Apparently, making New Year’s resolutions started with the ancient Babylonians, who held annual celebrations in which they would make pledges to their gods. According to some studies, only 8% of Americans who make resolutions actually keep them all year (with the vast majority — 80% — giving up on their resolutions by the beginning of February).

Practicing gratitude is one resolution that can become a habit, and it can actually have some physical and mental health benefits. According to Mindful.org, the key word is practice: The more you are aware of the things that make you feel grateful, the more you’ll notice the feeling of gratitude. This will strengthen your mental resilience by building healthy neural networks in the brain, helping you to better achieve your goals. 

What Is Gratitude?

The American Psychological Association defines gratitude as a sense of happiness and thankfulness in response to a fortunate happenstance or tangible gift. As such, gratitude is both a state in which to exist as well as a trait to possess. 

According to a study by Dr. Robert Emmons, a leading psychological expert in this field, the feeling of gratitude has two stages: 

  1. The acknowledgment of goodness in one’s life. In a state of gratitude, we affirm that everything in life, overall, is good and has elements that make it worth living. 
  2. The recognition that sources of this goodness lie outside the self. You can be grateful to a creator, other people, animals or nature, but not to oneself. So when we recognize goodness in our lives, we also recognize who or what to thank for it.

More importantly, Emmons also found that gratitude as a character trait is a strength that can be enhanced with awareness and practice. Essentially, if you make it a goal to practice gratefulness, you will be rewarded with more of it as time goes on.

Why Should We Practice Gratitude?

Research has linked gratitude with a wide range of benefits, including strengthening your immune system, improving sleep patterns, feeling optimistic and experiencing more joy and pleasure, being more helpful and generous, and feeling less lonely and isolated. According to health professionals who spoke with Reader’s Digest, gratitude can lower your risk of heart disease, diabetes, some cancers and other diseases; sharpen your memory and slow the mental decline associated with aging; reduce your perception of chronic pain and inflammation; and even grant you a better ability to prioritize and manage time. Gratitude is, essentially, a reward in and of itself. 

One exercise Mindful recommends is to start observing the moments when you say “thank you” to someone else. It might be a habitual response or a hasty aside, so ask yourself, are you really feeling grateful? Are you uttering the words without actually feeling gratitude? If you dig down and try to name what you’re feeling grateful for — even beyond the gesture that has been extended — you’ll start to actually experience gratitude. Then, see if you come away from the interaction with a more positive feeling. 

How to Start

There are about a million ways to practice daily gratitude, and a quick internet search will reveal just as many self-help guides with that goal in mind. Reader’s Digest offers seven ways to practice gratitude:

  1. Say what you’re grateful for out loud. This will help to cement it in your memory. A great way to establish this habit is to link it with something you do every day, like sitting down to dinner and having everyone go around the table expressing something they’re grateful for.
  2. Write down what you’re grateful for. A daily gratitude journal is an excellent way of keeping yourself accountable.
  3. Share your gratitude with others: Spread positivity by paying it forward.
  4. Meditate on gratitude. 
  5. Plan to be grateful in advance. Write a list of specific things to be grateful for and carry it with you, or sign up to do something nice for someone else.
  6. Challenge yourself to be grateful in difficult circumstances.
  7. Get inspired by others’ gratitude.

Mindful also offers a list of 10 ways you can establish a gratitude practice, which expands upon the steps that Reader’s Digest advocates and follows a slightly different tact. Another excellent resource for practicing mindful gratitude is Grateful Living, a global nonprofit whose mission is to “empower people to live meaningful lives through the transformative practice of grateful living.” It offers programs, educational tools and online content designed to “promote the joy, belonging, awe, hope and imperfection that make a grateful life a full life.” Grateful Living’s Five Guiding Principles are: 

  • Life is a gift. When you greet each moment gratefully, you are always receiving.
  • Everything is a surprise. When you are open to wonder, opportunities abound.
  • The ordinary is extraordinary. When you take nothing for granted, life is abundant.
  • Appreciation is generative. When you tend to what you value, what you value thrives.
  • Love is transformative. When you embrace the great fullness of life, your heart overflows.

Whatever way you choose to embark upon your thankfulness journey, gratitude is a resolution worth keeping.

Top image by Marcio Binow Da Silva from Getty Images, via Canva.com.


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