – Recall one of your most positive childhood memories – a best friend or loving family member, learning something new, achieving a goal, a special birthday or vacation.
  • In the Present – Bring to mind a person or experience that makes you feel happy or proud or content.
  • In the Future – Find something that you are hopeful about or looking forward to.

Here are some other ways to cultivate gratitude:

Write a thank-you note. You can make yourself happier and nurture your relationship with another person by writing a thank-you letter expressing your enjoyment and appreciation of that person’s impact on your life. Send it, or better yet, call them and read it aloud to them. Make a habit of sending at least one gratitude letter a month. Once in a while, write one to yourself.

Thank someone mentally. No time to write? It may help just to think about someone who has done something nice for you, and mentally thank the individual. Keep a gratitude journal. Make it a habit to write down or share with a loved one thoughts about the gifts you’ve received each day.

Count your blessings. Pick a time every week to sit down and write about your blessings—reflecting on what went right or what you are grateful for. Sometimes it helps to pick a number—such as three to five things—that you will identify each week. As you write, be specific and think about the sensations you felt when something good happened to you.

Pray. People who are religious can use prayer to cultivate gratitude.

Meditate. Mindfulness meditation involves focusing on the present moment without judgment. Although people often focus on a word or phrase (such as “peace”), it is also possible to focus on what you’re grateful for (the warmth of the sun, a pleasant sound, etc.).

Gratitude helps us to refocus on what we have instead of we lack. And, although it may feel contrived at first, this mental state grows stronger with use and practice.

“I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” G.K. Chesterton